Armenia’s Working Children: Selling Luck and Childhood
Yura’s eyes are swollen and red. His body and face are bruised. He is 13. But these are not the marks of childhood games or playground scrambles.
Since he was 8, games, carefree days, school and textbooks were replaced by Yura’s efforts to overcome the hardship of life, fighting in the streets for a piece of bread for him and his disabled father, Edik, to take care of the most basic needs.
Both the son and the father are disabled. Yura suffers from chronic nephritis, and Edik’s lungs are seriously damaged. The father spends almost all his time in bed. They receive a disability pension, but it hardly covers daily needs.
There are days when they have only vegetables to eat; on others, “dinner” is boiled water with a cube of broth dissolved in it.
To compensate for hardship, Yura sells luck.
“For luck,” he says, soliciting passersby to buy one of his cheap medallions featuring an image of the Blessed Virgin.
“We buy the medallions from shops for 800-900 drams (about $2).Then at home together with my father we hang them on threads and sell for 1000- 1500 dram (up to about $3.50),” tells the boy, who has been doing that for several years already. “Sometimes I am lucky, sometimes not.”
“I know I won’t live long, but Yura should have a future,” says Edik. “I don’t want him to be doing that trade, but I am in bed the whole day, my bones moan with pain even when simply talking. We have no other choice.”
A few years ago Yura was selling the medallions at Vernisajh, Yerevan’s popular outdoor bazaar, but now he sets up outside the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin.
The amended Labour Code of Armenia forbids signing labour agreements with or hiring citizens under the age of 14.
UNICEF together with the International Parliamentary Union published "Child Protection", a handbook for parliamentarians that, among other things, makes clear that the cost of sending a child directly to work, rather than allowing him or her to finish school is enormous.
"Working children, many of whom do not go to school, are a particularly vulnerable segment of the population. Not only may they not be able to exercise their right to an education, they are often less likely to enjoy regular access to health care and other social services they require," says Sheldon Yett, UNICEF Representative in Armenia. "Attending school not only equips students with the skills required to read, write and think critically but also provides them with a sense of confidence and empowerment."
“There is a possibility that a child can both work and go to school, but only few can manage that,” the manual says, “worldwide only 7% of 5-9 year-old children, 10% of 10-14 year-old children, 11% of 15-17 year-old children go to school while working.”
Many children quit school not being able to meet the school system requirements, as they have to work.
“I attend school rarely,” says Yura. “My school is the street. I am out in the streets be it raining, cold or hot. I have to do all I can so that my dad and I could survive. And that’s not so easy. People often insult me, shout at me and push me aside, but that’s not the worst. Look at what the police officers have done,” he says, pointing at the bruises covering his body.
However, the reason of Yura’s bruises is neither the officers’ protection of law, nor an attempt to send him back to school.
“They don’t let me sell, telling me to go somewhere else. But I don’t know where else to go, and besides, why are others allowed? There have been even cases when they took all my day’s profit from selling, insulted, beat and threatened me, forcing me to leave,” Yura tells, adding that he has been afraid to go back to his spot, and as a result the family has found itself in a very hard situation. “We have no other option of earning our living. If I don’t work, and go to school as other children, my father and I won’t survive.”
The same hard situation is to be blamed for the Tsarukyan family’s children missing school and being illiterate.
The family of 10 has only three ill-repaired beds, a lot of miscellaneous junk, endless debts and only a meager state pension as income.
“Every day we buy 10-13 loaves of bread to be able to fill the kids bellies at least with something,” says the mother, Alvard Tsarukyan, 43, “And the kids help to buy a couple of things not to starve.”
15 year-old Ani Tsarukyan’s dream is to become a singer, but she, like her sisters and brothers, doesn’t go to school, instead, together with her sisters Evelina and Vardanush she begs for money at a Gyumri market - money by which their mother can sometimes buy milk for the youngest family member, 10 months-old Tina.
The only child from the Tsarukyan family who attends school is Diana, who often misses her classes, though, to join her sisters at the market.
“It is of extreme importance to protect children’s right to an education first of all for the purposes of poverty reduction,” says the Head of Community Development and Social Assistance Center Geghanoush Gyunashyan. “Poverty doesn’t turn into an inherited disease, when a child is provided with education making it possible for him/her to have a steady job in the future as well as find his/her place in the society.”
In the Soviet era the concept of a working child didn’t exist in Armenia. Nor did social conditions that made it necessary for some children to work. Everything changed after the USSR collapsed, resulting in a sharp decline in standard of living. Consequently, “at-risk” children turned to employment rather than education.
According to statistics from international organizations almost half the country lives in poverty.
Children have become skilled at “unskilled” labor such as collecting scrap, selling bottles, day labour at construction sites, etc.
“It is acceptable for a child to have a sense of responsibility and help its family at any age, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of its development,” says UNICEF Assistant Child Protection Officer Naira Avetisyan. “But when a job is harmful for a child’s health and education, it is unacceptable.”
Hakop has felt on his own back what it means to work to the detriment of his health and education.
For 12 year-old Hakob, skinny and puny, working hours begin at a time when usually not only children but also their parents are long asleep.
With coarsened hands, hardly moving his legs and watching fearfully around, it takes the boy so much effort to push ahead a heavy iron wagon. From midnight till dawn Hakop offers his service at one of the food markets of the city to people having purchased goods in volume, taking the products from the market to the ordered place.
“In the mornings I sleep,” he says, attempting to justify his truancy from school. “I have no idea what I am going to do in the future, what destiny I’ll have. There is no time to think about it.”
According to the Head of General Education Department of the Ministry of Education and Science Narine Hovhanisyan, presently the country counts about 500, 000 recorded school age children.
Because of poor social conditions the majority of working children are enrolled at boarding schools, which are paid by the state a certain amount of money per each child. In many cases the records show full attendance, whereas in fact the reality is altogether different.
“We don’t possess any data on how many children do not attend school,” says Hovhanisyan. “The number of children missing their classes is very small I believe, and those who work, most probably, have just a few reasonable absentees, not more.”
Nonetheless, Geghanoush Gyunashyan is also convinced that the number of working children is considerable.
“If a survey is held to define the exact number of working children, that number will be high,” says Gyunashyan. “But they don’t go to school and can’t give up working, as they have no other way out. They have to help their families.”
“The question of working children is of a social character and in order to solve it social conditions should be improved first of all.” says the Head of the Department for Family, Women and Child Care of the Ministry of Social Welfare Lala Ghazaryan. “There isn’t any statistics or statement to show the total condition. Next year the Ministry of Education and Science is planning to carry out an investigation to study the situation.”
For more information:
Emil Sahakyan, Communication Officer, UNICEF Armenia
Tel.: (37410) 52 35 46, 58 01 74