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World conference seeks end to child labor

October 26, 1997
Web posted at: 3:12 p.m. EST (2012 GMT)

OSLO, Norway (CNN) -- In Southeast Asia, attractive daughters are a boon to many poverty-stricken families. They can be sold into prostitution rings, earning money for their relatives. Many die young from disease or abuse.

The news isn't much better in Kenya, where poor families send their young daughters to live with wealthy families in the capital. The children, put to work in those homes, are usually treated no better than slaves.

And in Colombia, many of the country's coal miners are children -- as are some diamond cutters in India and rug weavers in Turkey.

More than 250 million children around the world are forced to work in one form or another, and it's easy to find someone to blame -- families, multinational businesses, lax governments.

It's harder to find solutions that combat and eliminate the practice. Yet an international conference in Oslo this week seeks to do just that.

The 40-nation conference, sponsored by the Norwegian government in collaboration with the United Nations Children's Funds (UNICEF) and the International Labor Office, convenes on Monday. It is the latest in a series held amid mounting international concern for child welfare.

Child labor is most prevalent in developing countries.

In some of those countries, a few small-scale programs have been formed to keep children out of hard and demeaning labor.

Hundreds of thousands of children in Southeast Asia alone are forced to sell their bodies on the streets every day. But in Thailand, a few children who have escaped from the sex trade tell their tales of horror in programs designed to warn the poor families of Thailand's hill tribe villages.

"These girls usually come from broken families. They are the ideal prey for the agents. It's them or us," said Ladda Saikaew, the project coordinator of the Daughters Education Program. "If it is us, we provide them with an education, hoping they get the opportunities for healthier development."

In Kenya, where 11-year-old Christine works as a domestic servant, she visits a center set up by the International Labor Office in Sinaga for a few hours each day with the permission of her employers. The center helps her acquire new skills and gives her the potential for a better job.

And in Colombia, Javier, 13, is one of several former coal mine workers who now sells art he fashions from coal in his free time after school. The artwork sale is the idea of a community action group his parents joined to preserve his health and dignity.

But child welfare advocates argue that such partial solutions fail to hit at the heart of the problem.

"Many would argue (child labor) has to occur because families need to have their child bringing home that small amount of money. But the fact is that if those children were in school today they could contribute more to their families," said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy.

Consumers in developed countries have grown more aware of the widespread use of child labor and are pressuring manufacturers to clean up their act.

It is harder to generate that kind of pressure on people who sell children for sex, or families who see no alternative to putting their children to work.

Nevertheless, Bellamy says, "The message of the Oslo conference should be that the world can take on child labor, that (it) isn't something that has to be accepted."

The assault on child labor is making some progress. A few children no longer have to work. Some have won better working conditions. Others are getting help to improve their lives, or just being told that they have not been forgotten.

For so many millions more, however, there is no escape in sight from an early end to childhood.


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