Drop in child labor points to progress for all children

A stunning drop in child labor worldwide is one of several reports of progress that suggest a global shift in how children are viewed.

AP Photo
Children and freed child laborers in India participate in an Aug. 29 protest in New Delhi demanding passage of a child labor bill. The bill if passed would prohibit hazardous work for children under 18 and employment of children below 14.

Advocates for children sometimes deserve a pat on the back as much as the children they cheer on. The latest tribute to their efforts is a report from the International Labor Organization, an arm of the United Nations.

The ILO finds the number of children doing hazardous work has dropped by half since 2000. The total number of child laborers, either in dangerous jobs or simply working the family farm, has fallen by a third, from 215 million to 168 million.

While the current number is still too high, the progress is remarkable in such a short period. It shows how humanity has embraced children in need on a global scale and how an idea – that children are sacred charges and necessary to ensure a better future for all – can quickly catch on.

Of all the treaties on human rights, the Convention on the Rights of Children is the one ratified by the most nations. That has required a global shift in thinking. Instead of a 19th-century view of poor or abused children as charity cases, the world now sees them as having individual rights, ones that can be enforced either by law or public pressure.

A related cause to child labor is the child sex trade. Since the early 1990s, private groups and the UN have partnered to push countries to curtail the trafficking of young people for sex. “We are now in a good position to ensure the full realization of the rights of children to live free from commercial sexual exploitation,” states the latest report from ECPAT, a Thailand-based network of groups.

One success is the adoption of “The Code,” or rules used by travel businesses to curb sex tourism. And dozens of countries are now tracked in how well they enforce rules against child sex trafficking.

Other progress is worthy of praise. Child mortality rates have been almost cut in half since 1990. And school attendance rates continue to rise worldwide.

Girls are the targets of concern in two causes: child marriages and female genital mutilation. Global awareness of both problems has brought good results in a few countries. But the UN estimates about 37,000 girls are still married each day. And the ritual cutting of girls’ genitals in the belief it protects the girls’ virginity remains “remarkably tenacious, despite attempts spanning nearly a century to eliminate it,” states a UN report.

Not every success story for children proves to be a model that can be easily transferred. Advocates find they still need the right mix of social change, money, and political will. Children’s lives are also heavily influenced by progress in the economy, such as adoption of new technologies, or in the rule of law. The issue of using child soldiers in conflicts seems intractable.

The successes in lessening child labor picked up in the 1990s after multinational companies began to open up more factories in low-wage nations. Overseas sweatshops became a campus cause. Companies such as Nike were forced by activists to make sure their plants didn’t employ underage workers. By 1999, trade rules in the West began to impose restrictions on imports of products from countries that used child labor – although the tactic can backfire if it keeps a country in poverty. And enforcement of child-labor laws must be accompanied by a general improvement in living conditions.

When young children are forced to work by impoverished parents, they miss out on schooling, leading to the possibility that someday their children will be forced to work. One way nations break that cycle is by compulsory education. Such ideas are clearly taking root as the world accepts an expanded view of the worth of each child.

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