Pushing back against child labour in Chennai, India

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: Article 32 – the right to be protected from harmful work

Althaf, wearing a blue-checkered school uniform, stares at the camera while sitting at a desk with two smiling boys in the background.
UNICEF India/2019/Sundarajan
17 September 2019

North Chennai, India – Every day, 15-year-old Althaf wakes up the same way: he sees his father, mother and brother sleeping beside him in a small, dark room. He smells the air, salty and thick, drifting in from the sea nearby. He hears the chaos from north Chennai’s streets as noise seeps through the walls. He blinks a few times, stretches. Then, Althaf gets ready for school.

Althaf’s family finds it difficult to make ends meet, and he often feels the pressure to bring in money to help support them.

“As the eldest son, I’m often pressured to bring in more income for my family. But education is my right. I refuse to work instead of study.”

In North Chennai, many children never get the education they deserve. The city is one of the largest in India and many young people see their education, health and overall well-being put on the line.

“So often, I’ve seen the lights and power be switched off late at night,” Althaf said. “Shops would hurry to pull their shutters down. Just like the movies, I’d hear sounds engulfed in pitch darkness – I’d hear bottles whizzing and crashing. When the lights came back on, the only evidence that something had happened would be broken glass, and occasionally, a puddle of blood.”

Despite the violence on the streets of Chennai, Althaf refuses to believe that education and survival are mutually exclusive. Ever since he was young, Althaf constantly spoke out about the value of education – not just for himself, but for all those around him.

“When I began 11th grade, I did so without many of my friends. They went to work as delivery boys over vacation, and when it was over, they continued to work as daily wage earners to support their families.”

– Althaf

Fighting child labour, no matter the cost

Althaf knew that every child has the right to be protected from harmful work. For years, he has been involved with a children’s club in Chennai, one that pushes for ending child labour, protecting child workers and street children, and supporting victims of abuse and exploitation. Althaf has even attended trainings on child rights and the challenges children face.  

A close up shot of Althaf staring seriously into the camera with a blurry background
UNICEF India/2019/Sundarajan
Althaf is determined to make sure his peers realise their right education in spite of child labour. Thanks to his efforts, more and more young boys are re-enrolling in school.

“After being trained, I conducted street plays to raise awareness on child labour, menstrual health and the repercussions of early marriage,” Althaf said.

Althaf also spoke to his friends and their families directly, telling them about the importance of education and about how child labour can ruin lifelong earning capacity. Since becoming involved with the club, Althaf has learned to play parai, traditional drums used in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Historically, the instrument is used as a way to convey messages to people.

“By playing parai, I spread messages about the issues facing children in my school and community.”

– Althaf

Althaf refuses to stop talking about these issues. He has even seen two of his classmates return to school, along with many others in different schools. He hopes that local companies stop hiring children as day labourers and children in Chennai become more aware of their rights to protection from harmful work.

A lifelong fight to raise awareness

In the future, Althaf hopes to work in the South Indian film industry. He wants to make meaningful movies as a film director, raising awareness of every child’s right to protection from work that harms them and their childhood.

“My work is not over yet,” Althaf said. “To reach a wider audience and spread more messages on child’s rights and issues, I will see you all on the big screens as a director and an actor.”

Watch this video on Althaf's experience in resisting child labour.