KATHMANDU, 4 July (IRIN) - Ten years ago, when Nepal signed an agreement with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to launch a national programme to eliminate child labour, there were real hopes that the scourge could be significantly reduced. But today activists say that the number of working children in the Himalayan kingdom has increased rather than gone down, in part because of the conditions created by the current insurgency.
"The conflict has had a serious negative impact on our past efforts, and the challenges are enormous today," said long-time child labour activist, Uddhab Poudel from ILO. Poudel added that as the insurgency forces more children to leave their villages, the problem of child labour worsens.
It's not only the number of working children that startles observers but the kind of work they are increasingly being forced to undertake. Heavy migration of displaced children into urban areas because of the nine-year long Maoist conflict, means young people are being forced to engage in some of the most dangerous and exploitative forms of labour.
"We expect about 10,000 to 15,000 children to be displaced into urban areas this year - this will grow by ten fold if the situation deteriorates," explained Poudel. "A peace settlement is the only way to protect our children from further harm," he added.
Concern for children has been mounting among activists working for children's rights. In a report reviewing the situation in Nepal by the UN Committee on Rights of the Child (CRC) in May, one of the committee experts, Lucy Smith, said that Nepal was in many ways not a country fit for children.
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), many young children moving to urban and semi-urban areas live in very difficult circumstances, being forced to work in unhygienic conditions and in hostile environments. Many live on the streets, denied an education and exposed to a variety of threats, added the NRC.
A recent Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN) report, said that child labour is widespread in agriculture, manual work (such as carpet weaving) basket making, iron and steel production, as well as industrial sectors such as brick-making and stone quarrying. It added that most children are exploited while employed as domestic helpers, hotel servants, porters or when picking over rubbish looking for items to sell.
"Before the conflict, children had the choice of returning home to their families but now all they can do is keep quiet and do not have the power to bargain with their employers," explained activist Tarak Dhital from CWIN. He added that there was a dire need for contemporary research on the situation of displaced children in the context of the current conflict.
Other organisations, like Maiti Nepal, which focuses on reducing the number of girls trafficked for prostitution, are concerned that the sexual exploitation of children is also on the rise. This is especially the case amongst those who end up in the capital and other main cities.
"Most of them are in a vulnerable state and are without any protection as they don't know where to approach for help," said Anuradha Koirala from Maiti Nepal.
Nearly two years have passed since the Children as Zone of Peace (CAZOP) initiative was established to pressure both the rebels and security forces to leave children out of the conflict. But activists maintain that both parties have only made the situation worse for children, many of whom have been the victims of constant abduction, interrogation, sexual abuse and physical torture, leading them to flee their villages and work in exploitative conditions in urban areas to survive.
"The country is losing a whole generation of youth when they flee to India and leave schools and live in hostile conditions without any certainty about their future," said activist Reinhard Fichtl from Terre de Hommes, one of the handful of NGOs that is planning to launch a project for internally displaced Nepali children.
Fichtl is worried that most organisations are only focusing on the IDP camps whereas the large numbers of displaced children end up in the local district headquarters near the villages.
"Most live in cowsheds and whatever accommodation is available for the children," he explained. "Whenever we talk of civilians affected by conflict, we tend to leave out children who are in need of most state protection from all sorts of exploitation," Fichtl added.
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