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Exposing child labour, one shoe at a time

I was one of nine young Australians who travelled to India with VGen, the youth movement of World Vision Australia, to learn about the challenges and strategies to tackle child labour. VGen is a youth advocacy movement that inspires, educates and empowers young Australians to be powerful advocates for change through political and community engagement on issues such as child labour and child and maternal health. The VGen India Immersion Experience was the first of its kind, designed to expose us to World Vision’s programmatic work and connect us with incredible young people advocating change within their communities.

As a member of VGen and a student of development studies I thought I had a pretty sound understanding of child labour. When living in extreme poverty it is understandable that children will sometimes need to work to supplement their family’s income in order to survive. Child work easily becomes child labour when the rights of the child are disregarded. In India, I found that line almost impossible to define. The eradication of child labour entails ensuring the family has sufficient income to survive without relying on its children, as well as community-wide understanding of child rights to ensure the child receives an education, has time to play and has access to basic services.

As I entered one community in northern India, we were greeted with song, flowers and a traditional Hindu blessing. We met a room full of children who had previously been part of the workforce as rag pickers, or in the textile industry. They shared with us their stories through comics they had drawn, showing the terrors of child labour and the uncertainty of living in slums or on the street, and the transformation that occurred when World Vision entered their communities. The comics ended with the joy of receiving an education and the newfound stability in their daily life.

These incredible young people, whose ages do not reflect their maturity, identify issues in their community and act to bring about change through conversations, art, photography and street performances. They have even taken the initiative to start a savings account to help children less fortunate than themselves. One particular child was identified as incredibly unwell and in desperate need of medical attention. The family could not afford to seek medical help, so the children’s club used its savings to pay for the child’s medical care. This was one of many stories we heard that day of incredible compassion and generosity, which highlights a system here in Australia we take for granted.

I left with my heart full of joy at what these children had achieved. As we exited the slum down one of the narrow paths, we were confronted by a pile of shoes – the exact shoes I had purchased two days earlier in a market in Delhi. As we approached the doorway, we saw a room full of shoes where a few men were working. Across the path was another door where a young boy, maybe 14 years old, operated a machine embossing the pattern onto the leather. And then it hit me – my shoes could have been made right here by this very boy.

I instantly wanted to throw up, cry, and hide in a dark room. I never got the chance to stop and talk to this boy, learn his name, how old he is, what his passions are … nothing. All I know is that he worked on shoes, possibly mine. The harsh reality of child labour had finally hit home. I truly understood the scope of the issue and how little I did to address it.

World Vision and the incredible young people of India are doing extraordinary work to tackle child labour in the field, but more can be done by people like you and me here at home. For every child World Vision helps, there are five people wanting a cheap pair of shoes. I learnt the importance of asking questions: How can these shoes be produced so cheaply? Was a child exploited for my footwear?

You and I can have an impact, by asking questions and demanding that no child be involved in the production of the goods we purchase. Let us use our consumer dollar to limit our contribution to child labour.

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