//Stolen Childhoods

Stolen Childhoods

CT university exhibit a sobering reminder of child labor problem; organizers say awareness, education first step to solutions

By Archana Sambandan

STORRS, Conn. — The picture of a screaming toddler in a waste dump while her mother searches for food, leaves one grief-stricken. Pointing to another piece titled “Young Brick Kiln Girl, India”, Salvatore Scalora, the director of the William Benton Museum of Art, says, “It’s heart-breaking. She has no future. To her, her whole world is a brickyard.”

These are but a few of the many pictures taken by filmmaker and photographer, Robin Romano. Through his collection, Romano reveals the exploitation of children who work in quarries, brick kilns, trash dumps, and rug-making factories. “I think it is fair to say that in our globalized society, where at least 246 million children between the ages of five and 14 work worldwide, we are failing our moral duty absolutely,” Romano says.

According to Scalora, some regard child labor as an issue of the past as they are not aware of its current existence. To prompt its awareness, he has created an exhibit displaying Romano’s work. Featured in the museum’s Human Rights Gallery, the exhibit, titled “Stolen Childhoods: The Global Plague of Child Labor,” is designed to open people’s eyes concerning child labor. “Awareness is the first step,” Scalora says.

According to the International Labor Organization child labor is a serious problem throughout the world, especially in developing countries.

Despite the enactment of numerous laws against child labor such as the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, India, there is no political will to implement these laws. “The government just looks away,” Scalora says.  

According to the Bureau of International Labor Affairs and the U.S. Department of Labor, most of the child laborers in India are found working in hazardous conditions such as stone quarries and brick kilns. Breaking stones into small pieces and carrying explosives has become a part of their daily routine.

Romano says, “Poverty is usually blamed, first and foremost, for a family’s decision to put a child to work.” Since these child laborers come from poor communities, they are pushed into child labor. Their families perceive them as an additional source of income.

The ILO states that one of the worst forms of child labor that is ubiquitous in India is bonded child labor. Children are sent to work in conditions of servitude to pay off their parents’ debts. Children are usually traded for profit, and are forced to work. Employers prefer younger children as they are more obedient, and efficient in their work, according to Human Rights Watch. Therefore, as children reach adulthood, they are released for new and younger children to pay off the remaining debt. Hence, until the debt has been paid off, families who are a part of this phenomenon are stuck with it for generations to come.

According to Scalora, condemning poverty as the primary cause of child labor is an incomplete way of grasping the whole issue. “Poverty has a soul mate which is lack of education. Without education, people do not understand what their abilities and rights are,” Scalora says. People are forced to engage in ways that yields income, and sending their kids to work becomes an obligation. This in turn perpetuates child labor. In a statement displayed at the exhibit, Romano says, “Child labor itself is a key contributor to the perpetuation of poverty in developing countries. When illiterate child laborers become parents, they often force their own children into the workplace, continuing a cycle that leaves generation after generation chained to a life of misery and degradation.”

Scalora says, “Education is the key to break the cycle of poverty.” Due to the inadequate number of schools, or the expense of schooling, children are coerced to work in order to support their families. “In many ways, the fight to end child labor and the fight for universal education is one fight,” Romano adds.

Furthermore, some parents believe that working from an early age will help children learn the necessary skills for the future rather than attaining a formal education. It is attitudes like these that further instigate child labor.

Scalora says the issue needs to be contemplated if we are to reach a solution. “Rather than making it illegal immediately, look at the problem, and slowly try to make people’s lives better and more equitable,” Scalora says. According to him, making a small donation to foundations such as UNICEF will help children better their lives. “For literally a dollar a day, you can send a child to school. How could you invest anything better in the world than a child?” Scalora asks. He adds that supporting organizations such as Rugmark bring hope to children. Rugmark is a global non-profit organization working to end illegal child labor and offers educational opportunities for children in India, Nepal and Pakistan.

As part of the exhibit, museum visitors will also have the opportunity to watch the award winning documentary, “Stolen Childhoods”, which will be shown continuously in the gallery. Several computers with limited access to Web sites regarding child labor are set up for visitors.

“This is the kind of show that should travel, and should be shown in every university as it is an important issue,” Scalora says.

The William Benton Museum of Art is located at 245 Glenbrook Road, Storrs, Conn. The exhibit will run through Aug. 6. For more information, please visit www.benton.uconn.edu.