Child-centred approach reveals the dynamics driving child labour in Nepal’s AES

CLARISSA has a participatory and child-centred approach that supports children to gather evidence, analyse it themselves and generate solutions to the problems they identify. This blog explains the process behind the large scale life story collection in Nepal and how a deeply participatory process can be carried out at scale.

Between August 2020 and May 2021, 400 life stories were collected from children and young people (aged 8–25 years old) in the worst forms of child labour in Kathmandu, Nepal. Half of the stories were collected from children and young people working in venues related to Kathmandu’s Adult Entertainment Sector (AES) such as dance bars, spa/massage parlours and hostess bars. And half were from children and young people engaged in other types of work (e.g. street vending and domestic labour) within neighbourhoods related to the AES. Children shared their life stories of how they came to be involved in the worst forms of child labour and the conditions in which they were working.

The 400 life stories were then collectively analysed by 61 children and young people (aged 14–22) in a series of workshops using causal mapping – a method of analysis where critical ‘factors’ and their causes and consequences are identified. Each workshop culminated in a large map being created, known as a big system map. Using the maps, child participants identified dominant patterns and system dynamics across a large number of life stories (100 life stories per workshop). This enabled them to select core themes (or leverage points) for intervention in the ‘system’, which then formed the basis of Participatory Action Research groups based in Kathmandu, which began in January 2022.

Overview of the life story collection and collective analysis processes. Source: CLARISSA Nepal.

Pathways into the worst forms of child labour

Using collective analysis tools such as the big system map, child participants were able to identify key patterns that characterise children’s pathways into child labour and their experiences within and beyond working in the AES.

One of the most prevalent linkages the child participants recorded on the big system maps was between financial problems in the family and the child entering Kathmandu and/or beginning work there. During the workshops, child participants repeatedly noted the importance of a family’s finances in the life stories: ‘No children would work if their economic status was good’ (F16); ‘Children had to work because their families’ economic condition was weak’ (F17). 

Child participants identified that family health issues were connected to family financial problems. Family health issues could be both a cause and consequence of financial problems. For the children in the life stories, the outcomes were the same: the child either left school or came to Kathmandu and/or began work.

The consequences of continued cycles of ill health and financial problems are illustrated by 14-year-old Simran’s life story. Multiple health issues left her family indebted and meant Simran had to start earning a living when she was 12:

“Everyone at home is ill and my siblings are young, so I have to do all the work at home as well… Sometimes I think if my parents were a little rich, maybe I would also spend time enjoying and playing with my friends. If my parents were in good health, I would not have to work. I worry about my siblings’ future. There is so much to pay back, and my siblings need schooling.”

Child participants’ analysis also revealed how disruption at home could lead to financial problems and the child entering Kathmandu and/or beginning work. For example, parental addiction to alcohol could lead to both family violence and financial problems in the family. Family violence and disputes between parents were linked to the child being neglected, and with the child entering Kathmandu and/or beginning work.

Ramala’s life story, where she describes her difficult relationship with her stepfather, shows the effects of a disrupted home life. She describes her decision to leave her home district:

“My stepfather always hated me. He used to scold me and never loved me. He only loved his son. I didn’t want to live with them because of his behaviour.  I studied at stepfather’s up to seventh grade. My stepfather used to drink. I had to work a lot in my stepfather’s house. I used to wash dishes, clothes, clean the house and look after my younger brother. My parents were farmers and struggled a lot.  One day I ran away from [Eastern district of Nepal] and came to Kathmandu. I thought life would be easier in Kathmandu.”

Realities of the worst forms of child labour

The life stories reveal the range of abusive and exploitative practices that result from children engaging in child labour in the AES. Abuse and exploitation in the workplace by both customers and employers are widespread. For example, fourteen-year-old Simran who began working because illness amongst her family members left them indebted (see above), describes the abuse and harassment she experiences in her workplace:

“Sometimes, the owner yells and customers also say bad words, so it feels bad. I am comfortable to work with auntie, but when she is not around it feels uncomfortable to work with the owner. One time I felt really bad while washing the dishes, a drunkard came and asked me, ‘Do you want to go?’ [colloquial term for having sex].”

Simran works around eight hours per day and is paid only 1,500 rupees (US$15) per month (her salary of 2,500–3,000 rupees ($25-30) was reduced following the Covid-19 lockdown).  

In addition to the harassment experienced by customers, harassment and bullying are also perpetuated by employers and the life stories reveal how children are vulnerable to physical, mental and sexual abuse at work.

Ongoing cycles of action research

Issues such as the exploitation and abuse experienced in the workplace went on to become the focus of child-led Participatory Action Research groups. At the end of each workshop, the child participants were given time to reflect on the big system map and discuss the key connections and dynamics they observed. From seeing the system, the children and young people participating began to reflect on the issues that required change, and the factors or themes they felt were most important. As one child describes:

“The main issues are seen from the big system map and we realise how situations, events and experiences are similar across many lives… I can see many incidents in different people’s lives. By looking at the big map I can also understand the different backgrounds and experiences of people.” (F17)

Eight Participatory Action Research groups were formed based on the themes selected during the collective analysis workshopsincludingfinancial problems in families, alcohol addiction, family conflict and exploitation and abuse in the workplace. Each Action Research group is made up of 12–18 children and young people and includes participants who provided their life stories and/or were involved in collectively analysing the life stories. Children involved in the Action Research Groups will be supported to generate theories of change about interventions, plan and programme innovative solutions, test the solutions in real-time and evaluate them.

Engaging children who have experienced the worst forms of child labour in all stages of the analysis allowed their own rich experiences and views to inform the analysis. This way, the collective analysis became a robust foundation from which relevant, effective and sustainable solutions could be identified.

CLARISSA’s collection and analysis of life stories illustrates how a deeply participatory process can be carried out at scale and by children. It recognises that children are the experts of their own stories.

February 27, 2023
Elizabeth Hacker & Ranjana Sharma