PATAN, Nepal - Krishna Bhujal is a scrawny 13-year-old boy with spirited eyes and a heartwarming smile. His work day begins at 7 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m., with only a two-hour afternoon break. Krishna's job consists of the most menial of chores: cleaning the restaurant, hauling water, and washing dishes. He is employed as a kitchen aid at Adhikari Fast Food, a hole-in-the-wall behind the corner from Patan Dhoka, an unexceptional gate in the city of Patan, south of Nepal's capital Kathmandu.
At lunch-time, as weathered-looking laborers pour in for a quick plate of daal bhaat, Nepal's staple dish of rice, lentils and curried cauliflowers and potatoes, Krishna sits at one of only two makeshift tables in the restaurant. He scribbles on a white plastic board the word "turtle," copying it down repeatedly from an improvised textbook. Krishna, who is illiterate, is using his afternoon break from work to learn how to read and write.
Krishna is from Sidhupalchock, a village about 40 miles from Kathmandu. He was sent by his family, about a year ago, to work as a kitchen aid for the Adhikaris, who were fellow villagers. Krishna's two older brothers, now 21 and 17, are also in the city, but nobody knows where. Back at his village -- that Krishna no longer visits because the trip is too long and expensive -- only his father remains; his mother is dead.
Shobha Budhathoki, a middle-class Nepali woman who works for a small NGO called the Center to Assist and Protect Child's Rights (CAP-CRON), monitors Krishna's education and well-being. In Nepal, there are many organizations like CAP-CRON trying to help child laborers. But they face daunting challenges: Nepal's extreme poverty, particularly in remote areas; high unemployment rates; low levels of education; and ineffective enforcement of the weak legal framework that exists to protect children.
Krishna's story is not an exception, but rather a bleak reality in poverty-stricken Nepal. According to the latest reliable figures, produced by the International Labor Organization several years ago, there are about 2.6 million children under the age of 14 working in Nepal. They are employed, and exploited, in a variety of sectors: they work as cooks or dishwashers in restaurants, as domestic help in private homes, and as rag pickers. And those are the lucky ones. Many others are either drawn into the illicit sex industry as soon as they set foot in Kathmandu, or end up homeless and purposeless, sniffing glue out of plastic bags on the side of the street.
Technically, Nepalese law already makes it illegal to hire anyone under the age of 14. But in what is one of the poorest countries in the world, the reality on the ground differs widely from what is in the books.
"The bottom line is our political, social and economic instability results in poverty and illiteracy," said Dharma Raj Shresta, head of the Central Child Welfare Board of Nepal, a government agency set up in 1992 by the Child's Act, which mandates the Welfare Board develop a plan of action for the country's struggling youth. The problem starts with the parents themselves, who, according to Mr. Shresta, often see their own children as little more than extra labor that must help feed the many mouths in the family.
Even accurate statistics are hard to come by and the government seems to have relatively little grasp of what's occurring. "If I could ask for anything, ideally I would want 400,000 rupees [a little less than $5,500 USD] per district [Nepal is divided in 75 administrative districts], plus one officer and one assistant, one computer and one motorcycle. Then we could collect data bottom up and finally understand local realities," said Mr. Shresta.
For those who already operate in the field, the conditions of working children in Nepal are dreadful and solutions difficult to come by. "It is impossible to eliminate child labor from Nepal immediately," said Bal Krishna Mainali, a lawyer, child's rights activist, and former street child himself. And even if it were possible, warns Mainali, CAP-CRON's, this could end up being an even worse tragedy for Nepal's working children. "If we follow the letter of the law, millions of employers would have to be punished, but this would end up impacting working children the worst," Mainali said. The loss of even a meager, and exploitative job, could turn 3 million Nepali kids like 13 year-old Krishna Bhujal into street children, with predictably destructive consequences on the country's already fragile social compact.
As a result, Mainali's CAP-CRON, which works with about 50 children, has thought it worthwhile to cater to child laborers with tailored social services, without reporting their employers to the authorities and antagonizing them. For example, CAP-CRON takes into consideration the children's demanding work schedule, and visits them as regularly as possible on the workplace. Children are then taught how to read and write and given basic instructions on personal hygiene and healthcare.
For those just slightly older, CAP-CRON also provides vocational training, so that maybe, one day, these children will be able to move on to better jobs. "The children we work with don't have much hope at all," Mainall said. "All they hope for is a promotion within their profession. For example, the helper of a driver dreams to be a driver one day, whereas a child working as home help hopes to become self-reliant by training to be a tailor or a beautician. Similarly, those working in a hotel are normally interested in becoming cooks."
Shobha Budhathoki, also of CAP-CRON, is in charge of Krishna Bhujal of Adhikari Fast Food. She visits him regularly with the white plastic board and a basic reading and writing manual that she herself put together. Alongside academics, Budathoki also tries to impart some basic hygiene guidelines. Krishna says he enjoys studying, but confesses that he really dislikes washing his clothes. The thing he likes the most? "I like to play," said Krishna, who doesn't get to do it that much.
While he practices writing the word "turtle," his three "adoptive" siblings -- the Adhikaris' children -- surround him with curiosity. To introduce themselves, they write down on the white plastic board their names, Swobika, Sachin and Swastika, in perfect calligraphy. Unlike Krishna, they all go to school regularly. But Krishna, with his prompt smile, doesn't seem exceptionally bothered. He is probably aware of what the alternative to working for the Adhikaris would be for him. And in fact, when asked about hopes for his future, Krishna says all he wants to do is work and, maybe, one day to be able to open his own restaurant.