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South Asia: Hard Labor Undermines Future Of Millions Of Region's Children

Earning can be a positive experience in a child’s growing up, depending on his age, the conditions in which he works, and whether work prevents him from going to school. In Asia that’s not always the case. Millions of Asian children are pushed into full time work at an early age, undermining their chances of escaping a life of poverty and hardship.

Prague, 23 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Abdul Hakeem was just 6 years old when his parents sent him to the United Arab Emirates to work as a servant. But the Pakistani youngster ended up as a camel jockey, losing nine years of his childhood to looking after camels at night and riding them during the day.

Now 15 years old, Hakeem was one of a first batch of 22 young Pakistani camel jockeys who flew back to Pakistan on 21 June under an agreement between the United Nations Children's fund UNICEF and the governments of Pakistan and the Gulf federation.

Kamila Hyat, from the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Lahore, tells RFE/RL that up to 3,000 Pakistani boys are believed to be kept in prison-like conditions in the Gulf states. They are deliberately underfed to keep them light so the camels can run faster.

“They in most cases have got there when their parents have been duped by agents to send them to the Gulf in the belief they will be employed there in restaurants or trades,: Hyat says. "And [parents] pay some money for that. Many of the parents do not realize that their children will be in fact forced to ride camels.”

About 250 million school-age children are part of the worldwide labor force, especially in Asia (60 percent). About half of them are working on a full-time basis to supplement their families’ meager income.

India is home to the world's largest number of child laborers, with at least 75 million children toiling in homes, factories, shops, fields, brothels, or on the streets.

Many of them work in mines, quarries, or other hazardous places or with dangerous materials like chemicals, pesticides, and heavy machinery.

At a village in India’s northeastern Assam state, Gulopee tells Reuters that poverty pushed her to drop out school earlier this year to work as a cane weaver.
“Since very young I started this work, my parents taught me. Now my father is very sick, so I had to leave school and get to this work full-time.”

“Since very young I started this work, my parents taught me," Gulopee says. "Now my father is very sick, so I had to leave school and get to this work full-time.”

Child labor is also a concern in Central Asia, where large numbers of school-age boys are working as porters in bazaars, or selling cheap goods in the streets or roadside small shops.

In rural areas, Central Asian children herd cattle or work in unregulated mines like in southern Kyrgyzstan, exposing themselves to risks of death and injury.

Uzbek, Turkmen, and Tajik local officials close many rural schools and send tens of thousands of young children into cotton fields to bring in the annual harvest.

In China, labor activists say a growing number of Chinese rural schools have contracted out entire classes of students to work in factories, supposedly to help defray part of their school costs.

Ainura Sagynbaeva is the general director of the consulting company SIAR-Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. She insists that labor deprives children of quality education that would offer them the best chance of escaping a life of hardship.

Sagynbaeva stresses that poverty is not the only factor for child labor. She says it is a telling example of people’s mentality and lack of political will to implement regulations that are already in place to prevent and regulate the employment of children.

"The main problem is not just economic, but also the mentality of our whole country, government, and families," Sagynbaeva says. "Everybody think that if children are working it's OK. And nobody realizes [what child labor really means]. In practice the government didn't do anything to solve this problem. They think it's a problem for India [and] African countries but not for Kyrgyzstan."

Few child laborers continue their studies and get proper education after starting to earn their own money.

However Nasiba has managed to it. At 18, the Tajik woman now gives “doira” drum courses to street children and prostitutes, and proposes her services to private parties.

“In the past I didn’t have clothes to wear," Nasiba says. "Now I have a good, an excellent life. I often play in wedding parties. They pay enough money. I can buy everything I need. I don’t need any help from anybody. In the past, at the market I received two ($0.70) or three somoni ($1). Today I receive between 50 ($17) and 100 somoni ($33).”

Following the death of her mother when she was 10 years old, Nasiba had been selling vegetable in Dushanbe to support her father and grandparents.

She then joined the education program of the Tajik nongovernmental organization Young Generation, while taking lesson to learn how to play “doira."

(RFE/RL’s Tajik and Kyrgyz Services contributed to this report.)