Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Toys do not always come in a fancy gift wrap: Children of the World, Part A

Yesterday was the World Day Against Child Labor and I, like many, was dumbfounded by the statistics of UNICEF and the ILO: over 132 million children work worldwide in agriculture, the largest "employer" of children. Children work also in private households, factories, mines - the list, sadly, goes on.. And one could take the discussion a step further, only to discover more misery, only to realize how systematic the violations of such major conventions as the Convention of the Rights of Children (1990) or the ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (1999) are...

One of the worst forms of child labor, or shall I say, child exploitation, is occurring in Thailand today: Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing "for children". Children as young as four are taken to booting camps where they are trained -from dawn to dusk and beyond- to participate in "children boxing", a sport that scors high in popularity among many Thais. In fact, behind children boxing there is an entire industry of bookmakers, trainers and parents who collectively and conscientiously exploit children in order to make profit: yes, it is about children fighting for the pure enjoyment of adults and the money-making that comes along.

Even though it has been illegal since 1999, child boxing continues to date - causing acute physical and psychological violence to children, often hampering their physical and mental growth. The industry, however, remains undeterred partly because it is lucrative, partly because of the underlying cultural argument [that Muay Thai is part of the culture of Thailand] - which is true except that it needs not to violate human rights, let alone the rights of the most vulnerable, the children. The version of Muay Thai that is revived in the poor neighborhoods of Bangkok seems closer to a misappropriation of the cultural heritage of the country, rather than anything else.

It is my firm belief that cultures, and more so cultural traditions must be preserved for the people that cherish them as part of their heritage and for the rest of us, outsiders, to be able to observe and enjoy. However one must be alert to potential misappropriation of culture in the name of some obscene goal: it is easy for the culturally sensitive to be overtaken by some mélange of cultural righteousness and a dose of "cultural relativism" discourse. Muay Thai, as practiced today, looks less like a cultural tradition and more like a distorted version or an ill-twisted reflection of something "cultural".

Humbled as I am by my limited knowledge of Thai culture and practices, I have refrained from expressing an inflexible position, even if subtantial evidence has tempted me to do so. Hence in my post so far I have favored "likelihood" over "certainty" when making culturally-related statements. However if there is one thing I am certain of, then this is that the four year-olds appearing on the footage of both France 24 and TV5 Monde did not make a rational and conscientious decision to join the boxing camps, if they made any decision at all, simply because at the age of four one is not in a position to make such decisions. They were taken there. Hence I have grounds to doubt that the physical or psychological torment that children undergo is in any manner or shape acceptable to them. I am even concerned that they may not have the opportunity to express an opinion (about pretty much anything) because of punishment (or fear thereof).

Profit needs not "guide empires" only (to borrow a line from a famous Greek song). Profit needs not be found in modern, industrialized, free-market societies only. Profit can be found in poor, rural Thailand too. And so can voiceless, vulnerable and exploited children - only that news about children ought to surprise us, economics not.


The poignant video of France 24: Muay Thai: No child's play In English. Footage is graphic.

On Child Labor

En français: L'agriculture emploie 70 % de la main-d'oeuvre infantile

Στα ελληνικά: Το δικό σου σουβενίρ ποιο Κινεζάκι θα το φτιάξει;

1 comment:

dimitris said...

my dear - the big issue is the solution to the problem, because everyone knows it's there - but who would do something?

it's not only multinationals and governments. it's a multidimensional issue. it's societies, it's education, it's lots of things at once. and where's still money to be made, unfortunately it's more difficult to have any form of intervention.

it's surprising and hypocritical to see that a government could be punishing drug trafficking by death (again, ironically in a place where everyone flocks for full moon parties) and closes their eyes to child labour and prostitution. the rest of the world can do all sorts of demonstration and petitions etc, but if there is no will from the people themselves and their rulers to change this, it will only get worse i'ma afraid.

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