Brick kilns (factories) are scattered throughout the Kathmandu Valley (where we are), and widely throughout Nepal and India. Brick making is predominantly done by hand: from mixing the earth into a malleable consistency, to making each brick individually in a timber mould, to stacking bricks to dry, to carting them to and from the kilns.
Brick making tends to be seasonal work undertaken in the dry season by people who come from all over Nepal and India. We understand that many are paid in advance only to end up in debt; they then have to return to the same factory the following year to repay the debt and the cycle of poverty and indenture continues.
Family units come to work in the brick kilns. The playing around with the clay and moulds that starts as entertainment to keep children busy whilst parents work, ends up as child labour as children take on this piece-meal work too. The money they earn from is a valuable contribution to the family income. As a consequence of this and the itinerant nature of brick making many children are not enrolled in school.
The brick kilns are not conducive to a healthy life or for bringing up children. The pollution from the coal-fired kilns chokes the environment of the kiln as well the Kathmandu Valley with toxic fumes; a very poor and limited diet is eaten, and hygiene practices are generally poor. Ponds around the area are a danger point for young children – who are known to fall in and drown.
According to the World Health Organisation, the number of children suffering from rapid malnutrition is found to be increasing for lack of access to health services, balanced and complete diet as well as nutrient-rich food.
We work in close collaboration with the Urban Environment Management Society (UEMS) Nepal who provide many programs in the brick kilns to support and improve the lives of these transient workers and their families. Some of their main areas of focus are :
- Child welfare
- Encouraging children to go to school
- Improving ante-natal and maternal health
- Awareness raising around hygiene – particularly hand washing, teeth cleaning and using toilets, (rather than defecating in open fields)
- Reducing domestic violence and sexual abuse.
- Improving the general health of families and encouraging them to enrol with and visit the community health centres
- A vaccination program for children.
Dr. Ram K. Chandyo, a researcher from the Institute of Medicine in Kathmandu, who has been carrying out children’s health studies from Siddhi Memorial Hospital in Bhaktapur for 15 years says “… even under the best conditions, the poverty, malnutrition, cramped conditions, and pollution lead to sickly children …. It’s the children, who are suffering the most. (taken from Kiln Ground: Industry and Injury in Nepal Posted by Stephen Bailey × April 21, 2013)
Amongst of the first things we noticed about Nepal is the many, many children around, and that the family is very highly valued. It is quite normal for Nepali families to consist of five or more children and common to see men and women coo-ing at children who may or may not be part of their family.
Many children live in the brick kilns. It is impossible for us to know how welcome each new birth is in families where resources to care for them are scarce and living circumstances small, overcrowded and difficult. The conditions are extremely bad for their growth and development. We get the impression that family-planning, as a concept, is still a long way from being an accepted form of managing family sizes. Each new child faces ever-present and on-going health issues such as malnutrition, childhood diseases, constant runny noses, skin disease and poor dental health. The mother, too, is prone to poor health and malnutrition.
Like all issues within the brick kiln environment, each has a cause and effect and most are inter-related. We see relationships between family planning and education and malnutrition and childcare and family violence and indentured labour and occupational and domestics accidents and deaths and health and disease. It takes a long time with committed and informed leaders to plan and implement programs that will decrease the hazards and improve the lives of families who work here.
Most children in our programs are dirty, sickly and underfed. We learn from our co-workers at UEMS that children in the program start their day early and will have their first meal at around 2pm. This also applies to a baby who cried continuously despite all efforts of her older sister to settle her. She was hungry. Yet somehow, despite their very obvious lethargy because of hunger, the children enthusiastic and keen to engage in the program and show a remarkable capacity to concentrate.
Similar to projects that we run in Australia, UEMS, the host organization provided participants with snacks and a sweet drink.
Over the years I have been encouraging host organisations to replace nutrition-poor treats with food that will nourish and benefit participants. Mental and physical health is not well supported by a diet high in sugary, salty and fatty and nutrient-low foods. Changes in programs I run in Australia have included replacing chocolate biscuits and sweet cakes with fruit, nuts, cheese and biscuits and savoury muffins. At Chisholm Institute, where I teach, students learn about nurturing our participants’ wellbeing and health through providing foods that are nutritious and tasty. Nonetheless, I regularly hear arguments, particularly from students, that it more expensive to provide good food than cheap processed and fast food – this is an unsustainable myth.
Artists in Community International raised some questions regarding the food being provided at the Brick Kilns. We suggested to UEMS that a snack of beaten rice and milk, or a banana, would be a better choice for these children who are in need of proper food to nourish and sustain them rather than a sweet treat full of empty calories. Beaten rice is a dry rice flake, traditional Newari food. It was originally taken by workers to the fields for their lunch but is now widely eaten in Nepal. It is cheap, nutritious and filling.
In this discussion with UEMS, we suggested that the meal be provided at the start of the session, rather than at the end. These exchanges are one reason we really value our collaboration with UEMS. They are open to ideas and implement useful ones immediately. For example, we raised the issue of the food on the 2nd day of the project, by the 3rd day, the beaten rice and milk was served.
Before the meal, the message around hand washing was reinforced through clowning and mime, and then for real with soap and water. It takes quite a long time to get through 40 children hand washing from one bucket, nonetheless all the children patiently waited with food in front of them until every one was present and ready to eat together.
It was immediately obvious to all of us that the food was welcome. The milk was warm – fresh from one of the worker’s family cow – and smelt deliciously wholesome. You can see from the pictures that children made the most of every drop.
Anne and colleagues Subarna and Seetha serving the children beaten rice and fresh milk.
After eating there were no crying children; there was a lot more sustained energy and a brightness that comes from being fed.
Artists in Community International’s objectives are creativity, education and wellbeing. We received most of the funds for this project through the generous donations of many supporters through our crowd-sourcing campaign. We are looking for donors to contribute funds to sponsor future programs – are you in a position to help?