Child abuse has taken on many forms in recent times. From the sweat shops of most Asian countries where children labour under dreadful conditions to help manufacture sport shoes or designer jeans, to the harsh farmlands of Africa and South America where they toil under the merciless sun, child labour is often carried out in full view of the authorities. But one aspect denied to them is a forum to raise their young voices in protest. In many countries, they are pawns in the larger picture; objects that would justify the economic gains for those who wilfully exploit them and more often than not, against their wishes.
On the international stage, just about every country has set up laws on their books for the protection of this form of exploitation. In 1973, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the minimum age convention — C138. Accordingly, ‘child labour refers to any work performed by children under the age of 12, non-light work done by children aged 12-14 and hazardous work done by children aged 15-17’.
In 1990, the United Nations established the Convention on the Rights of the Child which was adopted by almost 200 countries. It goes on to state that, “Parties recognise the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.”
While child labour was prevalent in most parts of the western world until the earlier part of the last century, today. it is still prevalent in developing countries, faced with high poverty and non-existent education opportunities.
It is also unfortunate to notice that such forms of abuse go on even in our country. In the heat of the afternoon sun, it is not unusual to see an Asian lady carrying an infant in her arms as she scampers warily and treads her way through busy traffic, knocking on vehicle windows for her daily pittance; or an African child, barely beyond his toddler years, hanging on to a car window and pleading for your generosity. It could also be a little Afghani or Somali girl, barely more than three feet tall and hardly visible over the grill of your vehicle, who taps on your car window insisting you purchase some chewing gum.
This has become a growing seasonal epidemic in the city and from all counts does not seem to be slowing down. Adults subjecting themselves to dodgy drivers while they seek alms are one thing. But to subject these children to a great deal of harm in errant traffic is a criminal violation of their young rights.
Seated in the comforts of one’s car, it would not be difficult to not notice these toddler-age children because of their size and possibly run them over. It compromises their safety and well-being and thrown against the forces of a merciless sun and the high degree of heat, it is certainly cruel. Just why are the authorities allowing such kind of child abuse?
While we may be good Samaritans, the constant pestering and tugging at our giving nature has hardened many a soul. And faced with the innocent stares of a one or two-year old, I occasionally rebuke myself for not giving in to their pleas. But where do we stop? They are everywhere now. Weaving about at traffic signals, accosting patrons outside supermarkets and restaurants and even camping out at the front gates of many homes, they have become a force to be reckoned with.
There have been many published stories of some very wealthy beggars with trunks full of money and that has certainly not gone unnoticed among most of us. Some Saudi nationals now resort to new and unique ways to snare a potential victim into giving them some funds with a sob story of needing medication or a tank of gas to get back to their village. Or else go about pleading for alms, carrying a paper with some hospital stationary scrawled with unintelligible writing. In most cases, an infant or a young child is tucked under their arm.
If I can notice these beggars daily on our streets shouldering a toddler while they plead for our charity, so could the relevant authorities. They should all be rounded up, for their own safety and security. These panhandlers should not be allowed to use the little children in a manner that deprive them of their childhood and can be potentially dangerous. All children should be able to enjoy their childhood and have a right to education. Forced labour and abuse must not be a part of their growing up.
The Saudi Kingdom is party to numerous international agreements and charters that promote human rights. The authorities must enforce the laws that prevent these children from toiling and suffering any longer, misused and mistreated in the heat of an unrelenting summer. Most of these young ones have not yet developed the vocabulary to protest.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.