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Feature for World Day Against Child Labour, 12 June 2008 – Street children in Russia: Back to school, back to life

The ILO has estimated that some 165 million children between the age of 5 and 14 are involved in child labour. Many of these children work long hours, often in dangerous conditions. Education provides a means through which economically and socially excluded children and youth can lift themselves out of poverty. ILO Online reports from the Russian Federation.

Article | 12 June 2008

VYBORG, Russian Federation (ILO Online) – How does it feel to be a working street child in today’s Russia?

Vanya Ivanov, 14, from the city of Vyborg in the Leningrad region, knows the answer from first-hand experience. He is one of those children transporting and loading goods at the market, collecting bottles or other waste, washing cars etc. Some of these children are also involved in illicit activities.

Many of these children, like Vanya, have a tragic life story behind them.

Vanya’s father has left the family. He now lives in St. Petersburg and refuses to help his son. Vanya’s mother, a housewife, killed Vanya’s elder bother in a domestic quarrel and is now in prison. So the boy found himself completely abandoned.

According to the recent ILO survey held in the city of St. Petersburg and the region, the main causal factors leading to child labour are economic and social problems, as well as family problems. The atmosphere in the family and the parents’ way of life can force children to leave home and turn to the street. In the Vyborg district three of every five children come from incomplete and so called “trouble families”. Children run away to the street not only to escape their negative family environment but also to find shelter and food.

To make a living Vanya worked at the local market transporting and loading goods, collecting bottles and cans. What happened then was typical for many working street children: he stopped going to school, stayed in the sixth form for the second year and finally dropped out of school.

The ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) estimates that only 66.8 per cent of working street children in the Leningrad region study regularly, while others drop out either temporarily or for good. Vyborg district is no exception: among 609 children from the troubled families who live there, 107 are not receiving compulsory education.

The same study shows that among children involved in illicit activities and prostitution, the percentage of those regularly attending school decreases considerably – down to 30.7 per cent.

The fate of many children like Vanya is unfortunately quite predictable but everything changed when his aunt, who started an official adoption procedure, came to specialists of the ILO/IPEC rehabilitation project and received their assistance.

This Finland-funded project started in the Vyborg district two years ago. It includes two components – a rehabilitation model for children and their families, and child labour monitoring at secondary schools.

Vanya started to attend psychological consultations together with his aunt and guardian. At first specialists noted his extreme suspicion and mistrust towards people around him – an attitude that is typical for street children. But several months later they could already talk about positive changes – the boy became more communicative; he returned to school, and made new friends there. Teachers proposed additional separate classes to Vanya to help him catch up with the curriculum. As a result, he completed the academic year without low grades and was transferred to the next form.

The rehabilitation specialists are proud of him because he does not work any longer, he quit smoking, and he is happy in his new family – in other words, he started a new life.

“Under our project, 74 girls and 47 boys like Vanya have received medical and psychological assistance. They all stopped working and returned to school, says IPEC project coordinator Alexey Boukharov. “It means they got a chance for proper education, safe life and decent work in the future”.

Now the project has shown that education and training can be a lifeline enabling street children to become fulfilled and productive adults and thereby break the cycle of poverty, the prospect for an extension of the project activities increases.

“The two-year project is being completed but we do not feel that it is coming to an end – first of all because its main objective has been achieved: prevention and rehabilitation models developed and tested in the Vyborg district may now be replicated by other social services”, concludes ILO child labour expert Klaus Guenther.