I’m sitting on my mattress writing an essay about child laborers. Three feet in front of me, a child laborer colors on a piece of paper. The coloring is probably little Alisha’s1 best intellectual stimulation in days.
To my left, Sanjiv is hammering away at Peregrine’s purse, fixing a strap that’s been broken for months. He fixed the zipper on my laptop cover before that. In both instances we didn’t ask him to do it, but he’s in our room a lot and just noticed things that needed fixing. On another day Senna, their older sister, had helped teach Peregrine how to use the manual sewing machine.
Sanjiv and Senna stay home all day making purses with their parents.2 Neither has ever gone to school. We’re taking advantage of the job skills of child laborers.
Is it a bad thing that we let him fix our things today, getting an advantage from skills that he picked up while he could have been in school learning to read? Or is it a good thing because we’re giving him a chance to feel important and serve us in some way, making our relationship more even? Should we pay him for what he’s doing? Or is it better to keep a give-and-take as part of our friendship, where we share our food and buy him notebooks and pencils to draw and color with, and he fixes our zippers and purse straps?
These are the questions we ask ourselves. I can buy breakfast from Samir’s 15-year-old daughter Shumaiya and her 13-year-old cousin Tabassum as they roll out pooris for their dad. Dinner could come from a teenager I see who works all day to prepare fish for her mom’s restaurant. I pass doors where young boys who should be in elementary school are weaving rugs and shaping sandals. Nearly every corner store will be manned by a preteen for at least part of the day. The garbage on the streets will be picked up by kids as young as three, to later be sorted for recyclables by kids of every age. And professional beggars at the intersection start almost from birth, as infants are loaned to begging women to elicit sympathy until the kids are old enough to walk around and pull on shirts with pleading eyes.
Figuring out appropriate responses to child labor are some of the “big” questions we find ourselves dealing with here. Whether to give to a begging child, whether to buy clothes made by a 12-year-old, what to say to parents who are barely surviving even with the help of their working children. Child labor (with the tied-in issue of education) is becoming a situation that I’m considering putting at the center of my life here.
And I can’t say that I have the answers.
 Names changed out of respect for privacy
 postscript: A few months after we moved in, Senna and Sanjiv’s family began allowing them to attend school for the first time in their life. We were excited for them and like to think we might have had something to do with it. Halfway through the school year, while the family was visiting their home village, their landlord affixed a padlock to the door due to underpaid rents that had been building up for years, and later sold all of their belongings and rented out the room to someone else. We never saw them again. .