www.whyville.net Nov 13, 2006 Weekly Issue

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A Small Hand in Freedom

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"The International Labor Organization (ILO) has estimated that 250 million children between the ages of five and fourteen work in developing countries -- at least 120 million on a full time basis." Most of these children, 61%, work in Asia, while 32% work in Africa and 7% in Latin America. The majority of these children work in agriculture, either helping out their family or being forced to do it. They also work in trade and services, domestics, manufacturing, construction, as well as others. Some of these kids are just helping out their families or friends while others are trying to get a little more money. The ones left over, however, are working for a much darker cause.

It's called slavery. Even though it is outlawed by the United Nations, it is happening all around the world. People that have slaves keep them hidden, of course. This being so, it is hard to determine exactly how many people are slaves. It's estimated that 60 to 115 million children work in India alone. Fifteen million of these are not getting paid at all. They work in carpet, brick, and silk making, harvesting cocoa, cotton, and sugar cane, even the army, as well as many other areas. While many organizations are trying to stop this, it doesn't seem to have much of an effect. Children are still being forced to work.

Bonded labor all starts with money. If a family needs money, sometimes the only place they can get it is from a slave owner. The slave owner gives the family their money while taking one of the children in return. Often the money given to the family is not a large amount. Sometimes it can be as little as $15 dollars. The child is supposed to work off the debt, which they almost never can. The "employer" would make it so that if the child made a mistake while working, they would add ridiculous amounts of money onto the debt. Interest is also a problem, as well as "expenses" such as food or water for the child. The child thus is not able to work the debt off and is sentenced to working under horrible conditions. In some cases, people are born into slavery because the parent could not pay the debt fully. Even if the workers have paid off the loan, the owners would not just give them up. Often they don't even receive payment, or very, very small amounts.

They also have to work in some of the most horrid conditions. Children working to make carpets have to squat in front of looms for hours at a time, curving their backs. They work in little light which leaves them with eye damage. They also receive lung damage and susceptibility to arthritis as they grow older. As most slaves, they do not receive enough food, and thus have stunted growth and malnutrition. They get blisters on their hands. They have to work in places with extremely high or cold temperatures with no protection or air conditioning. Children working to make silk thread have to dip their hands into boiling water, burning their hands and causing blisters. They also have to breathe the fumes from machinery and "guide twisting threads that cut their fingers." Not only that but they also work with dead worms that can cause infections. Children harvesting sugar cane stand in the sun for nine hours a day, doing back breaking work by cutting the plants. They often receive cuts to their arms and legs, yet they are given no medical attention. If the children make mistakes in any line of work, they are often beaten or punished in others ways.

The mental effects of enslavement are also very damaging. Sometimes when they do not do adequate work or disobey, they are isolated and left alone for hours or days on end. They do not get to go to school. Even if there are other children at the "workplace", they often do not socialize very often or very well. They do not see their families, either. They are made to be docile and accept the fact that they are being enslaved or forced to work. The "masters" try to motivate the children by telling them that they are close to paying of the debt if only they keep working diligently, while in reality they will most likely never be able to leave. They are often not allowed to go outside and even if they are, not very far. They cannot run around and play like normal kids. Sometimes they are chained into place. Even if the children try to escape, the police apprehend them and give them back to the "masters".

Children are very useful to the people that employ or enslave them. They are most of the times easily made passive and do not rebel. Even if they do fight back, they are easier to oppose. They are also able to see better in poor lighted conditions. In carpet making, their small fingers are more nimble and can thus tie better knots. When used in combat, older soldiers would find it hard to shoot someone so young and hesitate. However, the child has been trained to shoot and kill. The children who are in the armies are often forced to be there. One child accounts that he was given a choice, "You can join the army or go to jail." Others were beaten, put in a small room with many others, and given little food until they agreed to be in the armies.

In India, where the most child laborers work, carpet making is one of the most well known industries that use children. In the past, many in the world did not know of what horrible things were going on. Even though it was (and is) almost commonplace, not even all Indians knew about it. After all, child slavery is about money, thus only families with a lot of money are aware of what horrible practices are occurring. However, all of it was brought to light when a young boy started speaking out and, most importantly, when he was shot and killed. This child was Iqbal Masih.

Iqbal was born in Pakistan in 1982. At the age of four, his father sold him to a slave owner for the equivalent of $12 US dollars. He worked more than 12 hours a day, often chained to his loom. He was not fed well and thus was extremely malnourished. He looked much younger than he really was. In 1992, at about 10 years of age, he escaped from his owner. He and some other children that had been forced into labor went with him. They attended a freedom day celebration hosted by the BLLF, or Bonded Labor Liberation Front. He gave a speech that told of his sufferings. He refused to go back to his master afterwards. By himself, he got hold of a BLLF lawyer that helped him and the other children receive freedom.

After being freed, he didn't go back home and live his life, never to be heard from again. He took a stand. He told of what life had been like as a forced carpet weaver. The speeches were moving, articulate, and powerful. Many people heard his words. He awakened many peoples' eyes to the atrocities of bonded child labor. He traveled, going to different places and making people see. He set many children free: up to 3,000. When he grew up, he wanted to be a lawyer so he could save children in the same conditions he was forced to live in. When he was in a school (founded by BLLF) he worked hard and practically absorbed what the teachers taught.

He insisted that there be a ban on rugs made in Pakistan, most of which were made with the small hands of children in bonded labor. Slowly his ideas and speeches took hold. In 1994, Iqbal won the Reebok Human Rights Youth in Action Award. In 2000, five years after his death, he won The World's Children's Prize for the Rights of the Child, an award also given to Anne Frank. In 1992, for the first time in many years, carpet exports dropped. They continued to fall in 1993 and 1994. More and more people were paying attention and refusing to buy rugs that were made in such horrible conditions. As people paid more attention, more children were freed. The carpet industry and slave owners, also known as the "carpet mafia" didn't appreciate this.

On April 16, 1995, Iqbal was shot while playing with a friend. While some claim it was a villager, "it is well known that he was silenced by the "carpet mafia"". His murderer(s) have never been captured. Even in death, Iqbal was not silenced. "International concern for the carpet weavers reached a peak in April 1995, when children's rights activist Iqbal Masih, a twelve-year-old ex-carpet weaver in Pakistan, was murdered." He might have been gone, but he wasn't forgotten. The people that had previously met him took up his cause, insisting that child labor and slavery be put to an end. One of the most note-worthy things that Iqbal inspires was the birth of Free the Children, a group of kids that spoke out against child slavery.

A good example of the way Iqbal touched the lives of people would be the kids of Broadmeadow Middle School. He came to their school while traveling in the United States. "I never knew about 'bonded labor' before. It makes me feel lucky to live in the United States." "I learned today that on the other side of the world there are kids like us but they don't live the same life we do. Parents sell them to mill owners who chain four year olds to looms." "I thought slavery was over! Today I was 'shocked' to hear that kids are chained to looms in Pakistan. I think more now about things I take for granted." Comments like these were made by many students that didn't know what horrors where going on in other parts of the world.

Other students voiced on how they wanted to help: "My job was to welcome Iqbal into the building I escorted him to the classroom and introduced him to the class. When he was telling his story, I could not believe that he was still alive after all the beatings he got from the factory owners. I am going to write a letter to the Prime Minister of Pakistan and to President Clinton. I think if enough adults and kids work on this slavery in Pakistan, I think we can stop it.," said Kevin Piccuito. "I feel now like it is my responsibility to make a difference. I feel like I want to do everything I can to help Iqbal and all the other carpet children. I was almost crying when he told us about being sold into slavery," confessed Amanda Loos.

All of the students, however, were moved by what the small boy in front of them had to say. "I felt really bad. He was so small because of lack of food . . . and I didn't eat everything last night at dinner," reflected Peter Coletti. "I think no one should have to live his story," said James Zeng. "I think they should end all slavery forever and ever.," said John Barrieau.

The students wrote letters to Senators and the President, as well as made posters. They called carpet stores and manufacturers, trying to make them aware of the situation. They told their family and friends what they had learned. Suddenly, the children were staying after and before school, working on making Iqbal known and helping his cause.

Iqbal Masih took a stand against child labor. When he spoke, he got people to listen. He got people to understand the plights of more than 100 million children. He incited governments to abolish slavery and bonded labor. He got people to buy less from any old carpet manufacturer that might be using child labor, and more from companies and brands with Rugmark logo, symbolizing that no one who had to work for less than minimum wage or was a child made that carpet. He was even able to free child workers. He made a reputation that would carry his hopes and dreams onward, even after death.

When he died, he was only 12 years old.


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