Interview | “First we need to understand the underlying factors that push children to the worst form of child labor,” Sudarshan Neupane, Head of Tdh Nepal Country Office

“Covid-19 aggravated the socio-economic distress in Nepal, which presented additional challenges in ensuring effective child protection, preventative, and response services for children and young people in need.”

Shrutika Raut

  • Read Time 9 min.

Terre des hommes (Tdh) is a leading Swiss children’s rights organization dedicated to child protection, improving children’s health, and crisis intervention worldwide. In Nepal, Tdh is implementing various activities focusing on issues such as tackling child labor, mother and child health, children and youth in migration, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) among others. Tdh has been working to bring change to the lives of the most vulnerable children in Nepal since 1985. Its child protection and health programs continue to benefit thousands of children, their families, and communities across the country. In 2021, Tdh reached 5.1 million children, their families, and community members globally. 

With more than 15 years of work experience in the field of development, Sudarshan Neupane has been working as a Head of Tdh Nepal Country Office. Nepal Live Today recently talked to him on a range of issues. 

What inspired you to work in the not-for-profit sector? 

Growing up in the rural village of Rasuwa, I had a deep interest in social activities and was always interested in supporting marginalized and vulnerable people. I started my career as a Social Mobilizer in the remote communities of Nuwakot in 2004. But it was only while studying for my Master’s in Social Work at St Xavier’s College in 2008 that I developed a very strong sense of commitment to work in the development sector. Besides, the degree I had in Development Studies from Melbourne University equipped me with professional skills to better design and implement projects to support vulnerable people in need. I am humbled to have had multiple opportunities to be directly involved in the development and humanitarian response works in Nepal and other developing countries. 

It is said protection risks such as migration, trafficking, child labor, sexual exploitation, and gender-based violence have increased due to the pandemic. What’s your observation? 

Broadly speaking, the impact of Covid-19 has gone much beyond health or economics. There are severe consequences on the behavioral, psychosocial, and cultural aspects. For instance, losing a source of livelihood for a family dependent on a small income has pushed them to send their kids to work in hazardous sectors. There is also a sharp rise in mental health concerns as it was equally fatal, and several organizations were forced to adopt mental health and psychosocial support to be part of the Covid response. It is also widely known that the impact of Covid-19 increased the rates of domestic violence globally.

“As an organization working at the global level on child protection, Tdh is part of several networks and discusses various strategies to contribute to the elimination of child labor in Nepal.” 

While the impact of the pandemic on protection risks is yet to be fully revealed, studies and consultations we had with several stakeholders have raised serious concerns about how children and youth have become more vulnerable to child labor, commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), and gender-based violence, domestic violence, and trafficking in Nepal. 

In our Covid-19 Response project, which is funded by JTIP under the US Department of State, Tdh is collaborating with the Rights Lab of Nottingham University to undertake an exploratory study. The researchers based in the UK and Nepal have finished consultations with key stakeholders and survivors of TIP from Jhapa and Ilam and are currently preparing a report. The findings of this study will reveal the recent trends of trafficking and the critical impact that Covid-19 has had on trafficking survivors (expected to be out by July). These findings will be very important for future programming and in influencing policies. 

What are Tdh’s approaches to strengthening the local child protection and health systems? 

Like I said, Covid-19 aggravated the socio-economic distress in Nepal, which presented additional challenges in ensuring effective child protection, preventative, and response services for children and young people in need, as resources were redirected to address the pandemic crises. In order to respond, besides having direct involvement to support children in exploitative environments, Tdh’s core approach is on system strengthening which has become much more relevant, especially in the transition of the country into federal structures. 

“Tdh is directly contributing to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals 3 and 6 and the targets set in the Nepal Health Sector Strategy.” 

Tdh assists local governments to form ward and municipal level child rights committees and helps enhance their capacity to make those structures functional. Through its ongoing projects, Tdh has trained local governments and CSOs in applying case management tools to deal with individual cases of children and young people at risk. As a result, many local government units are already dedicating resources to combat child labor and establishing mechanisms to promote child protection. 

Tdh is directly contributing to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals 3 and 6 and the targets set in the Nepal Health Sector Strategy. In Nepal, many newborns and mothers are still dying due to a lack of access to quality healthcare at birth. Tdh’s focus is to be embedded in the local health system, strengthen local partnerships, pursue sustainability, and then aim at scaling it up for systemic change. Health statistics showed less than 57 percent of health workers assigned to birthing centers have received Skilled Birth Attendant (SBA) training, among them less than 50 percent were found competent in the management of complications and newborn care services in Nepal. Tdh scaled the Simulation of Essential Skills in Obstetrical and Neonatal care (SIMESON) project to rural settings within Nepal. Under this project, Tdh and its partner conducted a simulation-based training methodology for rural govt trained birth attendants on obstetric and neonatal care following the principle of ‘low dose high frequency. 

The final evaluation of this project has shown remarkable positive changes to build the skills, knowledge, and capacity of govt health workers that contributed to saving the life of newborns at birth and we are currently looking for opportunities to scale it to other places. Tdh is very happy to see strong ownership from local municipalities who have invested in SIMESON and requested us to scale up. This highlights our approach of public system strengthening and local buy-in. 

Nepal aims to eliminate the worst form of child labor by next year. As a development professional extensively working on children’s issues, do you think it is possible to achieve that goal? 

While it is encouraging to hear such declarations from the government and I truly appreciate the efforts being made thus far, it is a bit too ambitious to assume that the elimination of the worst forms of child labor is likely within the given timeline. There is a lot to be done to clarify the policies, develop strong mechanisms to combat child labor at all levels of the government, and importantly develop clear measurable action points to be fully assured of such targets. 

What actually are the obstacles to eliminating the worst form of child labor in particular and child labor in general? 

First and foremost, we need to understand the underlying factors that push children to work in the worst form of child labor in our country’s context. Without having a proper analysis of the actual problem that triggers child labor and the worst forms of child labor, we cannot expect better policies and programs to tackle such deep-rooted problems. In fact, it is very difficult to track the informal sector where thousands of children are working in difficult and hazardous conditions. There are other obstacles such as the inconsistencies between various policy instruments, lack of clarity on the distinction between child labor and worst forms of child labor (which can be hugely varying as well), and ignorance of the private sectors about the legal frameworks, and lack of data and information. 

Gaps in strict enforcement of labor law and widespread apathy among the duty bearers on child labor have been additional obstacles. 

Children’s issue in migration is one of the less talked about issues in Nepal. What does Nepal lack in terms of local child protection mechanisms and counseling children on safe migration?

It is true that the unsafe migration of children is often less discussed and even ignored in several instances though it poses a very strong concern from the child protection point of view. The biggest barrier is that the child protection mechanism requires proper documentation and most vulnerable children often lack that. There is no proper tracking of migrant children and those who are abandoned by families. Local authorities often do not feel obliged to offer support to the children who have origins in other districts or come from different countries. Even after identifying migrant children who are at potential risks, there is still a gap when it comes to offering shelter homes and other support needed. While in theory, we should have a Child Rights Officer, only a handful of municipalities are in a position to recruit and run a proper child protection mechanism that can offer proper counseling support to children and their families on safe migration. 

Tdh set up the project on tackling child labor in Kathmandu in 2019. What are your findings? 

Yes, Tdh is very proud to have an ongoing collaboration with the Institute of Development Studies (IDS UK) and other consortium partners to implement the Child Labor Action Research Innovation Programme (CLARISSA) here in Nepal. CLARISSA follows very innovative approaches for tackling the drivers of the worst forms of child labor in Kathmandu. Based on the scoping and preliminary assessments conducted in Nepal in 2019 and 2020, the Adult Entertainment Sector (AES) has been chosen for carrying out the participatory action research works. So far, the project has already completed collecting life stories of 400 children who are engaged in the AES sector. At the moment, there are parallel action research groups, child advocacy groups, and thematic research groups happening in different neighborhoods of Kathmandu that are expected to not only reach the depth of the problem but also come up with actionable points to deal with the problem. 

How do Tdh’s activities complement the government’s goal of eliminating all forms of child labor? 

As an organization working at the global level on child protection, Tdh is part of several networks—Child Protection Working Group, Inter-Agency Task Group, Joining Forces Nepal Chapter, among others—and discusses various strategies to contribute to the elimination of child labor in Nepal. Tdh is collaborating with National Child Rights Commission (NCRC), UNICEF, ILO, and other partners for the joint advocacy on child labor issues.  Similarly, the evidence generated from innovative and participatory action research programs (like CLARISSA) is very handy and can be a very strong pillar of support if they are considered by the government for taking appropriate actions. We do have some projects that have a solid focus on the elimination of child labor.

“We believe that government and non-governmental partners have a role to play to bring about positive changes in the areas we work.” 

For instance, through Sakriya project where we collaborated with World Education and several other local partners, we contributed massively to building the capacity of 15 local civil society organizations and 45 municipalities to develop mechanisms to tackle child labor. Many municipalities have established proper mechanisms, developed guidelines and even started allocating proper resources to promote ‘Child Labor Free’ campaigns at the local level. Some municipalities have moved ahead and put a clause to renew the approval of only those factories/companies that ensure compliance with a child labor-friendly environment. 

How do Nepal’s NGOs benefit from Tdh’s presence? 

Our approach with partners and project target groups is to empower them, give tools and be transparent so as to enable them to maintain the project model, linkages and successes after the project ends. Tdh wants the partners and beneficiaries to continue on with utilizing established links, particularly with government health and protection services to mitigate or eliminate protection risks. Moreover, to take the successful aspects of the project and embed them into their practice. In short, Tdh wants to leave behind models of operation and best practice capacities that can be continued within and by local systems and institutions. 

Working in Nepal for over 3.5 decades, Tdh has contributed massively to building the capacity of our partners. Internally, we follow the Organizational Capacity Assessment Tool which has been proven effective to support the capacity building of local partners and improve their governance and internal structures. Tdh similarly offers technical backstopping to the partners on approaches (case management), innovative processes (ICT for development), action research (child-friendly participatory processes), and best practices in almost all of our projects. Recently, Tdh published the Case Management and Basic Helping Skills Training Resource Manual which has practical tips and summarizes different rounds of training provided on case management. 

We always encourage our partners to be part of the global, regional and national level networks and foster synergy among the actors to have better collaboration. 

How important is it to have joint initiatives from the government and non-government sectors to achieve social change and transformation? 

Tdh works alongside the government on strengthening the system they have in place. We are working with the selected municipalities of the Karnali province in developing sectoral policies and even piloted the use of ICT for better participation of citizens in the local governance process. 

We believe that government and non-governmental partners have a role to play to bring about positive changes in the areas we work. We also encourage private sector partnerships and engage private actors to be part of our innovative solutions (for example, Water Treatment Systems). This lays a strong foundation for sustaining key activities. As a country that is vulnerable to different types of disasters, which are only increasing due to the impacts of climate change, Tdh also emphasizes building the capacities of partners and local communities to be better prepared. One of our interventions (Blue schools in Bardiya) is engaging girls and boys to champion the environmental campaigns at schools and in their families and communities. Detailed report can be accessed here.