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."



THE DILEMMAS OF CHILD LABOR

05 Jul

Note to readers: After fighting countless power outages and internet failures, plus combating some sort of nasty bout of illness for a week, I’m finally able to update my blog.  Apologies for posting so late. Happy reading!

06/18/12

The issue of child labor is more controversial and delicate than I imagined.  When I’m not at the BASE office, I try to spend my time getting to know my neighbors and learning more about child labor in my region.  I have no statistical data for the town of Tulsipur to match it up, but I’m almost certain that some of my neighbors are employing child laborers.  During school hours, it’s easier to guess which children might be child laborers in town.  They might be the children who aren’t in school, the ones scrubbing restaurant floors or carrying buckets that are bigger than they are.  They might be the kids from India who live/work in Tulsipur while their parents still live in India (I’ve met a couple of those kids).

I find it difficult to imagine that some of my wonderful, kind, friendly, good-natured neighbors might be involved in illegal activity.  They might be underpaying (if they’re paying at all) small children to work as domestic servants, mechanics, metalworkers, shop assistants, or tailors.  They might even employ children at the local brick and cement factories.  It seems so contradictory – my neighbors are nice people and I love to visit with them after work.  Could they really be employing children illegally?

It’s easy to paint the world as black and white, good and evil.  In reality, though, life is far more complicated and complex – not at all as simplistic as we paint it.  To those of us who live in more developed countries, child labor appears to be wholly evil and exploitative.  I don’t deny that the practice is exploitative.  Unfair and wrong, even, if we’re tossing all political correctness aside.

The catch is that employers claim (and some believe) that they’re doing children a favor by employing them.  By taking children off the streets, they’re providing them with income, teaching them work skills, and giving them resources. They claim they’re saving parents from having to feed an extra mouth and giving children an opportunity to earn money and stay off the streets.  To play devil’s advocate, couldn’t child labor be seen as a necessary evil to support developing economies and marginalized communities?  That’s the argument people might use to defend child labor.

Child labor is a tough issue.

On the one hand, I’m frustrated with the dysfunctional social system that I think robs children of their childhood, prevents them from accessing quality education, and enslaves them to a life of grueling labor and poverty.  I confess that I’m angry at the employers for hiring children to do tasks they themselves could do or could hire an adult to do.  The other day, I saw a woman yelling at a little girl who was on her hands and knees scrubbing a floor.  The girl looked about 6 or 7 years old and was dressed in the rattiest outfit I’ve ever seen. Honestly, I don’t know if she was a child laborer or the woman’s daughter, but the sight angered me.  I wanted to snap at the woman and tell her to clean her own floors – I mop my own floors, my mother mops her own floors, my grandmother mops her own floors – but I can’t.  You don’t change systems by waltzing in and snapping out what people should be doing.

I’m frustrated at employers and I’m frustrated at parents for allowing their children to be used as child slaves.  At the same time, I acknowledge that I don’t know what it’s like to be in this sort of situation.  I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to be a mother with too many mouths to feed and watching your children go hungry.  Children here are so small and thin and I think it must be difficult for parents to weigh education versus bringing extra income home.  If I were a parent (and many parents are my age – 24), would I send my child out to work in hopes that someone would feed her/him and I wouldn’t have to live with not being able to provide for that child?  I don’t think the situation is as simple as people – even activists – try to make it.  When I taught English in Indonesia, I had very bright students who eventually had to drop out of school to work in rice fields.  Immediate need for survival pushes dreams of the future to the side.

I want to see this system of child labor eradicated.  I want to see Nepalese children (and children across the world) have a childhood like I had, with games, friends, and playtime.  I want to see a world where children aren’t exploited, where adults protect children and children’s rights (including the right to education) are valued.  To do that, we need to change society’s acceptance of child labor.  To change mindsets, you need to provide alternatives.  Telling people to change isn’t a viable solution.  We have to convince people that sending children to school and protecting children from harsh labor is a far better investment that will reap more benefits than forcing children to work for $2.50 a month (if that).

I really hope I can visit a Child Friendly Village soon.  CFVs are villages that BASE started where communities have united to eradicate child labor.  The people of the community work together to ensure children go to school and promote Child Clubs where children learn about their rights and do community-building activities together.  The Child Friendly Village is one of BASE’s key projects in the organization’s fight against child labor. I’m interested to see how communities fight child labor and pressure families in the communities to keep their children in school.  If proven successful, the government of Nepal is interested in replicating the CFV model across Nepal.

Child labor is a difficult issue to handle.  Combating it requires patience, commitment, dedication, and the ability to stay encouraged in the face of ridiculous odds.  As I work with BASE, I realize how important it is to educate communities on the importance of education and to provide incentives for parents to send their children to school.  BASE does a wonderful job of helping communities understand the benefits of education and self-dependency and I’m thankful to work for such an amazing organization.

Posted By Rachel Palmer

Posted Jul 5th, 2012

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