A Child’s dilemma: Choosing between education and family survival
© UNICEF Armenia/2007/ Marianna Grigoryan
A boy selling fish at one of the markets in Gyumri, second largest city of Armenia.
By Frale Oyen/UNICEF Armenia
A study on child labour initiated by UNICEF found that more and more children are leaving school to support their families.
It is a worrying trend, said Naira Avetisyan, UNICEF Child Protection Officer, and Mira Antonyan, director of the Fund for Armenian Relief Children’s Reception and Orientation Centre, which provides temporary safe shelter for homeless, neglected, maltreated and abused children.
"During the implementation of projects for at-risk children, we noted that more and more children were dropping out of the educational system in order to support their families," Ms Avetisyan said.
The issue is not only found in the rural areas where children, aged 10 to 16, help out in the fields. It also affects those living in urban areas as well, where children have taken to selling or carrying goods in the market to earn a few drams.
In many cases, contrary to Armenian law, there is no formal work agreement between the children and their employer and little to no control over the children’s working conditions.
"They could be working in harmful conditions or in an environment that could damage their health or cause trauma," Ms Avetisyan said. "It also violates a child’s right to education and leisure, which is very important."
To determine the extent of the problem, UNICEF initiated a study on child labour. The study conducted by the Armenian Association of Social Workers in all 11 marzes of the country indicates that 3.8 per cent of the nearly 1,100 families surveyed admitted that their school-aged children, chiefly those between the ages of 10 and 16, work.
This figure may be small, especially when compared to countries in the region, but to experts it is a concern that should be immediately addressed.
"I am very upset when I hear that 3.8 per cent is nothing, that it’s not so high so there is no need to worry," Ms Antonyan said. "Well, I’m worried. We have to value the children and 3.8 per cent is all about the children. It is about someone’s life, someone who could be injured or placed at risk if we don’t do anything."
She noted that the 3.8 per cent figure only refers to children who are being paid for services rendered. It does not include those who are not paid for their work – e.g. those in agricultural areas who leave school to help out at home or to help their families in the field.
"For me, this is a child who spends his entire childhood working, not in education or in leisure time. That is not a normal childhood," said Ms Antonyan.
Without proper education, these children will be hard pressed to find good jobs, leaving them with no choice but to accept low-paid, menial positions. For the children, however, it boils down to one thing: They, and their families, need the money.
Such was the case for a 16-year-old boy from Lori Marz, who was recently admitted to the Children’s Reception and Reorientation Centre in Zeitun after he was found lying frozen and unconscious on the floor of the factory in which he worked.
The child is the family’s chief bread earner. He came to Yerevan to find work and was hired to do shift work at a bread factory. He had no official work contract and, with no place to stay, he kept close to the premises. However, the work, the cold weather and lack of food soon took its toll. The boy collapsed and was taken to hospital, before being admitted into the centre.
"This may only be one example but it is a real case," Ms Antonyan said. "This child is now living in the centre so how can I say that this is not a concerning issue?"
Although Armenian law prohibits those below the age of 14 from working, children aged 14-16 can work if parental consent is given. Children between the ages of 16 and 18 can enter into an agreement with their employer directly.
The problem is that employers, although quite happy to hire these children, are reluctant to issue formal, work contracts.
"From an employer’s point of view, if they are going to hire a child, they are not interested in having a contract because of the costs involved – i.e. social payments, etc.," Ms Antonyan said. "It’s not worth it."
But with no contract, there is little in place to protect these children.
"You can’t forbid the children from working and helping their families," said Ms Avetisyan of UNICEF. "But at least you can establish forms of child labour that are acceptable, that are not dangerous to their health, that are not detrimental to the children’s survival."
Once completed, the child labour report will provide recommendations for decision makers as well as service providers – child protection agencies/services, schools, policlinics – and local authorities. UNICEF, in turn, will advocate the Government of Armenia to establish the mechanisms and the environment needed to implement these recommendations by sharing experiences from other countries and by providing guidance.
"The report shows that the problem exists in the country and that, in some regions, it is worse than in others," Ms Avetisyan said. "So there is a regional disparity, related not only to the poverty of the region but also to the cultural values held."
Intervention, however, isn’t all black and white. One needs to be sympathetic to the plight of the children and the employer, Ms Antonyan said. "You can’t just say: ‘You can’t work; you need to go to school,’ without providing social benefits to the family, especially if they rely on that money to survive. … Then our intervention is wrong. That is not what they want from us. Then we become someone that won’t allow them to live. That is not the right way to do it."