Where after all do universal human rights begin? Taking a sociological approach to children’s work in India


“Where after all do universal human rights begin?” That was the question posed by Eleanor Roosevelt, the driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She continued:

In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.

Yet often research and discussion on and about rights have mainly focused on legal frameworks and settings, such as the functioning of the United Nations human rights treaty bodies, or the introduction of national legislation intended to increase (or indeed curb) the protection of human rights. Fundamental though these approaches are to understandings of rights and their implementation, they exclude other interpretations of rights, built out of everyday experiences of oppression and discrimination and the struggles for equality, recognition and justice in the “small places close to home”. Instead other disciplinary approaches have much to offer in expanding notions of rights and the processes through which they are claimed, adapted, contested or resisted.

Based on research from Young Lives, a longitudinal study of childhood poverty, I want to highlight how a sociological approach can facilitate a better understanding of the multiple interconnecting processes that may impede or facilitate the realisation of children’s rights. I will do so with reference to a case study on children’s work in India.[i]


Young Lives/Sarika Gulati

Children’s work in India

In India, large numbers of children work, particularly in agriculture, for a myriad of reasons including poverty, family ill-health and to support the costs of education. Increasing efforts have been made to stop children working, including the Right to Education Act (2009) making education compulsory to age 14, campaigns to include agricultural work as “hazardous child labour”, and initiatives to ban child labour. In May 2015, the Government of India Cabinet approved an amendment to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, banning employment of children below 14 in hazardous occupations (though children working in family enterprises and on farm lands after school and in the holidays are exempt). But how do children view their work?

Research from Young Lives in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana with 42 children aged 15-16 years in two rural communities found that children recognised both the difficulties caused by working and the importance of their work. Qualitative interviews and focus group discussions were conducted with children to explore their experiences of working and combining school and work, how they managed risk and what they perceived might be the dangers of stopping children from working. Children described numerous risks, including the physical harms to their bodies and the difficulties faced in combining school and work. One boy commented: “Our education will be spoiled… the children who go regularly to school score more marks than we do.”At the same time children raised concerns about what might happen if they were prohibited from working. One boy explained:

I cannot imagine a life without working. Work means everything to me. Unless I work, we cannot run our house. …. We need to buy food to run our home… and I have to work to raise money to buy all these [things].

However, work was seen not only as means of survival and earning money, but also an important part of supporting family members, a source of pride and a way of learning skills and/or enhancing marriage prospects for the future. As one girl described:

After they [girls and young women] get married and go [to live with their husband’s family], when there is more work then the work learned here will come in very useful, and if they go there without these skills, it would be very disadvantageous. So it is better to learn as they will be equipped for the future.

A sociological approach to children’s work

From a legal point of view, the reading of the situation would seem quite straightforward. Indeed, although children are not prohibited from working within the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), much of the literature on child labour cites only Article 32 (right to be protected from economic exploitation and harmful work) and insists that all child labour should be eliminated. In contrast, a small group of working children’s movements argue that children have the right to dignity at work. This seems to be closer to a sociological interpretation of children’s work.

Sociology focuses on the intersections and relationships between macro political and economic structures, institutions and policies and the micro-level of everyday life, as well as the power relationships between social groups and within societies. In this light, children’s work needs to be seen in the context of local understandings of childhood, expectations about children’s activities, and the contributions that children make to their families.

The assumption in advocacy and campaigning is often that children are ‘forced’ to work by their parents, but the picture is more complicated, and a number of factors, including poverty, gender, caste, ethnicity, parental ill-health, and concerns whether formal school qualifications will give children the skills they need to earn a living in the future, all intersect to explain why children in India work. National strategies often start with conceptions of vulnerability, which do not necessarily reflect the priorities of children’s everyday lives. Rights language risks being used to prescribe narrow legalistic solutions and does not engage with the structures and processes of poverty or the complex situations in which children live and so undermines the spirit and intention of the UNCRC.


Young Lives/Sarika Gulati

Instead, policies need to start with the realities of children’s lives and how these are shaped by the wider social and economic context. This requires taking a systemic approach, which tackles the underlying causes of why children often work (poverty, shocks and poor quality services) and recognizes children as social agents who have capabilities and responsibilities, who make essential contributions to their families. Banning children from working without building social protection systems risks further impoverishing families and violating other rights (such as undermining healthy development due to malnutrition, or loss of access to education and health services due to inability to pay the direct and/or indirect costs). An alternative approach is demonstrated by the Bolivian Code for Children and Adolescents (2014) which instead of banning children from working, has introduced legislation to protect children from hazardous work which undermines other rights to education, health and development while at the same time according children the right to work in decent conditions.


In conclusion, as the case study from India has shown, a sociological approach illuminates the structural processes that drive rights violations and emphasises the ways in which rights approaches can be narrowly applied or misapplied and so do not fit with children’s realities. Thinking sociologically about rights enables us to both engage with the broader structures, systems and processes that impact upon and interact with everyday life, while also developing locally relevant responses. Above all, greater attention needs to be paid to how children view their daily lives, for if rights do not have meaning in the social, economic and culture contexts in which children and adults are living, then as Eleanor Roosevelt described it, “they have little meaning anywhere”.


Dr. Kirrily Pells is a Lecturer in Childhood Studies, UCL Institute of Education, and Research Associate, Young Lives, University of Oxford.

[i] This blog draws on Morrow, V. and K. Pells (2012) ‘Integrating children’s human rights and child poverty debates: examples from Young Lives in Ethiopia and India’, Sociology 46(5): 906-920 and Morrow, V. and K. Pells (2016) ‘Sociological Approaches to Children’s Rights’ in M. Ruck, M. Peterson-Badali, and M. Freeman (Eds.) Handbook of Children’s Rights: Global and Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor and Francis.

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