No life for a child: The grim reality of Nepal's child laborers

Story highlights

  • Though child labor is illegal in Nepal, an estimated 1.6 million aged between five and 17 work
  • About three-quarters of child laborers are under the age of 14, and most are girls
  • Many are employed in the carpet, brick and garment industries
  • The country hopes to eliminate the practice by 2020, but former child laborers are skeptical
To see her playing with her friends, Maya Lama seems much like any other child.
But until last year, the 12-year-old Nepalese girl led a very different existence, forced to work grueling 16-hour shifts in a carpet factory in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu.
Maya's ordeal began in 2011 when, as a 10 year old, she came to the city for a visit with her uncle. Little did she know he would force her into becoming one of the country's estimated 1.6 million child laborers, putting her to work in exchange for money to give her parents.
For the next year, instead of going to school, she said she was made to work from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. everyday, with barely any breaks.
Like Maya, Yangzee Sherpa from Taplejung in northeastern Nepal was also coerced to join the workforce at an early age. She said her grandfather brought her to the capital to work because the family needed money.
"My father was an alcoholic and my mother couldn't take care of me," said the 12 year old. "I don't know why they sent me to work while my two brothers went to school."
Nepal's underage workers
Though child labor is illegal in Nepal, an estimated 1.6 million children between the ages of five and 17 years are in the work force, according to the National Child Labor Report.
About three-quarters of them are under the age of 14, and most are girls.
Child workers are a frequent sight on Kathmandu's streets, whether cleaning dishes in local restaurants or making a living as conductors on the city's public transport.
Many are employed in the carpet, brick and garment industries, or in private homes as domestic workers.
Employers typically see the relationship as a mutually beneficial arrangement, providing the children accommodation and education, as well as a salary that supports their families, said Krishna Hari Pushkar, director general of Nepal's Department of Labor.
Though working as underage domestic help is defined as child labor, there is a mutual agreement between the children, their parents and the employers, Pushkar said, referring to it as "social adoption."
Rescued from forced labor
Thousands of children continue to work as breadwinners for their families. Maya and Yangzee are some of the lucky ones. They were rescued by Nepal Goodweave Foundation, a local non-governmental organization that works to eradicate child labor within the carpet industry.
Today, they live with more than 30 other children, all under 14, at the foundation's transit home in Kathmandu.
A regular day at this hostel-like facility is filled with children chattering, playing and attending classes. But when they sit and share their past, an eerie hush falls over the room.
While Nepal's Interim Constitution of 2007 guarantees the rights of children, and the country has signed major international conventions against child labor, enforcement is weak. Under its National Master Plan on Child Labor, the country has identified the worst forms of child labor -- bonded labor, domestic child labor and carpet weaving among them -- and aims to eliminate them by 2016. It hopes to eliminate all other forms of child labor by 2020.
In a recent address during World Day Against Child Labour, Hanaa Singer, country representative of the United Nations Children's Fund to Nepal, said that addressing the issue should be a priority. However, she said the country lacks the number of labor inspectors necessary to effectively monitor child labor practices in illegal factories, or in residential situations where children