Their World Their Eyes

Child labour Nepal (most uncool/Flickr)

by Sita Venkateswar

This research takes as its central focus an alternate methodology of research, using photo novella as a tool and a participatory process. Here, cameras are used to explore social reality, but the cameras are used by the subjects of the research, i.e. children employed in the carpet industry in Nepal, or employed as domestic workers within homes. The cameras have been used to document, and recount their ongoing, quotidian lives. By utilizing a research strategy that ensures the children’s own narration and vision of their everyday lives, I have, to a large extent, eliminated the errors and biases of an adult’s view of reality, as well as an “outsider’s” view of their situation.

Photo novella or “picture stories” has been used by documentary photographers (Ewald 1985, Hubbard 1991), and became an instrument in the hands of sociologists for assessing the needs of rural Chinese women (Wang and Burris 1994). This will be one of the few applications of such a method in anthropological research, especially as it pertains to research on children.

Central to Wang and Burris’(1994) use of photo novella, was its contribution to changes in consciousness, as a mode of empowerment education towards collective action by rural Chinese women. In their version of photo novella, it was not just the use of photography that brought about such an alteration, but in talking about the photographs as a part of group discussions, allowed the women to discover commonalities and differences in their views of the world. Known as the “photo elicitation technique” (Krebs 1975, Caldorola 1985, Niessen 1991, Rudge 1992), such a procedure has been a significant component of this project. It has been the basis for any discussion with the children, and is perceived as crucial for arriving at an understanding of the world as seen through the children’s eyes. If engaging in photo novella and the associated process of knowledge construction that is integral to it, can engender a more critical articulation of their world, this vision could be recruited towards a more informed policy on child labor which integrates within it a respect for children’s own agency within a larger workers’ rights and human rights agenda.

There is a wealth of information on child labor in Nepal, regularly compiled and updated by ILO, UNICEF, UNESCO and a pro-active NGO based in Kathmandu called Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Center (CWIN) (Sattaur 1993, ILO 1996a & b, CWIN1996,1998). They provide useful statistics, document the extent of the problem, and the interventions in the form of reform and rehabilitation efforts. Gailey (1999), offers a thoughtful overview, enriched by the work of Bernat (1999) and Levine (1999), that point to the incompatibility of most reform efforts with a more holistic view of children’s welfare during an era of capitalist restructuring. Gailey (ibid.) and Nieuwenhuys (1996) address the importance of a gendered analysis, which also includes a consideration of children’s agency, an insight largely missing in the volume of information churned out by governmental and non-governmental agencies. Recent modifications in the views on child labor, paralleled in the efforts of United Nations bodies, recognize the dilemmas of enforcing prohibitions in many developing countries when the alternatives are either begging on the streets or prostitution (Boukhari 1999, Berlau 1997, Meiklejohn 1996).

A consideration of children’s own agency by enlisting their perspective on their lives becomes significant when alongside of efforts to eradicate child labor there are objections from the would-be beneficiaries across the world, who claim they have a right to work in proper conditions. The emergence and increasing strength of ‘Nats’ from Ninos y Adolescentes Trabajadores, (Child and Teenage Workers), clamoring for their right to work, protesting the imposition of a legal minimum age for starting work and the boycott of goods made by them (Boukhari 1999), further underscores the complexity of the issue. ‘Nats’ was a movement that began in Peru during the 1970’s and spread to West Africa and India in the 1990’s, and is currently gaining ground in the other Asian countries (Boukhari 1999). These young workers want the UN “to make a distinction between exploitation of children and other forms of work which help their development” (ibid:37). This is an issue raised by Gailey (1999) as well, when she searches for distinctions between apprenticeship and child labor. She argues for a consideration of the outcome of a period of reduced pay, in distinguishing between exploitation on the one hand, and on-the-job education for the acquisition of greater skills and social authority.

Problems in the efforts to rehabilitate children taken out of carpet factories, and the lack of adequate support for the “Rugmark” initiative suggests another potential area where reform could be improved by input from those “acted upon.” The “no child labor” or “Rugmark” initiative reflects the public outcry in both the West and South Asia over child labor, signifying that children under the age of 14 have not been employed in weaving a hand-knotted carpet (Williamson 1995). But the reality of coping with the situation is at a different remove from the theoretical premise of social labeling, as pointed out by a small local NGO in Kathmandu. The Centre for Child Studies and Development is involved in adminstering one of the rehabilitation homes established by UNICEF to get child laborers out of the carpet factories and re-integrate them into the education system. The use of the “Rugmark” was problematic according to this NGO, because it did not generate enough support for the program even though it increased the price of carpets in the international market. Inadequate attention was given to the question of reintegrating the children into their families and too many new poor families were arriving, raising the number of children requiring help, before anything was complete for the old ones (Sherpa 1999).

Moreover, the truly international scale of the issue was exposed by a survey of carpet importers in one United States city. If the price of carpets from India rose by more than about 15%, the importers would simply stop buying them from that country (ILO 1996). Hence, it was crucial to take a regional view of the problem and include all the major producers in the international market, since abolishing child labor in one country could have the effect of simply transferring business to others that still employ it (ibid.:20). In this context, Hilowitz (1997), also draws attention to the requirement “for appropriate labor market legislation and oversight, the availability of educational and other options for working children, and awareness-raising about both the legislation and the problem of child labor among parents, employers, trade unions, and the public in the country or region involved” (pg.215). As an interesting but relevant aside, that further reinforces the economic complexity or the international crossovers of an issue like child labor, and one that has specific resonance for me as a current resident in New Zealand, is the fact that 95% of the wool arriving in Nepal and used in their carpet factories is imported from New Zealand.

This research has, therefore, addressed the issue of child labor by exploring the social reality of the children involved as workers. I have employed a research methodology that enlists the children’s own narration and vision of their quotidian lives. Thus, photo novella together with the photo elicitation technique can become in this context, a truly inter-subjective encounter that can generate an understanding of a world that has been constructed communally, “creat[ing] the circumstances in which new knowledge can take us by surprise” (MacDougall 1994, 1995).