Rachel Palmer

Rachel Palmer (Backward Education Society - BASE): Rachel graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in Political Science, focusing on international relations and Islamic studies. She then spent two years as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant on the islands of Borneo and Sulawesi in Indonesia, where she taught and facilitated ESL education workshops for Indonesian teachers. After her fellowship Rachel wrote: "I learned more than I ever anticipated about child labor, working for NGOs, challenges in combating human rights abuses, and legal challenges. This fellowship has been an overwhelmingly positive experience and has shaped my academic focus for next year. I plan to apply to graduate school this fall to study international relations and human rights, focusing on women and children's empowerment."


30 Aug

“See?  Servant! My servant,” Bikas’ father says proudly, pointing at the small boy bringing plates of dhal baht to hungry customers in the small café.

My stomach lurches.  The boy, who looks around 11 or 12 years old, brings me a large plate of dhal baht and vegetables, and waits for me to try the food. I smile politely and spoon a mouthful of lentils and rice into my mouth.  It tastes like sawdust to me.  Alex sits across from me, shock registering across his face.  We don’t say anything, but I can tell neither one of us is hungry anymore.

My new neighbor

I see child laborers everywhere in Nepal.  They mop floors, haul water jugs bigger than themselves down the street, wash dishes, and work in mechanic shops.  I see them in homes, markets, street corners, and shops.  They’re the poorest of the poor, children with one set of tattered, dirty clothes who don’t attend school.  And they’re in every industry you can think of.

No school, just child care


Girls fishing in Bardiya District

But this particular case hits home.

My favorite neighbors, the ones who make dhal baht for me, whose kids call me “auntie,” have just acquired a child laborer.  A servant.  A child who will never go to school.  A child who works while others play.

I love this family.  If I were to adopt a family as my Nepali family, my neighbor, his wife, and their sons Bisal and Bikas would certainly be that family.  I eat dhal baht at their house at least twice a week, give Bikas and Bisal stickers every time I walk down that street, and practice English with them.  I’ve succeeded in getting Bikas to point to a cat, say “Biralo!” (Nepali for cat), and then say “Cat!”  The downside is that he now thinks he sees cats everywhere and won’t stop saying biralo or cat.

My Nepalese Family

This family is my family.  But now they’ve brought a servant into their home.  They know I work for BASE. They know BASE fights child labor. And yet they employ – no, not employ, for I doubt they pay him – they OWN a child laborer.

One thing is clear: the child is definitely a worker.  He serves food, washes dishes, and does chores while Bikas and Bisal play with their friends.  He works from the time I get up and drink tea at the restaurant before work until the time the restaurant closes at night.

I don’t condone the employment of child laborers.  It’s wrong.  Children should have the opportunity to enjoy their childhood, to play and go to school and be children.  They shouldn’t work as servants, brick layers, or street beggars.  And yet this particular personal situation, this new child laborer/neighbor of mine, blurs that distinction between right and wrong. I see this mother work all day long.  I know she’s exhausted.  She gets up early and cooks breakfast for customers while helping her boys get ready for school.  She continues cooking all day long until her restaurant finally closes at 9 pm.  Her husband helps her with cooking and the children, but there’s so much work to do and only the two of them to do it.  Their family, although they are Brahmins (the highest caste), is extremely poor – the children own maybe two sets of clothing, as do the parents, and they barely make money at their restaurant.  Their prices are extremely low.  In such a situation, I understand why this family might feel as though employing a laborer would be beneficial.  It’s less of an “I’m rich and powerful and I need a servant” and more of an “I’m so tired and I need someone to help me.”

Bisal and Bikas’ father

But what I can’t understand is why Bikas and Bisal aren’t helping their parents in the restaurant.  Bisal is 12, and yet I’ve never seen him wash dishes or help serve customers.  In my family, it was unheard of to play outside without doing chores first.  Economically speaking, it makes more sense for parents to have children help out at home or for adults to take the jobs that child laborers hold.  For a country like Nepal that has such drastically high unemployment, the continuation of child labor makes little sense.

Bisal (left) and Bikas (right)

No one sees child labor as wrong.  No one sees the blatant contradiction of employing child laborers while letting your children play instead of helping with the family business.

Days like that day make me realize that child labor is rampant in Nepal.  I’m more determined than ever to stop it.

In my opinion, it’s easier to attack employers who hold positions of power. You can use media to shame people, and UNICEF is active in pressuring local governments to force people in authority to give up their child laborers.  But what can you do about the average Joe on the block who has a child servant?

In situations like this, where perpetrators are your friendly neighbors, the only thing you can do is convince people that employing child laborers is more harmful to their family in the long run.  That hiring a child labor will lead to fines and potential jail time, and could endanger their children’s future by financially ruining families.

Education is a crucial step in the fight against child labor.  Parents in villages must be educated on the benefits of sending their children to school instead of sending them to work.  Employers need to be educated on the risks and punishments involved in using child laborers.  Children need to be educated on their rights and protection options available through Nepal’s Child Welfare Boards.


Education is power. BASE runs non-formal education centers to teach children about their rights and to encourage educational development. The goal is to prevent children from becoming child laborers.

If people want to help end child labor, then there needs to be more investment in grassroots education.  You can rescue kids and  provide scholarships and march in protests, but you need to attack the problem at its roots for it to completely disappear.  By attacking child labor at its source – lack of money for education, inability of parents to care for their children, lack of adequate facilities for children without families – we can slowly but surely watch child labor disappear.

Posted By Rachel Palmer

Posted Aug 30th, 2012

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