The year 2012 spelt a turbulent year for children’s rights in Pakistan. After the shooting of 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai and the unrelenting growth of child labour, will 2013 really be the ‘year of child rights’ as claimed by Pakistan’s Prime Minister? And will the recent arrest of Pakistan’s Prime Minister dent the political will to protect child rights?
In 2012, Pakistan witnessed the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, an incident that sent shock waves across the world. Later that year Pakistan’s Prime Minister stated that 2013 will be the year of child rights and set up the Parliamentary Forum on Child Rights. But while Malala’s plight to go to school without the threat of violent retribution resonated with millions around the world, the real question is; how many Pakistani children could take advantage of schooling even without such a threat?
Education still remains a costly privilege for most children and a weak economy with rising food and fuel prices have led to even more children opting for paid work over school. The scale of the problem facing the Parliamentary Forum on Child Rights is daunting.
Pakistan’s last survey of child labour took place in 1996, showing the country has three million child labourers. But the poverty created in the wake of disasters like the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods have undoubtedly driven many more children to work. According to Mannan Rana, the Child and Adolescent Protection Specialist with UNICEF, as many as 10 million children could be working in Pakistan.
To make matters worse, the recent arrest of Pakistan’s Prime Minister has cast a shadow over his pledge to protect child rights. It is a scenario that is all too familiar to Pakistan – that of political infighting and turmoil sidelining the country’s real priorities, like education, poverty alleviation and child rights.
The inexorable growth of Pakistan’s child labour industry has not been slowed by Pakistan ratifying the ILO convention related to Child labour or because of Pakistan’s constitution, which forbids hazardous child labour. Laws are universally ignored. And the fears foreign companies have of being associated with child labour is easily addressed by Pakistani manufacturers finding less visibly distressing ways to utilise child labour, like outsourcing child labour practises to private homes within rural villages, as stated by Hussain Naqi, National Co-ordinator of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Such pressure is largely ineffective because of a simple reality about who determines whether a child works.
The ultimate power to determine if a child should work takes place not with employers, but within a child’s own household. As long as children are willing to work to maintain their family’s cost of living, regulatory pressure will fail to curb child labour and businesses will continue to find ways of accommodating this vast cheap workforce.
The decision to send children to work is influenced by a multitude of variables like economic circumstances, attitudes towards the practical benefits of education and the accessibility of education, factors that regulatory measures fail to address. In the absence of the kind of wide-ranging socio-economic improvement that removes the systemic causes of child labour, NGOs can play an important role at the micro community level by determining and influencing the local variables that can mitigate or aggravate child labour. An interesting example of one such community centric approach currently takes place in Sindh’s Thar desert region by the Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP).
Part of Pakistan’s largest development network of Rural Support Programmes which has collectively reached millions of rural Pakistanis, their work involves a simple but effective start point - listening to communities. TRDP embraces the notion that local communities know most about the challenges facing them and hold some of the most valuable insights on how to overcome them. As part of this community self help approach, the local community becomes as an integral part of the solution. Take for example,TRDP’s work in and around the remote district of Tharpaker, which has the lowest Human Development Index of all Sindh’s districts and little traditional access to education. TRDP managed to construct of 113 schools, thanks in part to local support and resources, with most schools being local Thari huts made of bushes.
For 2013 to truly be the year of child rights, the local experience and insights NGO’s have accrued from years of working with grassroots communities must be met with the resources, long-term vision and political commitment of government, whichever political administration is in power.
Pakistan’s new Parliamentary Forum on Child Rights will be supported in their efforts to protect child rights by a $1.8bn UN fund to spend from 2013 to 2017. In their first meeting in November 2012, the Forum was informed that the UN preferred to fund NGO activity because they believed NGOs would likely achieve quicker results with less bureaucracy.
The Parliamentary Forum, however, was more divided on the whether NGO action would be more productive then direct government action. However, given the scale and nature of the challenge it is likely both bottom-up and top-down approaches will have to work in concert to be successful. And just as important is the need for Pakistan’s major political parties to commit to protecting child rights to ensure the issue remains on the political agenda regardless of how Pakistan’s political leadership changes in future.
Muddassar Ahmed is the CEO of Unitas Communications Ltd, an international strategic communications consultancy based in London. He is also Chairman of the John Adams Society UK and a NATO Young Atlantacist Fellow.