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Child Labour and Responses in South Asia

map of countries covered by SRO - New Delhi Iran Afghanistan Pakistan Bangladesh Sri Lanka Nepal India India Bangladesh Nepal

The geographical coverage for South Asia includes: Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Afghanistan and Iran. This review focuses on national legislation and polices relating to child labour, government polices and programmes as well as IPEC interventions specific to each country.

Socioeconomic indicators

Country Bangladesh India Nepal Pakistan Sri Lanka Afganistan Iran Maldives Bhutan
Total Population
153 1,134 27 158 19.1 2.5 6.9 0.295 0.637
under age 15
(% of total),
35.2 33 39 37.2 24.2 47 28.8 34 33
Youth Literacy
rate (%),
age (15-24), 2005
63.6 76.4 ( 1 ) 70.1 65.1 95.6 34.3 97.4 98.2 data not
Primary School
enrolment rate
ratio gross(%), (Male:Female)
87:91 90:87 91:87 74:57 98.97 126.75 104:132 118:114 103:101
(PPP US$), 2005
2,053 3,452 1,550 2,370 4,595 data not
7,968 5,261 data not
Population living
below $US 2 per day
(%), 1990/05
84 80.4 68.5 73.6 25.0 data not
7.3 data not
data not
Source: UNDP Human Development Report 2007-08

Child labour situation in South Asia ( 2 )

Based on officially available statistics, it is estimated that there are 21.6 million children, aged between 5 and 14 years, working in south Asia out of a total of 300 million children in this age group.

Country Working Children (5-14 years) ( 3 ) Total number of children (5-14 years)
Bangladesh 5.05 million ( 4 ) 35.06 million
India 12.6 million ( 5 ) 253 million
Nepal 1.660 million ( 6 ) 6.225 million
Pakistan 3.3 million ( 7 ) 40 million
Sri Lanka 0.475 million ( 8 ) 3.18 million

The factors that contribute to child labour in South Asia include parental poverty and illiteracy; social and economic circumstances; lack of awareness; lack of access to basic and meaningful quality education and skills, internal conflict, migration and trafficking and high rates of adult unemployment and under-employment. Attitudes towards child labour also play an important role. In South Asia, children are perceived as 'adults' at an early stage. Children are expected to perform physical work equivalent to an adult as early as 10 years old in some countries.

There is a great deal of commonality across the South Asian countries in the forms of child labour, most notably in the areas of:

  • Child domestic labour;
  • Children in hazardous child labour;
  • Children in export oriented industreis, much of it is home-based;
  • Child trafficking and migration (both internally and across borders);
  • Child bonded labour particularly in agriculture; and
  • Child labour in the informal economy, particualry in urban areas.

These are elaborated below:

Child domestic labour

In South Asia, child domestic labour (CDL) is culturally accepted and commonly practised. CDL refers to situations where children are engaged to perform domestic tasks in the home of a third party or employer. Where child domestic labour is exploitative and includes trafficking, slavery, or practices similar to slavery, or work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is hazardous and likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of the child, it constitutes a worst form of child labour as defined in the International Labour Organization (ILO) Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (No. 182), 1999.

As can be seen from the table below, CDL is prevalent in every country of South Asia:

Country Known CDL population ( 9 )
Bangladesh (Dhaka) ( 10 ) 300,000
India ( 11 ) 20% of all children under 14 years working outside the family home are in domestic service
Nepal (Kathmandu) ( 12 ) 62,000 children under 14 years
Pakistan ( 13 ) 264,000 children working in 'personal and social services'
Sri Lanka ( 14 ) 19,000

Children working in hazardous industries

The ILO Convention No. 182 (Article 3d) defines hazardous child labour as 'work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of children'.

According to the Government of India, there are 2 million children working in hazardous industries ( 15 ). Examples of hazardous occupations include brick manufacturing, stone quarrying, fireworks manufacturing, lock making and glassware production. An ILO study on hazardous child labour in Bangladesh found that more than 40 types of economic activities carried out by children were hazardous to them ( 16 ). The survey also revealed that except for light work, child labour usually had harmful consequences on the mental and physical development of children.

In Pakistan, it was found that of the total population of child labourers, 7 per cent suffered from illness/ injuries frequently and 28 per cent occasionally ( 17 ). The majority of children suffering from illness/injuries were found in agricultural activities. The situation in Sri Lanka seems to be less problematic since, according to a child activity survey ( 18 ), nearly 90 per cent of the working children in the age group of 5-17 years have never experienced a health or safety hazard due to the activity in which they were engaged. In Nepal, identified hazardous sectors include construction, transportation and production, and especially the bidi and carpet industries.

Children working in export-oriented industries

Export industries in South Asia involve a large number of child labourers mainly in the supply chain. The main export industries include carpet, footwear, soccer balls and garments in Pakistan and India, surgical instruments in Pakistan, and garments in Bangladesh.

In 1995, before the BGMEA/ILO/UNICEF project in Bangladesh started, nearly 43 per cent of the garment factories employed children ( 19 ). By 2003, this figure had been reduced to around 1 per cent. In Pakistan's carpet industry, which is 95 per cent export oriented, the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) estimated in 2001 that about 206,194 children were employed as full-time labourers ( 21 ). Following the IPEC Carpets project in Pakistan, 24,359 children were withdrawn and 5,217 children were prevented from entering this sector through the provision of educational services and trainng opportunities.

Child trafficking

In South Asia, there is trafficking in children both internally and across national borders (from Bangladesh and Nepal to Pakistan and India, and from South Asia to South-East Asia and the Middle East). Victims end up in various forms of sexual and labour exploitation, i.e. doing domestic work, working in factories, on the streets, and as jockeys in camel races.

In the past few years, overwhelming attention has been paid to cross-border trafficking and trafficking for sexual exploitation. More recently, internal child trafficking and migration are also being highlighted.

A common feature of child trafficking is that young girls and boys are trafficked from rural communities to urban areas and even to another country or region. Indicators in the hardest-hit sending areas show that the practice is internalised as a strategy to cope with poverty. Other factors contributing to child trafficking are an increasing rate of unsafe migration, weak law enforcement, insufficient household income, illtreatment and physical abuse at home and in the community, parental alcoholism, lack of food, and forced marriages.

Nepal's and Sri Lanka's experiences show that children can be easily drawn into armed conflicts. Likewise, gender inequality manifested through domestic violence, forced marriages, and the stigma against women without spouses can increase women's and children's vulnerability to child trafficking.

The table below provides an overview of the degree of child trafficking in south Asia:

Country Internal trafficking Cross-border trafficking
Bangladesh Data not available 13,220 children smuggled out of the country between 1990 and 1995 ( 22 )
India Data not available 12,000-50,000 women and children trafficked every year into the country from neighbouring states for the sex trade ( 23 )
Nepal Data not available 12,000 girls trafficked every year from Nepal and across borders ( 24 )
Pakistan 100,000 women and children ( 25 ) 200,000 women and children trafficked from Bangladesh to Pakistan between 1990 and 2000 ( 26 )

More than 19,000 boys aged 2-11 years have been trafficked as camel jockeys from Pakistan to the Middle East ( 27 )
Sri Lanka 5,000 ( 28 ) Sporadic incidence

Child bonded labour

Despite legislation in place to abolish bonded labour in all South Asian countries, except Bangladesh, bonded labour still affects millions of the poorest and most vulnerable workers in the subregion. Very often, children are involved in bonded labour to repay loans taken by parents. Bonded labour is a critical concern because it perpetuates poverty and hampers economic growth by undermining labour productivity and human capital development and because it is a gross violation of fundamental human rights Experience shows that extremely poor families, vulnerable to bondage, are caught in a web of social and economic obligations that prevent them from benefiting from development projects.

Forced labour, primarily in the form of debt bondage, is found amongst low castes, minorities, and migrants, who suffer additionally from discrimination and social exclusion. Although most prevalent in traditional agricultural production systems based on sharecropping and casual wage labour, bonded labour in South Asia also occurs in other sectors, including mining, brick kilns, rice mills, carpet weaving, commercial sexual exploitation, match factories, stone cutting, and quarries.

Note 1 - 2001 figure, Human Development Report 2007 - 08.
Note 2 - The scope of this overview has been limited to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Note 3 - Children engaged in economic activity, including both paid and unpaid, casual and illegal work, as well as work in the informal sector, but excluding unpaid domestic services within own household.
Note 4 - Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS): Report on national child labour survey 2002/03 (Dhaka, 2003), survey undertaken with the support of the ILO.
Note 5 - Registrar General, Government of India: Census of India, 2001, Working children in India: An analysis of the 2001 census data.
Note 6 - Central Department of Population Studies, Tribhuwan University: Child labour situation in Nepal — Report from migration and employment survey, 1995/96 (Kathmandu, 1997), survey undertaken with the support of the ILO.
Note 7 - Federal Bureau of Statistics: National child labour survey in Pakistan (Islamabad, 1996), survey undertaken with the support of the ILO. This figure does not include children engaged in economic activity occasionally or on a part-time basis.
Note 8 - Department of Census & Statistics, Ministry of Finance & Planning: Child activity survey (Sri Lanka, 1999), survey undertaken with the support of the ILO.
Note 9 - Given the hidden nature of child domestic work, these figures must be viewed as indicative only.
Note 10 - UNICEF International Child Development Centre: Child domestic workers (Florence, 1999).
Note 11 - UNICEF: Child domestic workers in south Asia (Kathmandu, 2001).
Note 12 - UNICEF International Child Development Centre: Child domestic workers (Florence, 1999).
Note 13 - UNICEF: Child domestic workers in south Asia (Kathmandu, 2001).
Note 14 - CAS Survey Sri Lanka (1999).
Note 15 - Figure provided by the Ministry of Labour, Government of India.
Note 16 - W. Rahman: Hazardous child labour in Bangladesh, Department of Labour in collaboration with the ILO (Dhaka, 1996).
Note 17 - Federal Bureau of Statistics: National child labour survey in Pakistan (Islamabad, 1996).
Note 18 - Department of Census & Statistics, Ministry of Finance & Planning: Child activity survey Sri Lanka (Colombo, 1999).
Note 19 - IPEC monitoring reports.
Note 21 - This figure is based on IPEC project survey conducted in the carpet industry in the province of the Punjab in 2001. The Punjab Province had 107,065 children below the age of 15 years and 57,890 children between the ages of 15 and 17 years working full time in the carpet industry. The Punjab accounts for about 80 per cent of Pakistan's total carpet production. Since carpet weaving is a hazardous activity, the desired age for workers is more than 17 years. Therefore, the extrapolated figure for Pakistan would come to 206,194.
Note 22 - Joint study conducted by the Ministries of Home, Social Welfare and Women and Children Affairs.
Note 23 - US Department of State: Country reports on human rights practice 2000 (February 2001).
Note 24 - Rapid assessment by IPEC (2001).
Note 25 - Estimation by an NGO, Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aids (LHRLA) (2002).
Note 26 - LHRLA.
Note 27 - Idem.
Note 28 - IPEC Project for Combating Child Trafficking for Labour and Sexual Exploitation, estimation based on a number of reports.
Disclaimer - The above map does not reflect a position by the ILO on the legal status of any country or territory or the delimitation of any frontiers.

Last update: 15 September 2009 ^ top