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Hope for Pakistan's child workers

A Karachi-based group bent on eradicating child labor is offering school lessons outside working hours.

KARACHI, Pakistan (Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting) — Sher Shah is a hard-working neighborhood — a confusing knot of cramped lanes offering up a riot of rattling power looms, puttering motors and booming furnaces. This rough suburb, with its garment factories, machine shops and scrap metal smelters far from the imposing cement skyscrapers of the city center, forms the industrial gut of Karachi.

It is where Nadeem Awan, a 16-year-old laborer, begins his day. He pulls up to an open storefront, parks his bike under a sky crowded with tangles of pirated electrical wires and faded political flags, and changes into his work clothes of a black T-shirt and jeans.

Nadeem has worked at this small machine shop, which produces tractor parts, for three years. Here he bends over a whirring lathe machine 10 hours a day, turning metal slugs into hundreds of bolts for domestic use as well as well as for export to Europe and the Gulf States.

The recent recipient of a raise, he now earns 60 rupees (75 U.S. cents) per day. This year he’s been joined at the shop by his brother, Naveed, who is 13.

And the Awan brothers are far from alone. Despite legislation outlawing the employment of children under 14, Pakistan is home to one of the largest populations of child laborers in the world. But just how many children are working remains a controversial number, especially as many of these kids are employed in informal sectors such as domestic work or agriculture.

“A government report says 3.3 million children are involved in child labor in Pakistan, of course that’s from 1996,” says Salam Dharejo, Regional Manager of SPARC, a Pakistani organization intent on eradicating child labor. “We think there are more than 10 million child laborers in Pakistan right now.”

For most of these underage laborers, getting a job — in most cases to provide for their families — means forgoing an education, but a small school in Sher Shah, the Children’s Development Center, is trying to change that.

“When we started the Development Center, we had a school in Sher Shah but we discovered that a lot of kids couldn’t attend it because they were working,” says Professor Anita Ghulam Ali, head of Sindh Education Foundation, the organization that runs the center. “And so we thought, ‘why don’t we start a proper center which is only for working children?’”

The Center provides a new model of education designed specifically for 130 working kids. Flexible classes held in shifts that begin early in the morning and run until late at night accommodate manufacturing schedules.

A de-emphasis on truancy means that children are encouraged to show up simply as often as they can, to learn to read, write, even study English and develop basic computer skills. Showers and changing facilities are available to students who spend hours a day in hot, grease-smeared workshops before coming to class.

In addition, the center reaches out to employers, arguing that it is in their interest to help educate their underage workers.