BOSTON — For Carol Bellamy, there is good news out of India.
As executive director of UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund), Ms. Bellamy last week released its annual "State of the World's Children" report, which calls, among other things, for urgent action to end hazardous child labor worldwide.
Several days later, India's Supreme Court coincidently ordered the government to end child slavery in India's many industrial factories (including rug making) and mines.
The court also called for establishment of an educational fund for children, and jobs for adult members of families to relieve child laborers. Employers will also now face fines for breaking child labor laws mandated in 1986 in 16 industries.
"It is an extraordinary decision," says Bellamy of a country where millions of boys and girls work long hours in factories and as domestic servants. No authoritative figure exists, but UNICEF estimates that the number of child workers in the world "runs into hundreds of millions."
Even though all but six countries in the world - the Cook Islands, Oman, Somalia, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States - have ratified the 1990 Convention for the Rights of Children, cultural beliefs and economic realities have worked against change in child labor abuses in most countries.
"It is a problem of implementation now," says Bellamy, a former director of the Peace Corps. "We will look at the UNICEF program in India to see where we can be of help in moving the process along."
As world attention focuses on the extent of child-labor abuses in factories and on the sexual exploitation of children, the UNICEF report highlights an area where the number of children abused is even greater: young girls working as domestic slaves.
A UNICEF study in Indonesia discovered that of 400,000 domestic workers in Jakarta, about one-third were under 15 and worked 12 to 15 hours a day. In Bangladesh, half the child domestics in another study worked 15 to 18 hours a day. Of an estimated 100 million children around the world who are not in school, 60 million are reported to be girls.
"Previously UNICEF's focus was heavily on issues like primary health care, and survival," Bellamy says, "and the evolving issues - sexual exploitation, hazardous labor, staying in school instead of just access to school - are what I call 21st-century issues. We are transitioning from just responding to needs to recognizing that children have rights, just like adults."
Excepts from an interview with Bellamy about the UNICEF report follow:
One of the specific actions called for in the report is registration at birth of every child. Why?
We don't think about this much in the United States, but in many countries, registration doesn't happen, so children aren't people. The beautiful young girl from Nepal who is kidnapped or sold by her family to a brothel in Bombay doesn't exist as a human being because there is no record of her; no one takes responsibility, and she isn't a statistic.
Information is power in this world today. If you know how many children there are in a country, and where they are, and have they been immunized, or are they in school, it will make a difference. It is a protection, a simple thing, and it can be done....
Would this uncover millions of children that were not known before?
Not to that extent, I don't think, but you would find a greater prevalence of a young population, not 30 year olds, but 20s and below .... The fact is that population growth has outpaced improvements in education and sanitation around the world, and the implications of this, for the future of a much younger population, are not clear....
The United States is one of only six countries in the world that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Why not?
I don't know. Much of the language of the convention is based on civil rights legislation [from the US]. Historically, the US has been very reluctant to endorse treaties. If it is signed it would mean that advocates for children in the US, in government or the private sector, would have additional ammunition ... on behalf of children. The president has said he would sign it, but it is not before Congress at this point.
The report cites education as the most important single step in ending child labor. Yet the schools in so many countries are inadequate and have virtually no resources so that many children don't stay in school. What is UNICEF doing to change schools?
Education has become part of the problem, and it has to be reborn as part of the solution.... We have learned what it is that gets kids to schools, and why more girls aren't in school. Generally, because girls get the water, the farther away the water is, the less a girl goes to school. If the well is closer to the center of a community or village, it can contribute to improving access to education. The reality is that children have to do chores at home or in the village, so we've learned that school hours have to be flexible....
But keeping children in school is proving to be more difficult than enrolling them, because what is taught can be irrelevant and uninspiring, and often there are poorly trained teachers and no textbooks....
Are the number of indigenous groups concerned about children's issues on the increase in countries?
Yes, and that's a great cause for optimism, because increasingly in the world there is more decentralization going on.
The ability of nongovernmental agencies (NGOs) to influence government policy is greater. But if there is a caution, [it is that] some of these organizations can be threatening to governments.
I always say we should get up every day and try to work ourselves out of a job, try to do capacity-building by helping governments to do their jobs. The other way is to build capacity through NGOs, but we do run into places where governments will object very much to the modest financial resources we bring into a country to support NGOs.
THE NEXT STEPS IN CURTAILING CHILD LABOR
* Immediately end hazardous and exploitative child labor - including bonded labor, commercial sexual exploitation, and work that hampers the child's ... development.
* Provide free and compulsory education - ensuring that children attend primary education full-time until completion.
* Expand legal protection - Laws on child labor and education should be consistent ... and implemented in a mutually supportive way....
* Register all children at birth - to allow for the exercise of the child's rights and to provide evidence of the child's age.
* Extend data collection and monitoring - implementing systems to gather and analyze globally comparable data on child labor....
* Develop codes of conduct and procurement polices - Corporations should adopt codes of conduct guaranteeing that neither they nor their subcontractors will employ children in conditions that violate their rights.
- From the UNICEF report: The State of the World's Children