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To be a child is to be a dreamer

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  • Not be breadwinners or burdened with adult responsibility

One in a hundred! That is how many children in Sri Lanka are in child labour, skipping out on regular schooling. These young ones and teenagers are foregoing basic education or tertiary level vocational skill-set attainment; unwittingly pushed and pulled into earning an income to buoy family finances or care for needy family members. 

That is some 40,000 children, the vast majority unable to find a way out of the hazardous nature of their work as recorded in the Child Activity Survey Report, 2016. That being said, Sri Lanka has made significant strides in tackling child labour. Getting children back to the classroom helps harness the transformative possibilities of education, which also has a knock-on effect on the health and wellbeing of the community and nation as a whole. 

On the bright side, the contentious issue of child labour is no longer as prevalent here as it is among some of her neighbours in the region. With concerted and sustained effort Sri Lanka can well be on its way to achieve a future of zero child labour – a status in line with its pathfinder country strategy that commits to fast-track the attainment of the goal by 2022; well ahead of the year 2025 global target set in the Sustainable Development Goals. 

In recent months in Colombo, an International Labour Organization (ILO) supported initiative to reduce child labour brought to my attention an instance of children losing out on their childhood. A boy aged 13 and his sister of 9 years were missing out on school to sell incense sticks, eking out a living to buy their one meal a day of rice and dhal. I could not but wonder – the aromatic stick lit by thousands of devotees to invoke blessings from prayer and worship released its fragrant smoke as a sweet-scented childhood was turning to ash. 

I have spent close to 20 years working to bring an end to child labour as part of the ILO, hand-in-hand with hundreds of diverse and dedicated partners. It only took a simple intervention for the brother and sister to be re-schooled and not working. Alternatives existed for them to afford the seemingly prohibitive school associated costs, for meals, family counselling and other social services. 

As a middle-income country, Sri Lanka has discernible patterns of children engaged in the largely informal services sector. Surprisingly not as extant in rural areas but having the highest numbers in Kurunegala, Gampaha, Colombo, Monaragala, and Batticaloa Districts. Though not widespread, such occurrences are scattered across urban and peri-urban localities and this often makes detection difficult. Which is why it is vitally important to have sustained coordination among the gamut of actors in order to maintain an effective referral system: education authorities and divisional officers or probation units, and social welfare and monitoring officers must have strong liaison to assess and follow-up on low school attendance, dropouts and re-enrolment. 

The greater part of the load is to keep the wheels in motion to ensure that coordination mechanisms function to drive the effort forward – to deliver on the promise to have no child labour and a country where kids can pursue their dreams, and school life a never-ending vacation of flying kites colouring the sky, painting brilliant hues into life. Sri Lanka must show resolve to have reached the peak come 2022. The demonstrated commitment will gather impetus for being part of 8.7 – a 200 plus organisations around the globe – strong coalition tasked to work for a world without child labour, giving Sri Lanka a strong footing to harness resources to see the country through the last mile of the journey. 

Having made impressive gains in steeply reducing child labour, over the past few decades Sri Lanka stands tall and well placed to attain the declared target of eradicating child labour. The highly visible international commitments toward the same not only take the country toward a brighter horizon but also inspire others to chart a similar and driven course. 

As the World Day Against Child Labour is marked on 12 June, it is a timely reminder for us all that the problem will not solve itself. It will take time, dedication and cooperation. You can become part of the solution. Care for a cause that brings good to all. Be observant. Report violations to 1929 – the dedicated hotline at the Ministry of Labour. The consequences of a child forced to work without schooling or after hours far outweigh the impact that stopping such work has on his or her family. Remember that child labour has no place in the 21st century.

(The writer is Country Director, ILO Country Office for Sri Lanka and the Maldives.)


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