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  5. Challenges to the Right of Children to Participate: Child Labor and Situations of Armed Conflict

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FOCUS June 2011 Volume Vol. 64

Challenges to the Right of Children to Participate: Child Labor and Situations of Armed Conflict

Edelweiss F. Silan, Sucharat Satharpornanon and Chakkrid Chansang

Child labor in Asia is a huge burden. But we believe in the resources of Asia. We also believe in the vitality and wisdom of child workers themselves. The problem of child labor cannot be solved without the participation of children. They have their own analysis of society; they have their own strategies not only for survival but also their conditions of work, their conditions in life. We can learn from them, we have to.1
Recognition of the human dignity, competence, and agency of working children has underpinned the work of institutions in addressing child labor in Asia for decades. Working children and youth leaders have the voice of the youth and children from vulnerable communities that challenged governments and societies on the way children are treated and their problems addressed. With the emergence of stronger civil society support for children’s participation after the universal ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, good examples of strong children and youth groups and initiatives have evolved in Asia and other regions, including in places affected by armed conflict.
Experience and research show that even in situations of war where lives of children and their communities are frayed and fragile, children and young people have shown strength, resilience, and interest and capacity to be part of the solution. The children know the risks, and their stories show myriads of strategies to survive, keep themselves safe, and even help other people. Truly, in the world of work and in the world of war, failure to take into account children’s perspectives is a step away from more effective solutions and may even result to their exposure to greater risks. Recognizing children as actors in their lives, and tapping their wealth of resources on the other hand could lead not just to children’s individual development and better protection, but also to more effective solutions to the bigger problems that they and their communities face.

Children’s Organizations

Children’s organizations exemplify the value of participation of children in addressing their problems. Two children’s organizations prove this point.

Child Labor Club in Thailand

The Foundation for Child Development, a non- governmental organization (NGO) that provides health and other services to children working in factories around Bangkok, started the idea of forming the Child Labor Club in 1982. As explained by the staff of the Foundation for Child Development:

 We were ... motivated to set up the Child Labour Club because we [thought] that these working children should be given an opportunity for self-development. We went to find ... children in small factories, through hotlines, festivities (during peak times of migration), and organising mobile child clubs in areas near factories that have working children. After some time, we learned that children who had on-going contact with us were enthusiastic to express themselves and to consult with us, both when they had problems and when they’d like to plan for the future, say, education....This indicated that these children could develop their potential when they are given opportunities like other children.2 

The core members of the Child Labor Club go through leadership training, attend seminars on collecting data on child labor, and plan activities to reach working children in their workplaces and encourage their participation.
While less Thai children migrate for work at present due to the improving economic situation of Thai families, children and young people from neighboring countries – Myanmar, Cambodia, and Lao PDR – take their place in Bangkok. The Child Labor Club now faces new challenges, particularly the vulnerability of most migrant child workers who do not have proper documentation. These child workers are subject to arrest by the police and to control and exploitation by employers. Getting permission from employers to allow them to participate in activities becomes more difficult, while the child workers themselves do not want to leave their workplaces for fear of getting arrested. The Child Labor Club persists in finding creative ways to pursue its role of being a place for child workers, by child workers. It continues to monitor workplaces, approach child workers to encourage participation in club activities, organize peer-to-peer support for them, and hold activities (creative arts workshops, recreation activities and sports) and radio programs. It reports on situations of exploitation and abuse, and organizes dialogues (together with the Foundation for Child Development) with employers and business owners, and local authorities. One of the earliest leaders of the Child Labor Club, who is now a teacher said:

 I was very shy when I first joined the Club but after a few activities, I became active... I developed my leadership skills after working as volunteer to organise activities for other working children. I had to contact children working in factories, produce newsletters and attend the Clubs’ board meeting. I also served as mentor for other children who had problems and did not want to talk to the [Foundation for Child Development] staff due to age differences. [Because] I speak other dialects ... children from those dialect-speaking areas talk to me. Then I can further discuss their problem with other staff. Although I was paid more by working in a factory than by being a volunteer, that is not as important as the opportunity to develop myself. I have a dream of becoming a teacher. If I finished my study, I’ll return to my hometown and teach there.

Through the work of the members of the Club, which has been running for almost thirty years now, thousands of vulnerable Thai and migrant child workers have not only found protection in their workplaces but were also helped to find new and better directions in life.

Children’s Clubs in Nepal

During the decade-long internal armed conflict in Nepal, local NGOs and communities in affected areas strongly supported the development of children’s clubs that would allow children opportunities for development and protection in their localities. The children’s clubs seriously took their roles in reaching out to children in their communities, sharing information to them, advocating for the rights of children, and reporting situations of children at risk. The following report provides a glimpse of the significance of children’s clubs in the lives of children in conflict zones. A child was recruited to join the armed group of the Maoist Communist Party of Nepal. He was later caught by the Nepali police, and suffered torture while in detention. Upon release, the members of the armed opposition group came back to convince him to stay with the group. Given the name “Bigyan,” he was trained and armed. He joined military operations. But he tried to escape a number of times, only to be caught and warned that if he succeeded in escaping, his family would suffer. He gave this account with the help of his friends:3

 After the Dingla attack, I finally escaped and was admitted to a school in Sunsari. Some child club members came to know about my past and approached me. I tried to avoid them in the beginning because I never liked to talk to anyone and could not concentrate on my studies. First, I was hesitant to share my pain but later, when I became convinced about the child club’s motive, I honestly told the members how I was forcibly made to join the Maoists and escaped from them.
With the support, care and encouragement from child club friends, I joined the club and started to mix with them. I started contributing to the wall newspaper that was regularly published by the club. I shared my pain through poems and articles. I had the opportunity to participate in child club training. The trainers discussed child rights and concerns about children affected by the conflict. I shared my experiences with a staff member from the Centre for Community and Social Awareness (CICSA). I used to spend many sleepless nights till then. I was always worried about being caught at any moment.
Once I returned from the training and went home, my mother told me that my former friends (Maoists) had come in search of me... From that day, my life became mobile, shifting from one place to another, asking shelter from my friends. I received life-threatening messages from the Maoists again and again. When child club friends came to know about this, they approached CICSA, thereafter UNICEF at the district and finally UNICEF in Kathmandu appealing for my life and the right to continue my studies. After nearly a month of regular follow-up from the child club and CICSA, I was rescued by Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) through UNICEF and was able to continue my studies in Kathmandu in a peaceful environment.
I am really grateful for the support I received from the child club. I got back my life and this has given me hope to live. I feel that if child clubs raise a united voice, it will be possible to protect the rights of thousands of conflict-affected children in our country. I feel it is our responsibility too.

Children as Part of Solutions

Investing on children and young people’s participation can have not only an impact on their own protection and development but also contribute tremendously in addressing broader social, economic, and political issues. Oftentimes, issues that affect children similarly affect adults and their communities. And positive changes on the plight of children positively impact on the quality of life of adults. Conversely, adult-led efforts in changing the social, political, and economic conditions of communities can benefit from listening to the thoughts of children and young people. The children can be directly engaged in the activities relating to economic initiatives, advocacy, peace building, strengthening social services, and governance.
Behind the successful lobby of civil society groups for the adoption of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers in June 2011 are the many domestic workers organizations that called attention to the plight of domestic workers, especially children and women who comprise about 80% of domestic workers. This Convention provides for the protection of the rights of an estimated fifty-three million domestic workers across the world. In the Philippines, an organization of domestic workers called Samahan at Ugnayan ng mga Manggagawang Pantahanan sa Pilipinas (Organization and Network of Domestic Workers in the Philippines) or SUMAPI was organized in 2005 with the support of Visayan Forum, an NGO working on child labor issues. Many of SUMAPI’s eight thousand members were still children when they joined the organization. The group actively reaches out to domestic workers through park and market visits. It provides counselling service, referrals to social services, and educational support. It works hand in hand with their NGO, government, and civil society supporters to achieve changes both for children and adult domestic workers. They were at the forefront of the campaign for the Magna Carta for Domestic Workers in the Philippines aiming to achieve decent work for Filipino domestic workers.
The Children’s Development Khazana (CDK) is a bank established in 2001 for street children in New Delhi by the NGO Butterflies. The bank, also known as Bal Vikas Bank, serves street children who despite adversities still look forward to a bright future and thus want to save money earned. It evolved from the saving and credit union scheme (Khazana) of Butterflies. Supported by the partnership between Butterflies and Childhope, and in collaboration with local partners, CDK operates in several cities in India, and also in other countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and Sri Lanka).4 The children’s bank operates on banking and cooperative principles. The bank is only for children and adolescents, mainly street children. It is owned and run by children under the guidance of adult facilitators. The project is implemented as a component of life skills education program, that train children to become responsible, learn how to prioritize needs, make budget, and save money.5 Their savings provide security for their future. CDK “enables its members to earn an interest on their deposits and its adolescent members to access advances for initiating small economic enterprises cooperatives.”6 Those who apply for funds are taught how to make business plans, and manage enterprises.
OK Negros is a youth organization in one of the provinces most affected by the internal armed conflict in the Philippines. It was established in 2009 by the participants of a child rights and humanitarian law workshop organized by a coalition for young people from the upland communities of Negros province. Young people from the upland communities were very much affected by thearmed conflict between the Philippine government and the Rebolusyonaryong Partidong Manggagawang Pilipinas (RPM-P) and its armed wing Revolutionary Proletarian Army-Alex Buncayao Brigade (RPA-ABB), a break-away group of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF). The young people realized that they could help change the situation in their communities by educating young people on their rights.7 They held children’s forums in conflict-affected areas in the province, advocating for the protection of children from recruitment into the armed forces. Eventually, they participated in forums with the RPA-ABB, which has adopted a declaration in 2005 stating its objection to the use of children as soldiers.8 OK Negros continues its education work with children and young people in the communities of Negros. It is also getting support from the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process. The 2000 peace agreement between the Philippine government and the RPA-ABB is helping in the work of OK Negros.
Bhima Sangha is a union of working children in Karnataka, India that was formed when working children who were participating in the activities of the Concerned for Working Children realized that they were being taken into account by the government and by trade unions. They have over 20,000 children-members (under eighteen years), advocating for their rights and the rights of their parents and communities to a better quality of life. The children are often referred to as protagonists. Being social actors, they reach out to other working children and inform them of their rights. Bhima Sangha members are actively involved in local government structures in their villages through the Makkala Panchayats or children's village councils that the children’s union organized as ‘parallel governments’ of children that interacts with official village authorities to represent children in decision-making and governance at Panchayat (village) level. They campaign for issues confronting children such as education and child marriage. They have formed commissions to study and collect information on accidents that killed working children. Bhima Sangha is helping other working children in India in organizing their own unions. It is a member of the organizing committee for the first international meeting of working children and a founding member of the International Movement of Working Children.

Challenge of Weaving Children’s Participation into Work and Lives 

While these exciting and inspiring experiences are expanding as more agencies grow in their appreciation of the children’s rights to participate, truly meaningful participation enjoyed by children still remain in geographical pockets or occurs in short periods based on special policy events. In general, engaging children is still seldom thought of as a critical part of strategies to solve enormous issues affecting children and society. Engaging children is often an afterthought or is assumed as just an element of the implementation strategy. For example, just recently, the International Labour Organisation released the report “Children in hazardous work: what we know, what we need to do”. The report cited studies from industrialized and developing countries indicating that every minute of each day, a child labourer somewhere in the world suffers a work-related accident, illness or psychological trauma. The report estimates that one hundred fifteen million of the world’s two hundred fifteen million child laborers are engaged in hazardous work and that forty-eight million of children in hazardous work are in Asia. Recommendations included renewing efforts to ensure that all children are in school, strengthening workplace safety and health for all workers with safeguards for those undereighteen years, and providing the legal foundation for action against hazardous child work. Interestingly, the report is quiet on how the perspectives of this huge number of children in hazardous work can be heard and considered and how they can be actually engaged in refining these strategies or in finding new solutions to the problems. Perhaps children participation is assumed since the ILO Recommendation 190 requires programs to take into consideration the views of the children directly affected by the worst forms of child labor.
However, to be able to truly tap the enormous wealth, energy and skills that young people offer and to fully recognize children and young people as human beings with equal rights and dignity and potentials as adults, there is a need to invest more time, more effort, and more faith in facilitating meaningful partnerships with children and engaging them better in the work on human rights education, in addressing discrimination, poverty and social issues, in improving social services, and in promoting peace and justice. Perhaps better strategies can be designed to help achieve targets.
The bigger challenge though is in weaving the principles of respect for children’s dignity, integrity, and competence in day-to-day life, placing them in focus, listening to them, and honestly considering what they say and what they can do. If this can be done in day-to-day interaction with children, perhaps this can also be done in the more serious matters that adults are responsible for.  

Ms. Edelweiss F. Silan is the Regional Cross-border Programme Director, Ms. Sucharat Satharpornanon is the Regional Programme Assistant, and Mr. Chakkrid Chansang is the Regional Advocacy Coordinator in the Asia Regional Office of Save the Children UK.

For further information, please contact: Edel F. Silan, Save the Children UK, Asia Regional Office, 14th floor Maneeya Center Bldg., 518/5 Ploenchit Road, Lumpini, Patumwan, Bangkok 10330 Thailand; ph (66-2) 6841291, 6520518 to 20 ext 304; email : edel@savethechildren.or.th; www.savethechildren.org.uk.


1. Quoted from the editorial of Child Workers in Asia newsletter, volume 1, no.1, July -Sept 1985, http://asiasociety.org/policy-polit ics/social-issues/human-rights/child-workers-asia.
2. Chompoonuj Klomklom, Coordinator of the Center of Concern for Child Labour between 11982-1986, quoted in Child Labour Club for Working Children: A summary of Child Labour Club work from 1982 to 1998, under the Child Labour Project, Foundation for Child Development.
3. Quoted from Capacity Building Workshop on Strengthening Meaningful and Ethical Participation of Girls and Boys (Kathmandu: UNICEF and Save the Children Sweden, 2007), page 73.
4. See the website of Children's Development Khazana in www.cdk.co.in/cdk_presence.php.
5. Ibid., in www.cdk.co.in/cdk_objectives.php.
6. Ibid., in www.cdk.co.in/lifeeducation.php.
7. Telephone interview with Redo De Leon, President of OK Negros, June 2011
8. See Southeast Asia Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (SEASUCS) and the Philippine Coalition to Protect Children Involved in Armed Conflict (Protect CIAC), Preventing Children's Involvement in Armed Conflicts in the Philippines: A Mapping of Programs and Organizations (Quezon city: Southeast Asia Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and the Philippine Coalition to Protect Children Involved in Armed Conflict), page 21.

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