Through non-formal education, child labourers hope to escape the trap of debt bondage
By Fatima Raja
Kherapul Village, Lahore, PAKISTAN - February 2010 – On this late winter morning, the sun is fierce and the air is filled with dust. In this searing heat, entire families crouch over rows upon rows of unbaked bricks left to dry in the sun before being fired in a brick kiln whose smoke belches overhead. Mohammad Kabir and his family are amongst them, toiling on the outskirts of the metropolis of Lahore, bare miles from Pakistan’s eastern border with India.
Mr Kabir’s daughter Nusrat is fourteen years old. Until last year, she worked as a domestic servant in a nearby home. “I used to watch the children of the house where I worked as they came back from school every morning, and wished I could study too,” says Nusrat.. “I asked my mistress once to teach me to read, and in return I would work for free. She said no.”
Today, Nusrat is one of the rising stars at the Kherapul Non-Formal Education Centre. Established in 2008, this is one of 16 established by UNICEF’s local partners with funds from Barclays Bank. They are intended to ensure that children like Nusrat, belonging to impoverished families working at brick kilns, have a chance to escape the cycle of debt bondage and poverty through education and vocational training. At present, 2,350 children are studying in the 16 centres in Lahore and Faisalabad.
The Kabir family is paid Rs 300 (US$ 4) for every 1,000 bricks they collectively produce. They make about Rs 6,000 (US$ 73) a month working 14 hours a day, six days a week. On payday, a third is deducted towards their debt of Rs 100,000 (US$ 1,220). The remainder must sustain the family of six, and shortfalls – especially during the rainy season, when there is no work – are made up by adding to the debt. Thus the Kabir family, like most kiln workers, are trapped in debt bondage with a strong incentive to bring their children into this hazardous and exploitative work. Since only 15 per cent of children here are registered at birth, monitoring them and providing services is difficult.
A 2008 mapping survey conducted at these sites found only three per cent of children were enrolled in primary school. To help them catch up, UNICEF supports its local partners to use a non-formal education curriculum, which brings children quickly up to Grade 4 level, from where they can enter mainstream schooling. After only a year of non-formal education, Nusrat’s teachers were stunned at her progress, and believe she will soon be ready to attend school. From being completely illiterate, Nusrat was recently selected to deliver a presentation at an event in the provincial capital, Lahore.
“When we first came here, we had to persuade the kiln owner to give us a few rooms to open the school,” the teacher, Mr Rafique, says. “Then the parents didn’t understand the value of education until we explained that their children could help with checking their accounts with their employers. Children had to be persuaded to come to school through play. From a few dozen children we now have 148 students.” Although hampered by lack of equipment, wherever possible, the centres give vocational training to offer alternative careers for young people, such as dressmaking or embroidery. UNICEF’s partners are also arranging national identity cards for adults and birth registration for children, to link them with government services.
The enthusiasm for education is infectious. Shaheen Sharif, who looks about six but does not know her age, actually enrolled herself in school while her parents were at work, and at first was scolded for playing truant from home. When Shaheen first learnt to write her name, her father spared a hard-earned Rs 100 to buy sweets for her teachers in celebration.
Now, Nusrat wakes before daybreak to help her mother make breakfast for the family. Any leftovers will later serve as lunch. She goes to school to learn and seize her only opportunity to play – all her hours outside school are involved in work. “I’m bad at badminton, but I really love playing,” she says. Afterwards, she joins her parents at the kiln for a few hours to supplement the family income, and then spends the evening voraciously revising her schoolwork. She also spends some evenings trying to teach her parents to read and write. “I feel bad that I can read while they miss out, so I make them trace the letters. But it’s difficult!”
“I’ve been a labourer all my life, so it is a joy to have educated children,” her father Mr Kabir says. Nusrat is the first in the family to attend school, and Mr Kabir is determined that she will continue her schooling and leave the kiln, avoiding the skin and respiratory illnesses which plague so many neighbours.
“With my education, I can get a job outside the brick kilns,” Nusrat says determinedly. “I would like to be a doctor and treat poor people for free. My mother’s entire life has been spent in the kilns, and squatting in the mud has made her joints burn with agony. I would like to take her far away, to a place where she never has to see a brick again.”