The International Labor Organization says more than 200 million children in the world are being forced to work instead of going to school, many of them suffering the worst forms of exploitation. Child labor is one of the issues being addressed at a U.N. special session on the rights of children, which ends Friday.
The latest statistics gathered by labor organizations show that at least 180 million children, mostly in developing countries, are involved in hazardous work, in slavery and bonded labor, in sexual exploitation, or forcible recruitment into armed conflicts. At least 100 million of them have never had any form of schooling.
Tim Noonan, a representative of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, calls it a fundamental abuse of a child's human rights.
"And it is a fundamental abuse of their human rights throughout their lifetime, because the consequences of the worst forms of child labor means that children may spend their whole lives trying to recuperate from the effects of what has happened to them in their childhood," he said.
Mr. Noonan says child labor is also possibly the most significant barrier to social and economic development.
"Every industrialized country in the world started its path to industrialization by putting all their children into school," he said. "Universal education was not a consequence or a result of development. It was the gateway to development and a stepping-stone, which is absolutely necessary."
International conventions broadly subscribed to by the world's governments are committed to eradicating illiteracy and giving all children at least a primary school education. Kailash Satyarthi, an activist from India, says the problem is many governments, including his own, are breaking their promises, and violating their own laws against exploiting children.
"They have the constitutional provisions," he said. "They are signatories on international treaties and conventions. They have their own laws to eliminate child labor. But even then, they are trying to manipulate and escape from their own responsibilities to fulfill their own legal and constitutional requirements."
The theme of broken promises has run throughout the three-day special session in New York, with non-governmental advocacy groups for children accusing capitals of betraying their youngest citizens.
The children themselves, some 400 of them attending the special session, have been blunt and sharply critical of governments and political leaders. Their main message is that they are the primary losers in a world not of their making.