NGO Picks Up the Slack in Empowering Street Kids

People Desk
Official statistics of the Majlis Research Center point out that as many as 3 million or 22% of Iranian children under the age of 18 are not attending school
The NGO aims to empower working children by going beyond the traditional concept of charity
The NGO aims to empower working children by going beyond the traditional concept of charity

One of the most pressing humanitarian issues today that is often overlooked is the issue of child labor. Around the world the growing gap between rich and poor has forced millions of young children out of school and into work.

The International Labor Organization estimates that 400 million children between the ages 5 and 17 currently work under conditions that are considered illegal, hazardous, or extremely exploitative.

Children in labor cannot defend themselves. They can't protest or quit because they are vulnerable and often forced to perform all kinds of activities that may put their lives at risk.

“This is a problem largely ignored or even denied by governments. Child labor is one of the most outrageous realities and demands immediate attention and action,” Akbar Yazdi, director of an Iranian NGO that supports children in labor, told the Financial Tribune.

The Society to Defend Children in Labor aims to eradicate child labor and on that path, empowers working children by going beyond the traditional concept of charity of merely providing food or clothing. Established in 2002 in southern Tehran, it provides services for working children including education, counseling, certain healthcare services, and raises awareness on the issue in cooperation with other NGOs in the field.

The society has reached out to more than 2,000 children. It is also a member of a broad network of NGOs active in protection and support of labor children called “Helping Children in Labor” or the “Helpers’ Network.”

Reliable Data Lacking

There is no reliable and precise official data on working children in the country mainly because there is no clarity on the definition of child labor in Iran, and therefore there are discrepancies in the figures.

The sixth parliament (2000-2004) passed a law that exempted workshops with fewer than 10 employees from the purview of the labor laws. Thus the Labor Ministry is not accountable for child labor in such workshops.

“As reflected in the official reports of the Statistical Center of Iran, the Labor Ministry considers age 10 as the minimum working age in Iran,” notes Yazdi, a social worker for two decades.

As per the data collected by local NGOs and social activists, there are seven million children deprived of education in the country.

The World Bank says there are 1.7 million children in forced labor in Iran (reportedly mostly Afghans), but according to Meysam Hashemkhani, an official with the Education Ministry, "nearly 5 million children who are not attending school might be in the labor market."

Official statistics of the Majlis (parliament) Research Center, point out that as many as 3 million or 22% of Iranian children under the age of 18 are not attending school (not registered or dropped out for various reasons), while unofficial sources put this number at six million. At least half of these children (1.5 million) are estimated to be in the work force.  

Dysfunctional World Body  

International organizations such as the UN and its agencies like the UNICEF are not performing with responsibility despite having the authority, says Yazdi.

“Years ago, the UNICEF asked us to come up with a proposal on what kind of strategies to tackle child labor would work in Iran. After three weeks when our proposal was ready, they said child labor was not a concern of theirs as Iran's GDP exceeded the ceiling set to study and address the status of child labor in various countries.”

The UN’s supposedly protective Convention on Rights of the Child, is also with holes. For instance, the first article states that anyone under the age of 18 is a child unless the law of the country stipulates otherwise. That provides the easiest way for evading responsibility.

Although now the social conscience is waking up to the fact that child labor is unacceptable, and governments are seemingly showing concern, nothing of substance is being done to rectify the situation.

Not all of the children in labor and on the streets are part of a gang; that comprises a very small number. Families send their children voluntarily to our NGO, because they want their children to study, but have no means to support them. So they must go back to work in the afternoons.

73% in Street Vending

Last week, deputy head of the State Welfare Organization for social affairs, Ebrahim Ghaffari said a plan that will identify 1,500 working children and organize and support them at its facilities, is under implementation. Based on a 2015 study by the SWO, 73.2% of the children in labor are engaged in street vending.

But the plan has been criticized as it would actually mean rounding up "the visible face of child labor," that is, mostly street kids, and placing them in detention centers.

"The plan is being executed by the Interior Ministry's Social Council with the Labor Ministry, SWO, the Law Enforcement Forces (LEF), the Vice Presidency for Women and Family Affairs, municipalities and other competent bodies as its members," Fatemeh Qasemzadeh, head of the board of directors at the Helpers’ Network, told this newspaper.

The SWO and the Labor Ministry as well as other activists are against the idea, "because it won’t do any good to detain these children in a facility," she said.

"If you round up children, you should take some remedial action because negative punishment won't do. But the means to accommodate or socially support them is lacking, and this scheme will do more harm than good.”

"We must empower families and children to help them get out of the vicious cycle,” of poverty, Qasemzadeh said.

The government is cooperating to some extent with the NGOs in empowering underprivileged families under a joint plan between the network and the SWO that was launched years ago by identifying a number of needy children every year and providing them with clothing, education facilities, and other means to sustain themselves.

"No money is given to the families directly, but is spent on provisions that will help the families thrive and enable their children to have a better future."

The definition of a child must be clarified to mean under 18 years, and the government must have the authority to take custody of children with negligent parents as is the case in many other countries.

Under the present laws in Iran, if a child has parents, no matter how negligent they are, no one can touch them even if they are forced into labor.