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On World Day against Child Labour, one Nepali girl's story of a fresh start
Today, Maya, now 12, shudders when she talks about her old life in the carpet factory and how the contractor fooled her and her parents. "Working there was awful. I was beaten frequently, and had to work up to 18 hours per day in summer and winter," she says.
'I can get a much better life'
The eldest of six sisters, Maya was brought to Kathmandu on the empty promise of having a better life there. This promise only came true when she was rescued and brought to a rehabilitation centre in Kathmandu for former child workers, which is run by Rugmark Nepal, a UNICEF and International Labour Organization-funded project to end child labour in the carpet manufacturing sector.
"The best thing about my life now is getting an education," Maya says. "With an education, I can get a much better life than I had, and I will make sure that my children will get an education too, as I don't want them to have the same experiences I had."
Physical and sexual abuse
Rugmark Nepal, which is part of a global initiative, regularly inspects around 120 factories in Kathmandu to ensure that they do not employ children. The organization issues certificates to exporters to assure their clients that no child was exploited during production.
In addition, Rugmark Nepal works to reunite child labourers with their parents. If that is not possible, the children are placed in Hamro Ghar, where they can receive an education and vocational training.
The children at the centre have youthful faces but aged hands bearing scars from months – or years – of hard work at the looms.
"There is a lot of physical abuse," said Ganga Bhattarai, a counsellor with Rugmark Nepal. "Both boys and girls are often beaten when they make mistakes, and sometimes girls are sexually abused – particularly those who have no family members in the factory."
Girls are 'hidden face' of child labour
For Maya's part, a new life at Hamro Ghar has given her hope for the future. "I now dream of becoming a teacher. I want to teach small children, and I would love to be able to help my younger sisters," she says.
Maya's story is all too common in South Asia, where levels of child labour remain distressingly high, especially for girls. Sadly, most child labourers are never rescued; an estimated 44 million children in the region are being deprived of their childhood and education because they are forced into work.
"Data does not capture the hidden face of millions of girls forced into child labour in South Asia. Girls remain in the shadows, out of sight and at great risk of further exploitation," said UNICEF South Asia Regional Director Daniel Toole. "In tough times, families take desperate short-term measures, such as withdrawing their daughters from school to earn additional money for the family. But depriving girls of education robs them and their families of a decent future."
Counting the uncounted
South Asian nations all have some form of legislation banning child labour, but the practice remains endemic and culturally acceptable. High levels of poverty across the region and a lack of education and awareness among parents pushes more children into work. Governments are attempting to tackle the issue.
"States are making a concerted effort to combat more visible child labour in the formal sector, but they fall short in combating child labour in the agricultural and other informal sectors," said UNICEF South Asia Regional Advisor on Child Protection Guillemette Meunier.
The percentage of boys and girls who must work varies from country to country. However, huge numbers of girls in the region remain uncounted because they work in unregulated and domestic sectors, and this work is seen as having little economic value. UNICEF is supporting vocational training and promoting the education and skills training of teenage girls in particular, as studies have shown that educated girls earn more and are more likely to educate their own children.
"The long-term solution for eliminating child labour lies in reducing poverty, promoting access to employment, improving the quality of education and expanding access to schooling for disadvantaged groups," said Ms. Meunier.