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Child labour: depriving children of childhood

To mark World Day Against Child Labour this week, we share the story of Ma Nwe, one of the thousands of children in Myanmar who are forced out of school too early and into work too soon.

Ma Nwe was eight years of age, and had completed less than four years of primary school, when household poverty forced her to leave school to care for her younger siblings while her parents were at work. Just a few years later, tragedy struck with the death of her father and Ma Nwe`s working life began in earnest. She was just 13 years old.

In Myanmar, there is widespread acceptance of working children. It is estimated that almost one in five children aged 10-14 years are participating in the labour market. According to International Labour Organization definitions, around half of this gro’p are engaged in hazardous child labour work which puts a child`s physical, mental or moral wellbeing at risk.

To have regular employment in a factory makes Ma Nwe luckier than many of her peers. But the hours are grinding, particulary for a child. Nor is there any reprieve on weekends. Seven days a week, she gets up at 6.00am to get ready for work. Ma Nwe has just one rest day each month, on a full moon day, when the factory closes.

The majority of children in Myanmar who drop out of school do so to earn money to support their family or themselves. Some sell basic snacks, and odds and ends, others work in food preparation and packing, or in tea shops and restaurants.

Where jobs are few, children may be found plucking their way through rubbish looking for plastic and other materials they can exchange for cash. Those in formal employment work mainly in agriculture, forestry, fishing, manufacturing trades, mining and brick making.

Now aged 17, Ma Nwe should be close to finishing secondary school. Instead, she has been an employee at the factory for four years. She earns less than $80 a month and gives the whole amount to her mother to keep the family afloat.

With low levels of education and a lack of vocational skills, the future employment prospects for children like Ma Nwe are severely limited – jobs which are available will be accompanied by low wages and possibly harsh or dangerous conditions. Ma Nwe’s mother knows this all too well. Having left school as an eight-year-old, she has worked for many years as an unskilled labourer on construction sites – hauling bricks and materials. It is back-breaking and poorly paid work.

Unlike her mother, Ma Nwe can read and write. Nonetheless, she sees limited prospects for her future employment. She says: “When I had to leave school, I was still young and I didn`t feel much. But now, when I see others going to school, I feel so sorry.”

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