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OP-ED: Children without childhoods

  • Published at 12:38 am November 16th, 2020
Child Labour
Photo: Mahmud Hossain Opu

It is our duty to provide every child with an education and protect them from exploitation

The biggest problem in the world right now is that, while we are completely aware that our surroundings and our practices are forcing millions of children to grow up without a childhood, without education and without human rights, we are completely okay with it. Even if we cannot solve the problem, we should at least try to ensure that children who are dying because of our voluntary or involuntary silence are given the rights they are entitled to. 

According to the UN, continents like Africa and Asia are notorious for their colossal contribution to the number of children in child labour, while America, Europe, and Arab States account for 5%, 4%, and 3%, respectively.

Developing and under-developed countries are seen to report higher numbers than developed countries, mainly because child labour has a deep connection with poverty, fueled by lack of education, social backwardness, and, most importantly, the demand for cheap labour. 

In many communities, children hired at cheap rates as domestic help are subjected to abuse and even rape while many, out of the 73 million children involved in hazardous activities around the world, die because of the kind of risky work they do. And that is not all; children are also forced into drug trafficking, prostitution/pornography, and other activities which scar them for life.

Fortunately, statistics show that the number of children suffering such a fate in Bangladesh has decreased from 7.9 million to 3.45 million over the past 10 years. 

However, Covid-19 has made 16 million children in the world’s vulnerable countries stop their education with little hope of return. Furthermore, previously poverty-stricken families have also lost their sole breadwinner to Covid-19 or to unemployment. Thus, the jobless now rely on their underaged children to make ends meet. 

But how do we end child labour? Merely stopping children from going to work will not be enough because the causes continue to exist. These causes must be rooted out.

Ending poverty -- the primary cause -- is not easy job to do, but it can be reduced: NGOs and other organizations that are already working day and night to end child labour can provide free skills training which will increase their people's changes of becoming employed. Ensuring free education for children is equally imperative.

But most people living in rural areas tend to look into the short-term benefits that can be gained from children. Thus, boys are sent to work and girls are forced into marriages at an early age with middle-aged men claiming to be richer.

Undoubtedly, that seems profitable to most of these parents, leading to girls like Nurunnahar dying at the age of 14. It is so hard to believe that, in the 21st century, not only are we forcing girls to get married at 14, but we are also letting them die, soaked in their own blood, begging for a life that was theirs to live, and not even labelling the crime done to them as rape. 

“Sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under thirteen years of age, is not rape,” states our penal code. 

Discernibly, the section disregards marital rape of those above 13, and encourages marriages of girls between 14-18 years. The Child Marriage (Restraint) Act 1929 further facilitates such marriages as the Act merely mentions the age limit and does not nullify child marriage once it has been "successfully" committed. 

Give girl children access to education (which is their right) is likely to increase their future earnings by 20%, benefitting the economy and society. 

They will grow up to become well-educated adults will contribute to the stability of nations, reduction in poverty, establishment of gender equality, improvement of physical and mental health, and of course, provide their future generations with a childhood worth remembering.

Schools played an important role in the prevention of child marriage by informing the authorities and by conducting regular meetings with parents to increase their knowledge regarding the negative consequences of child marriage and the importance of girls’ education. 

Giving children access to education is not a favour -- we are complying with national and international laws. Articles 28 and 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, for example, establish the right to education and protection from economic exploitation.

We are duty-bound to provide our children with education and not force them into work or marriage. Otherwise, behind every other closed door, we will find children without childhoods.

Anusha Islam Raha is an LLB (Hons) graduate from BPP University, UK. She is an LLM student pursuing her career as a teacher.