Working children’s experiences and their right to health and well-being

Abstract: Freedom from labour and the duty to learn for the future in a separate and protected surrounding are main features characterising the modem concept of childhood, reflected in the CRC. Schools are, however, not available or not affordable for many children in the world, especially not beyond the few years of primary education. And labour laws prohibit employment of anybody under the age of 14 to 15 years, leaving many children in a blank space between school and work, childhood and adulthood. The aim of the study was to explore the life situation and experiences of selected urban, working adolescents, age 11 - 16 years in Vietnam, and to assess how the Rights of the Child could be recognised and respected to ensure them a better childhood. Data collection and analysis was done between 1998 and 2003. The research is based on the stories of three groups of working adolescents: domestic servants (13), shoe shiners (12), and sex workers (22) and a survey of the situation of adolescents (1547). With the three groups of working adolescents unstructured interviews were used, supplemented with life calendars, social networks and a questionnaire for the sex workers. With the random sample of adolescents in Hanoi an interview questionnaire was used. The interviews with the domestic servants were analysed using latent content analysis; for the shoe shiners and sex workers narrative structuring was used. The data from the questionnaires was analysed using descriptive and comparative statistics. The studies have shown that while Hanoi-based adolescents conformed well to the norm of modem childhood (living at home, going to school, being healthy and content), the working adolescents came from the provinces around Hanoi. They had dropped out of school during or shortly after finishing primary school, mainly for financial reasons and were working to help their parents. These adolescents presented themselves as able, conscientious and hardworking with the aim to earn money for the needs of the family. The exception was some of the young sex workers who had entered prostitution as a consequence of sexual abuse during childhood. The adolescents were healthy but for minor illness and small accidents, except for the sex workers who reported more illness due to violence and infections. The working adolescents were all aware of the risks their working life exposed them to and developed strategies to avoid risks as much as possible. For the girls their relationship with parents and employers was decisive for their feeling of security and ability to manage, while it did not affect the boys' self confidence and ability in the same way. The sex workers and shoe shiners were afraid the police would take them send them either home or to a re-education school, which would mean they could not fulfil their duties as children. The interviews have highlighted the need to shift the emphasis in child rights advocacy and programmes for working adolescents from prohibiting work and sending them to school, to respect for their need and choice to work. As social actors with abilities and maturity formed within their context they wanted acceptance and respect for their ambitions to earn an income. They need access to shelter, health care and education that is affordable and sensitive to their competencies, enabling them to earn the necessary income to pay for their basic needs. As vulnerable children they need registration identifying them as workers, rules regulating their working conditions and protection by the police and the adult society at large against violence and abuse.

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