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Nepal's Child Workers Have Tattered Hopes

These youngsters often must choose between hard farm labor or garbage-picking in the streets of Kathmandu

THIRTEEN-year-old Shyam Tamang and his 15-year-old brother, Deepak, live under a bridge in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, where they work as ragpickers. Sometimes they quarrel and separate, but they always manage to find their way back to each other. Originally from the village of Deurali, Shyam ran away from home when his mother eloped a few days after his father died. He came to Kathmandu to find his brother who was already working here as a ragpicker.

Every day the barefoot boys comb the city, sifting through piles of garbage, picking out pieces of rags, paper, metal, and plastics to sell. Unlike other street children who can sell to any junk dealer, these boys must sell to one particular person in exchange for the privilege of sleeping under the bridge at night. They average about 15-20 rupees (45-50 cents) per day and eat the food cooked by local people who make their living roasting peanuts under the same bridge.

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A quiet, serious boy, Shyam used to work as a hotel kancha (servant) but enjoys the freedom and independence of this job more. He has dropped out of school and is illiterate. Mostly he spends his spare time playing marbles and throwing coins. His brother is often found gambling and playing cards with his friends.

In 1984 when Gauri Pradhan, a Nepali university student, attended a meeting in Bangkok regarding human rights for youths, child labor in Nepal was one of the topics raised. Mr. Pradhan found that no studies had been written on this subject and began to research it. This was the beginning of Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN), an organization formed by Pradhan and 10 other university students in January of 1987.

According to a Situation Analysis of Women and Children in Nepal issued by UNICEF, "Very little research has been done in the field of child labor and insufficient data makes it difficult to assess the magnitude of the problem. The 1981 population census showed that 4.5 million or 60 percent of the child population in the 10-14 age group was economically active. These children work in almost all sectors of the rural and urban economy with 80 percent of them employed in agricultural and other allied occup ations in the countryside. The other 20 percent are engaged in various jobs, e.g. factories, construction sites, restaurants, as domestic servants, hotels, etc."

Fifteen-year-old Padam Ranisaf is a carpet weaver in a Jawlikhel carpet factory. "I used to go to school, but with seven children in our family there wasn't enough money and I was told by my parents that I needed to find work," he says. "Our town, in far western Nepal, has such a scarcity of work that my sister Wan [then eight years old] and I set out for Kathmandu two years ago, alone.

"When we first came here we had no idea how to make carpets and learned slowly," he says. "It's difficult to work. The dust from the wool fills our lungs and there is so little light to work by. It's cold and uncomfortable sitting on hard wooden benches all day, but of course I like making carpets; it's good money. If I don't make carpets, we don't eat.

"You Westerners pay a lot for carpets, many rupees. We work from 7 in the morning until 8 at night, every day with no days off. We get paid by the foot, so it's good for us. About 20.66 rupees [50 cents] per square meter. We can finish a rug in two weeks with five men working or three weeks with four men working, so I make about 300 rupees [$7.50] per week. It's enough to survive - to buy rice, clothes, and maybe see a film."

According to Nepali law, no child below the age of 14 years can be hired to work. But a survey conducted by CWIN in 1990 found that of the total work force involved in the carpet industries within the Kathmandu District, 19 percent are below the age of 14 years. Children between the age of 14 and 16 years constitute 33.11 percent of the total work force in the carpet industries.

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Nepal is a predominantly agricultural country, and most children are involved with farming. In eastern Nepal, where whole families work in the tea fields, parents can earn up to 550-600 rupees ($14-15) per month. The working children, often as young as five years old, earn nothing.

A CWIN survey found that although the numbers are small, the problem of children migrating into the towns and living on the streets is increasing. A recent estimate says there are about 500 street children in Kathmandu. They are either runaways, orphans, or squatters. Out of 100 children questioned in the survey, only 23 were literate. Their health was poor and most showed signs of malnutrition. Most of the children (89 percent) came from outside Kathmandu. The situation of orphaned or abandoned children

seems to be the worst.

Says CWIN founder Pradhan: "It is a big problem for the future of these children who now survive in the streets. Today they're pickpockets, tomorrow they're thieves. Most grow up to be thrown in jail. Even now many have been thrown in jail for sleeping in the streets, especially in front of the King's palace and the major tourist hotels...."

"There is no comprehensive program for helping these children, and while their numbers are wholly insignificant when compared with the level of the problem in India, the Philippines, or other countries, as children with special needs they cannot be ignored."

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