The little boy who could
In mid-western Nepal, nine-year-old Israil moves out of child labor and into the classroom
Banke, Nepal – Israil Idrisi is hard to miss. While most of his fellow second-graders chatter away in their classroom at the Gyan Sagar Secondary School in Nepalgunj in Banke District, nine-year-old Israil sits quiet in their midst, eyes widened and a well-worn pencil clutched in his hand. There’s a watchful, cautious quality about him, and a clear reluctance to draw attention to himself.
When asked what he likes most about school, for instance, he takes a long time to think it over.
“Learning the English alphabet,” he murmurs finally, before adding, “and playing kabaddi* at break time.”
Sabitri Adhikari Sigdel, who taught Israil in grade one, sees potential in the boy. “He’s more focused than the others and picks things up quickly,” she says. “But I wish he would speak up more. He’s too shy.”
Israil’s timidity is perhaps not surprising considering it’s been only a year since he stepped into a classroom for the very first time. All his life before that, he had been working alongside his mother Kaishar Jahan on farms owned by other families in their village of Paraspur.
Kaishar had been compelled to take up agricultural work after her husband was arrested on charges of substance abuse, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. This had left her to fend for her two children – Israil, then two, and his younger sister Zeenat, who was just one at the time – on her own. A day’s stint would earn her around Rs. 150.
“It was barely enough for us to eat properly, let alone put the children in school,” Kaishar says.
She had sent Zeenat to live with her maternal grandmother in India, so that there would be one less mouth to feed.
As for Israil, Kaishar began taking him along to the farms. By the time he was around six or seven, the little boy was working in earnest. “I thought it would be good for him to learn some skills early on,” Kaishar says. “That was going to be his future, after all.”
And so, for most of his childhood, work was all Israil knew.
A little more than a year ago, however, social mobilizers with Bageshwori Asal Shasan Club (BAS) Nepalgunj – one of UNICEF’s local partners – had come into contact with the Idrises. Recognizing that Israil was at high risk of becoming trapped in child labour, the family was selected to receive support provided as part of a joint effort between UNICEF and the Nepalgunj Sub-Metropolitan City.
Kaishar was offered a cash grant of Rs. 16,000 (approx. US$ 140) to purchase two goats to boost the family’s income, and as incentive to send Israil to school. But it wasn’t as easy as that.
“Child labour is so normalized in these parts that it’s hard to convince people that it is wrong,” says BAS Nepalgunj social mobilizer Sharmila Thapa who has been working on Israil’s case. “Especially in families like the Idrises who are already struggling to survive, children are seen as extra pairs of hands to work and bring in money."
"Education just isn’t a priority.”
It took a lot of counselling and guidance to persuade Kaishar of the potential long-term benefits of educating her son.
“We had to remind her over and over again that things did not have to stay the same, that maybe if Israil was educated, he could change the family’s fortunes,” Sharmila says.
Finally, Kaishar agreed and Israil was enrolled in grade one at Gyan Sagar.
A year since, Kaishar feels it was the right decision. She’s proud of how hard Israil works.
“Sometimes I just sit and watch him do his homework,” she says. “Even though I can’t help him, he just looks so smart.”
Israil, meanwhile, doesn’t really have a clear idea of what he wants to do when he grows up. He just wants to continue going to school, and hopes to soon be able to write the alphabet without help from the teacher. “I would also like a bicycle,” he says, stealing a cheeky look at his mother. “I could get to school and back quicker. I would have more time to study.”
UNICEF has been working with the Government of Nepal to eliminate all forms of child labour in 14 selected municipalities since 2011, targeting over 13,000 children who are trapped in labour. As part of the programme, UNICEF supports the children by providing them with a range of appropriate services and family-based interventions. Using different awareness raising events like door-to-door campaigns and street dramas, the programme also aims to encourage children, families, employers and the community to adopt positive behaviors that will help eliminate the worst forms of child labour.