Putting Working Kids Back in School in Jordan

By Hani Hazaimeh

This story originally appeared in The Jordan Times.

Three children in Jordan

PHOTO: Children train on computers at a rehabilitation centre for working children - Photo by Hani Hazaimeh

AMMAN - Bilal Nasser is not ashamed to talk about his experiences at the Jabal Zohour rehabilitation programme for children who have dropped out of school or about his time spent as a child selling chewing gum on the streets of Amman.

However, as he starts to recall his years in the education system his face suddenly turns dark.

“I was one of the top students in class but my teachers were always treating me badly,” the 13-year-old said. “At first my family had no idea that I quit school but later, when they found out, my father tried to send me back several times but I would always go back to work the next day.”

Fiddling with a nearby computer, the teen admitted that he was not happy about leaving school but, even after a year at the rehabilitation centre, expressed little interest in returning.

Nasser’s younger brother Mohammad, who has not attended school since the beginning of the current academic year, expressed the same sentiment.

“Who in this world does not love money?” the 10-year-old asked, explaining that he left school in order to help out his father, who owns and works on a pickup truck.

“School is good,” continued Mohammad, who claimed to have made JD5 each day selling tissues to pedestrians and drivers at traffic lights. “But money is even better because then I can buy what I want and I don’t have to ask my father for an allowance.”

Both Bilal and Mohammad were picked up by volunteers from the “Combating of Exploitive Child Labour through Education” (CECLE) programme and persuaded to join the charitable rehabilitation programme.

The US-funded JD4 million programme was the result of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed earlier this year between the Labour Ministry and CHF International, and is designed to address the worst forms of child labour.

Labour Ministry Secretary General Mazen Odeh acknowledged during an interview with The Jordan Times last week that there are violations to the Labour Law when it comes to working children, adding that the ministry is taking measures to improve the efficiency of its inspectors concerning the enforcement of Articles 73-77 of the Labour Law, which govern child labour.

“The ministry is cooperating with the Ministry of Social Development to address the problem of working children who sell at traffic lights within a time frame as part of a national effort to address child labour,” Odeh said, adding that an ad hoc committee was formed earlier and is currently studying this issue, with its recommendations expected to be out soon.

The two brothers are among 43 school-age dropouts currently at the rehabilitation centre, which teaches the children social skills and computer technology, as well as emphasises the importance of education as a means to a better future, according to Ahmad Abu Awwad, a teacher who volunteers at the centre.

“These children are victims of society but are entitled to an education,” said Abu Awwad, adding that most of the children in the programme come from impoverished households and are in desperate need of social assistance.

Another volunteer, Bothainah Khader, said that the programme also includes regular visits to the children’s homes in order to explain to their families the risks faced by children who leave school and start working at an early age.

Khader highlighted that a lack of parental supervision is partly to blame for an increasing number of school dropouts. Without the parents’ cooperation, the centre’s work would be much more difficult to carry out, she added.

“We don’t bring kids into the programme against their will,” Khader stressed. “After all, our goal is to make them feel relaxed and willing to continue on with the programme until we have succeeded in sending them back to school.”

Khader added that they also work closely with public schools on the importance of good treatment and creating a positive educational environment.

A recent CHF study, using a sample of some 405 working children, 303 families and 705 institutions employing children, showed that 55.8 per cent of children go to school regularly while 16.2 per cent have never received an education.

Moreover, a report compiled between 2006 and 2007 and issued recently by the Department of Statistics revealed that 90 per cent of working children are between the ages of 12 and 17. Most of them work in car repair, trade and agriculture.

According to national laws, education is obligatory for children aged six to 16, according to Hanan Thaher from the National Council for Family Affairs (NCFA). However, she added, this piece of legislation must be amended to clarify who is responsible for enforcing the law.

“If education at early stages is obligatory, then who is to be held accountable when a child drops out of school?” asked Thaher, pointing out that the NCFA is set to compile an analytical study on several child rights-related laws that must be amended.

Under its MoU with the Labour Ministry, CHF will train 150 labour inspectors in the skills needed to understand the health and safety risks facing working children, as well as ways to recognise hazards in the workplace.

CECLE is a four-year project that supports the elimination of exploitive child labour in the Kingdom through a variety of education alternatives.

The programme aims to withdraw 4,000 children from the workplace and send them back to school, as well as to prevent 4,000 others from becoming engaged in the worst forms of child labour.

Officials from the Ministry of Education were not available to respond to Nasser’s fears of bad treatment at his school. If he was ensured a more friendly environment, he said he has no problem to go back to his normal life.