After many years of hard campaigning, we are almost there. The problem of child labour has drastically reduced, largely due to successful awareness campaigns and very public prosecution. Many middle class homes resist taking in young children as domestics even when they are in dire need of household help. The level of fear created by the rigorous implementation of the law is such.
But look at the simmering issues that still lie under the surface of this apparent victory.
I personally know many parents from estates and rural villages who send their barely-teenage sons to the city to earn a living.
At times, it is not the parents wish- but the youngster himself. Drops out of school, finds himself idling with older boys, then is influenced by the gang to come with them to the town.
Although domestic labour has reduced in homes, there are many, many kades in the city and the fast growing suburbs that attract young labour. Boys as young as 10 or 12 are often seen measuring rice and dhal in a grocery store or selling sun-baked grapes or seasonal rambutans by the roadside.
They are paid a pittance, they work ungodly hours, they are provided with stale food, have to deal with rat-ridden sleeping quarters and rarely get to visit their homes.
Invariably these children end up running away from this modern slave labour in a few years (or months) and often end up as anti-social elements living in the fringes of the citys labour market.
Although the UNICEF definition of childhood reaches its ceiling at 18 years, for many Sri Lankan children childhood ends long before that.
There are two main reasons for the early end of childhood. Acute and chronic poverty is one. The other is the high rate of school dropouts and the fact that our formal education system does not cater for the multitudes that do not pursue higher education.
Just consider last Decembers O/L results. As many as 50% failed the test. That means all these students did not qualify for higher education beyond the age of 16.
For poor families in very remote and rural areas, the option of their children repeating the O/L exam is even more remote. For them, just being able to put their children through 10 years of schooling is good enough. They have no fancy aspirations for their offspring.
Many will then go and work in the fields, take out the fishing boats with their elders or seek employment in some urban hell.
What are their options anyway? For the children, after dropping out of school either before O/L and finally after failing the O/L there are few doors open.
They have very little real knowledge. Hardly any skills in English. Absolutely no skills. Most vocational training programmes and technical schools ask for O/L pass as a basic qualification. After all, we think, who cant pass the O/L? But a staggering 50% of the children who sat for it last December didn't.
Many will end up in the cheap labour market with no real future. For teenagers, whether male or female, this is a bleak and terrible indictment at the very outset of their transition to adulthood. If we have to insist that all children must go and complete school, we have to provide the background for it.
If the formal education system has no room for such children, there has to be other obvious avenues to persuade them to stay in school and acquire some life skills.
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