In Pakistan, addressing the root causes of child labour

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A year ago, 13-year-old Iqra would spend days picking cotton and helping with domestic work, to help support her family. Today, thanks to an IKEA Foundation-supported project implemented by UNICEF, she is enrolled in school and has plans for her future.

By Atif Butt

BAHAWALPUR, Pakistan, 18 March 2013 – Iqra Khalid, 13, dreams of becoming a teacher. “I would like to help those who cannot afford to go to school,” she says, with a bright smile.

Yet, only a few months ago, she might not have had the luxury to dream.

A child with responsibilities

Six years ago, Iqra’s father went missing. Then 7 years old and in Grade 2, Iqra was forced to drop out of school.

For five years, she helped her mother pick cotton and, during the off season, assisted as a domestic worker to make ends meet. “What could I do?” her mother, Sumera Bibi, asks. “I had five children to raise, the youngest one only 16 days old – and I was left all alone.”

Life was barely any easier when Iqra’s father was around. “He used to sell utensils door to door, but at least my children could afford to go to school and have an evening’s meal,” recalls Ms. Bibi.

With no breadwinner left, Iqra – the eldest – was forced to step in to shoulder some of the responsibility for her younger siblings.

Back to school for Iqra

“Our lives would have continued this way, but then, a few months ago, I was invited to this public meeting in our village,” says Ms. Bibi. The session was held at a multifunctional community space set up by UNICEF through the IKEA Foundation-funded project on Promoting Child Rights in Cotton Farming Areas, which aims to address the root causes of child labour in cotton-growing districts of Pakistan.

At the meeting, continues Ms. Bibi, “[t]hey told me about the importance of education and how nothing will change for my children if they don’t continue their schooling.” Ms. Bibi attended three sessions before she decided to enrol her children back in school.

“I am now in Grade 4,” Iqra says, cheerfully. “I go together with my sister and brother, and now I have five best friends,” she adds. She recites her friends’ names.

Ms. Bibi says, “After sitting the entry test, they were admitted to a government school in our village, and it’s free – and they also take care of their uniforms and books.” Iqra and her two school-age siblings have been attending a regular school for the past five months.

“At least a start”

“I now sell bangles, cutlery and other utensils to all the nearby villages from my home,” says Ms. Bibi. She looks proudly towards one room of her two-room mud house, which she has converted into a small shop. After having attended a three-day workshop on income-generation skills, and with help from the project in the form of a microcredit loan of US$100 to set up the shop, she was able to quit being a domestic worker altogether.

“I can now earn around 4,000 to 5,000 rupees [US$40–50] every month. It’s not enough,” she admits, “but at least a start.”

According to UNICEF Chief of Field Office, Punjab, Ketsamay Rajphangthong, “With funds from the IKEA Foundation, UNICEF is implementing a multisectoral community-building initiative to help improve the lives of children in eight cotton-farming districts, which covers every major aspects of a child’s life.”

Iqra is among an estimated 100,000 working children and around 300,000 out-of-school children who will benefit over a period of seven years through the IKEA Foundation-funded project, implemented by UNICEF, by having access to an improved learning environment in schools and through vocational pathways.

The project will train 4,000 teachers on child-friendly teaching, and will also improve access for more than 1,000 villages to adequate water and sanitation and primary health services.