Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

Changing Mindsets and Fortunes in the Poorest Nations (June 21, 2004)
"To potential investors and aid agencies, the stirrings of hope say: Don't stop now. And to the people of any number of nations willing to give it a try, the tentative signs of progress say: It can be done."

When Peacekeeping Turns to Despair (June 14, 2004)
"A new and disturbing book is getting a lot of attention around the United Nations—so much that two of its three authors fear they will be dismissed."

McAskie One of UN's Few Women Special Representatives (June 7, 2004)
"Women, few as they are in this line of work, seem to get the toughest assignments."

Low-Tech Solutions Often Key to Third World Problems (May 31, 2004)
"Creativity born of necessity can help make life longer and better in the poorest countries."

A University in a Class by Itself (May 24, 2004)
"Not many people know that the UN has a university of its own. It has no basketball team nor even a traditional campus. It is a research institution that serves as a think tank for the United Nations."

Millions of People Worldwide on the Move (May 17, 2004)
"Migrations, particularly illegal movements of people, are cause for concern in every region. There has never been a migration study this big or ambitious. The topic has some built-in tensions, and opening it up for world scrutiny risks some hazards."

No Simple Place to Pin Blame for Iraq Oil-For-Food Problems (May 10, 2004)
"The U.S. General Accounting Office is documenting what a shambles the U.S. made of the oil-for-food program after it took over in November, and warning that the new Iraq must be watched closely or history will repeat itself."

More from U.N. Notebook.


U.N. Notebook | June 28, 2004
 
from U. N. Wire Out of School and Cleaning Toilets: Kids in Domestic Servitude

by Barbara Crossette
 
....

UNITED NATIONS—UNICEF began an innovative experiment in Africa this month. If it works, the idea holds many possibilities. The children's fund is sending children to survey other children about why so many of them are not going to school.

Around the world, UNICEF estimates that at least 121 million children are not in school, and that number probably doesn't include all those children who are technically enrolled (making a lot of nations' statistics look good) but never actually attend classes. And then there are the schools where underpaid teachers don't show up because they have other paying jobs during the day.

The UNICEF survey comes just after the International Labor Organization reported in Geneva that at least 10 million children, usually girls, are not in classrooms because they are in domestic work, hidden from public view. The number of domestic servants is growing as the number of AIDS orphans increases, the ILO said.

Many nations do not have compulsory education laws, giving little or no legal recourse to those individuals and nongovernmental organizations willing to battle for greater access to education, a key to development, smaller family size, better health and other social benefits. Low status of women makes girls especially vulnerable to exploitation.

Asking children who do go to school to survey those who don't is more than a novelty. At best, it could lead at least some young people from privileged families in poor countries to confront the reality of life for many of their disadvantages peers. In rapidly developing countries in particular, gaps between rich and poor are widening, as new technologies fostered by globalizing economies leave many rural people and those who live in mushrooming urban slums far behind.

As teachers have discovered in U.S. classrooms, children can take causes to heart with great enthusiasm. Too bad U.S. children can't join the UNICEF survey, launched last week in Africa. A firsthand experience like this would leave them with indelible impressions that could some day grow into more substantial American support for foreign aid.

UNICEF's child-to-child survey is beginning in Ethiopia, but will also be carried out in Kenya, Malawi, Chad, Zambia and Sudan. There are plans for similar surveys in Asia later, UNICEF says.

The ILO's new report, Helping Hands or Shackled Lives, attempts to document the incidence of children in domestic work, which often amounts to barely disguised slavery. In countries such as Brazil, India and Kenya, a surplus of poor children, many the offspring of adult domestic workers, are "employed" in all manner of household chores.

In India, there is the added burden of caste, under which millions of children are born into the lowliest and most degrading of occupations, and have no hope of escaping this cruel predestination without some schooling.

Many of the millions of children in domestic labor are very young. In Haiti, the ILO found, 10 percent of child laborers were under 10 years of age. In Morocco, 70 percent of children working outside their own homes were under 12. In capital cities like Jakarta, Dhaka and Lima, juvenile domestic servants number in the hundreds of thousands.

These figures add up to big proportions of the next generation who will enter adulthood badly equipped to find work as developing industries and agriculture become more technologically advanced. Even call centers, that new Third World income-earner, require a high level of literacy and numeracy at the very least.

It bears to be repeated that if terrorism breeds among idle young people, most of them in the poorest countries, the hope of more stable societies is pretty bleak.

The ILO report also points to the almost inevitable abuse of children in domestic labor. A young child forced, for example, into cleaning bathrooms or doing kitchen work always faces health risks or injury. The report found that some children are working with dangerous chemicals or heavy machinery.

The sexual abuse of servant girls is also frequent in a setting where, young and alone, they cannot defend themselves and are in danger of severe punishment if they report mistreatment.

Domestic work, some Third World employers will argue, saves untold numbers of destitute children from breaking rocks, weaving carpets or hand-rolling cigarettes. In not a few cases, the child does have a better life, and certainly better food, in domestic work.

But whatever the circumstances, these children trapped in low-paid or unpaid labor are still robbed of schooling and, for that matter, of childhood. There is no time to play and little chance to be outdoors, normal childhood pastimes. Bed may be a corner of the floor in the servants' quarters.

The farming out of poor children from large families into domestic labor, including as nannies or kitchen help, was common in Europe and the United States a century or more ago, though often these children were older and had some basic education.

Like so many other social conditions in poor nations with bulging populations today, the stage of development mirrors earlier periods in the industrial nations, which have since passed and now enforce laws prohibiting the exploitation of children. Developing nations will have to take these steps also. Poverty cannot continue to be an excuse forever. It will never end if millions of children are denied their potential.

"Sadly, many countries don't see domestic child labor as a problem," the author of the ILO report, June Kane, told CBS News earlier this month.

Kane said in the CBS interview that she grew up in a poor family in the United Kingdom, and does not condemn parents for giving children small jobs to do at home. She recalled earning pocket money by sharpening pencils for her father, an artist. But what she is seeing in the developing world today is something entirely different.

She told of children forced to rise before dawn to light fires and prepare the house for the employer's family. Often, one of their jobs is to take the children to school. Kane called that "one of the saddest things."


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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see NationalJournal.com.

Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.