Child labor activist stresses importance of education

On Wednesday night in Kohlberg’s Scheuer Room, documentary filmmaker, photographer, and human rights activist and educator, Robin Romano, spoke on “Global Child Labor and Poverty.” The event was sponsored by the William J. Cooper Foundation and Amnesty International. The lecture followed a screening of RomanoÕs film “Stolen Childhoods” on Tuesday night and after the lecture, Romano held a question and answer session. The question and answer session was followed by a coffeehouse, featuring Fair Trade products, at Paces.

Romano, who incorporated portions of his documentary in his lecture, offered a number of startling statistics on the condition of child labor today. According to Romano, one quarter of a billion children are laborers, suffering human rights violations despite years of rhetoric regarding the need to fight just such practices. Romano referenced eleven year old prostitutes dying of AIDS, hard laborers suffering sexual, verbal, and physical abuse, as well as exploited child workers growing extraordinarily lucrative crops such as coffee, tea, and chocolate. Regarding the UN’s Millennium Goals, which include goals to fight child labor and poverty, Romano was nonplussed, observing that not only were the goals themselves compromises but also very little had been achieved in seeing these goals accomplished.

Romano cited four major issues responsible for the modern nightmare of child labor: poverty, prejudice, policy, and profit. “Want and fear,” Romano observed, drive children into these desperate circumstances, while prejudice is responsible for inequality in education, particularly for girls. Romano cited policies by groups like the WTO as being responsible for creating more problems in the developing world, implementing “assistance” by creating more debt or simply failing to provide aid. Finally, profit drives the lucrative industries in which child laborers are employed while lower prices lead to even lower wages for workers around the globe.

To combat these problems, Romano sketched a history of the major conventions created to protect and defend children, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Minimum Age Convention, and the Worst Forms Convention (which is the only convention that the United States has ratified.) Labeling initiatives, however, like Rug Mark and Fair Trade, are more promising. Romano was especially hopeful for Fair Trade, a label designating that a given companyÕs products are produced by farmers working in “transparent and democratically run cooperatives” who make enough money to send their children to school. Romano encouraged students and anyone interested to be a responsible citizen and careful consumer, selecting Fair Trade options whenever possible.

The ultimate solution, however, that Romano advocated across the board: education. Romano lauded the efforts of nations to enforce education and ensure that children are given the opportunity to learn rather than be exploited. “For all of the UN’s Millennium Project Goals,” Romano observed, “Education is the silver bullet.”

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