Yesterday was World Day Against Child Labor. We celebrated in Nepalganj by having a big meeting of local government, NGO, and INGO officials. I have yet to translate the footage but I’m told that we just heard the same calls to action to end child labor and the same critique of not knowing how to address the poverty that keeps the children from going to school after they are removed from child labor.
This is one of the major issues to address in the film. One strange or perhaps telling aspect of my experience in the field is that tons and tons of parents of rescued children decide to put them in school when they return. When I ask them how they pay for it, the answer is always a combination of remittances if they have adult children and local labor jobs like construction. Of the advocates I meet, most seem to believe that education and awareness (social/cultural change) about the importance of school is as or perhaps even more important than raising incomes. Interestingly, based upon the anecdotal evidence I’m collecting, it seems that feeding a child is about ten times as expensive as putting the kid through school. So if your income raises ten percent, all the kids you feed with that income could also go to school. The plan is to discuss this anecdotal experience with some labor economists to get some more ideas about what is going on.
Also, I get the feeling that some people deride the raid and rescue program with the income critique since even rescuing and providing education scholarships to a few kids doesn’t really address the cause of the problem. I’m not sure I understand this line of argument as it seems similar to critiquing the underground railroad as not really addressing the economic basis of slavery in the American South. There’s a moral dimension to this problem–especially since some of the problem lies in social/cultural attitudes, and symbolic gestures can be powerful in telling the story of a people. Yet I can see why some would not see this. Cultural norms aside, when I hear about the issues in these big meetings, the moral component appears relatively soft. When I wake up in the morning to see the kids I live with, the moral issue is sharp and urgent.
Also of note, while I was filming b-roll outside the conference hall of the hotel I saw a kid cleaning dishes in the window of the kitchen. I caught a few seconds of footage of him before someone told him to run and he disappeared. As I tried to go into the kitchen, the hotel owner stopped me and asked for 5-10 minutes for the staff to put on their uniforms. When I went back in the kid was gone and when I tried to go farther back into the kitchen, I was told it was staff only. I mentioned it on the way out and the district women’s welfare minister told the owner that they wouldn’t be doing any more business there if he employed child laborers. He looked pretty scared. And then he asked me to make sure he got a copy of the dvd since he helped me out by letting me film the kitchen. I think that means he was trying to be my friend so I wouldn’t show the footage… not sure. I feel on pretty shaky moral ground myself since the cultural norms here haven’t actually made people feel bad about this thing they’re doing. And since some owners do provide a better livelihood than the parents could provide. Paternalism is a hard thing to internalize for me.
Posted By Kan Yan
Posted Jun 13th, 2009