Crumbling childhoods and Pakistan’s apathy
Children are the very foundations of any society. For a brighter and prosperous future, a country must invest in its children and raise them with education, a sense of protection and above all the security of their childhoods.
But unfortunately, developing countries like Pakistan are a boiling pot of human rights issues among where the most vulnerable victims are children. They are subject to abuse, exploitation, torture, trafficking and manipulation.
Child labour is work done by children younger than the designated minimum age. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines the ages for employment which vary with intensity of work; 15 years for ordinary work, 18 years for hazardous work and 13 years for light work.
But unluckily in Pakistan a major chunk of children is subjected to this form of exploitation. Underage children being used for trash-picking is the most disappointing feature of child labour in Pakistan, a practice categorised as one of the worst form of child labour in ILO’s Convention No 182.
Trash pickers belong to the most deprived fraction of society and are losing their sense of childhood just because of their poverty. Compelled to wander the streets at tender ages, they sacrifice their health, rights and self-esteem in exchange for miniscule earnings for their families.
With big bright eyes they start searching reusable trash in streets, on roads and at other dumping sites. Being subjected to a long list of abuses and mishandling is an occupational hazard in this job rather than a criminal offence. They are exposed to almost all imaginable diseases including diarrhoea, cancer, tuberculosis and other respiratory problems.
Although this issue should be at the top among the government’s priorities, only one National Child Labour Survey has been conducted and that too more than two decades ago in 1996. The survey put the number of child labourers in the country at 3.3 million. This shows the level of concern top policymakers have for their country’s future generation.
No effort has even been made to measure the number of children involved in trash picking. The best the state has done is to present various vague estimates ranging from two to 19 million.
A demographic group that large certainly warrants long-term policymaking and fiscal budgetary allocations, let alone a suo motu action or parliamentary motion. Sadly, parliamentarians can shout in defence of their leaders but not for protecting the future of 19 million children roaming the streets aimlessly.
Article 11(3) of Pakistan’s constitution states that “no child below the age of 14 years shall be engaged in any factory or mine or any other hazardous employment”. But many trash pickers start at ages as low as five and six.
Operational aspects of our civil society are also forlorn. This issue is still not on the task lists of NGOs and other research institutes. The only comprehensive study on trash pickers was conducted by Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Lahore, Peshawar, Karachi, Quetta and Islamabad in 2003, 14 years ago.
This survey disclosed that there are approximately 89,500-106,500 trash pickers. All of them are living under the most hazardous conditions with plenty of physical and psychological threats. The study revealed that 27% respondent trash picker children are affected by sexual abuse and more than 50% are subject to physical punishment.
Under this survey all respondents expressed a desire for better housing, decent clothes and hygienic food. 33% of them wished to go to school and 32% of them wanted to change their profession in the future.
Moreover, the respondents were inclined to take revenge from those who punished or abused them; this could turn into an alarming situation if these children get involved in criminal activities. The community’s attitude towards these children is also worrisome. It belittles them on the grounds that they are unhygienic.
In this despairing situation, some NGOs have launched commendable initiatives to reduce the extent of child labour. In 2007 for instance, 70% of children studying in drop-in centres of Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) Public Trust were previously involved in child labour.
Off the streets and into schoolroom
A study by The Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) in 2013 estimated 5,000 such children just in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
The need of the hour is to eliminate the sense of alienation of these left over children by providing them pencil and pen instead of garbage sacks. The vacuum caused by inferiority can only be filled with education and a respectable standard of living. Community schools and drop-in centres are highly recommended for their mainstreaming.
For raising their living conditions to a more decent level, zakat and other charitable funds must be directed towards this demographic group. Besides this, society must develop a sense of unity and accept people from underprivileged classes so that they do not feel isolated and alienated.
The government has the most important role in this regard, considering its huge footprint, and must provide incentives to parents of trash pickers for sending their children to schools. Capacity-building and skill development programs along with other vocational trainings for children stuck in trash picking must be introduced to improve their future prospects.
Most importantly data gathering at a fast rate must be the main concern of government and research departments for effective policymaking.
Whether it is government policies or efforts by private sector, all are far from being enough. The existing situation can only be reverted with bottom to top efforts, from civil society to governmental institutions; all must feel obligated to work for this segment’s involvement in society.
Because when a stratum of society lags behind, it develops a strong sense of grievances that can be expressed through agitation and chaos. Trash pickers are normal children with innocence and innocent desires any other child could have. These children wish for all happiness and luxuries a child needs and they have every right to have them.
Junaid Zahid is a researcher and iflah farooq was an intern at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute
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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.