Trick or Treat? The True Cost of Chocolate

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Daniel Rosenthal/laif/Redux Image source

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While my son is getting ready to head out tonight to harvest Halloween candy, excited by the chance to lug a pillowcase full of chocolate bars around the neighborhood,I’ve been thinking about the children who harvest the cocoa that goes into the chocolate in his bag.

Because while he finds an evening of hauling candy a treat, I know that for the millions of kids his age working in the cocoa industry it’s anything but fun.

Research funded by the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that more than 2 million children are performing hazardous work in the cocoa industry in the West African countries of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, which account for about 58% of the world’s cocoa production.

The cocoa industry in these countries relies heavily on work performed by children, some as young as 5 years old, including WFCL (shorthand for the “worst forms of child labor” as defined by international law).

The work is dangerous, and it’s especially hard on children’s bodies.

“Working on cocoa farms can be hazardous, particularly for children, whose physical, mental, and psychological capacities are still developing. Children working in cocoa may work long hours, carry heavy loads, and use dangerous tools. Children may also be involved in spraying cocoa trees with pesticides or burning fields to clear them.”

A Tulane University report, commissioned as part of the accountability framework for the 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol that was meant to end abuses in the industry, lays out the issue:

“Fifteen years ago, the West African cocoa sector came under increased scrutiny after media reports revealed incidences of child trafficking and other labor abuses in cocoa farming. On September 19, 2001, representatives of the international cocoa/chocolate industry signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol. Signing this agreement as witnesses were U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and U.S. Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Government of Côte d’Ivoire, the ILO, and representatives of civil society. Based on ILO Convention 182, the Protocol’s principal goal was “to eliminate the worst forms of child labor (WCFL) in the cocoa sectors of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.”

Remarkably, child labor in the cocoa industry has continued to proliferate despite the signing of the Harkin-Engel Protocol in 2001. In 2008, DOL estimated that 1.75 million children were working in West African cocoa production. By 2013-14, that number had risen to 2.26 million children, including 2.03 million children found to be performing hazardous work in cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

The Tulane University study of the sector released in July 2015 found the following:

  • Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s leading cocoa producer, experienced large growth in cocoa production from 2008-09 to 2013-14.
  • Total output rose by over half a million tons, or over 40%.
  • The population of children 5-17 years living in agricultural households in Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa-growing regions grew by about 180,000, or 5%.
  • The numbers of children working in cocoa production, doing child labor in cocoa production, and doing hazardous work in cocoa production grew by 59%, 48%, and 46% respectively.

What’s driving the growth?

In short, it’s us and our demand for cheap chocolate. The problem, of course, is that it’s not easy to harvest cocoa. It’s heavy, dangerous, delicate work. Fields must be cleared, planted, and tended. When the cocoa pods are ready, they must be harvested by hand, split open, and the seeds removed for drying. It’s time-consuming, labor-intensive work.

That kind of labor should come at a significant cost. But as with so many commodities, the prices are kept low by squeezing labor out of workers who are largely invisible to consumers through a complicated supply chain structure. Consumer-facing companies are driven by the competing demands of delivering rock bottom prices and sky-high profits. Those with massive buying power – like Mars, Hershey’s, and Nestlė – are able to bid down the prices of commodities like cocoa with their suppliers, who make up for low prices by paying less – or sometimes nothing at all – for the work.

Supply chain dynamics are of growing concern in the anti-trafficking movement. The seriousness of the global supply chain’s impact on workers was highlighted in the State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, and 2010 legislation in California, the Transparency in Supply Chains Act, now requires certain companies to report their specific actions to eradicate slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains.

We see the effect of this kind of price pressure on wages here in the United States. Retail cleaners in Minnesota, for example, have been squeezed by the low contracts bid by stores which result in wages as low as $4 per hour. Workers organized by CTUL have set a November 10 strike deadline for contracted cleaners. Farmworkers in Florida’s tomato fields, facing the same structural barrier to fair earnings, used pressure on major retailers to increase the per/pound rate for tomatoes by $.01, resulting in a substantial step toward a fair wage.

But the kids harvesting cocoa don’t have that option. Sometimes sold for the equivalent of $30, sometimes kidnapped, they don’t have the power to stage a boycott.

That’s why earlier this fall a lawsuit alleging the use of the worst forms of child labor in the production of Nestlé, Hershey’s, and Mars chocolate products was filed by consumers in California. It’s not the first time that the companies have faced litigation over their labor practices, but this class action is the latest effort to pressure the chocolate industry to fix a problem it has known about for more than a decade.

Forced labor yields approximately $50 billion in profits annually according to estimates by the International Labour Organization. Included are profits derived from what are considered the worst forms of child labor, or WFCL, such as that used in the cocoa industry.

There are bright spots: While the number of children in West Africa’s cocoa production increased in the past five years, Ghana actually managed to reduce, albeit slightly, its numbers during that period.

So what will I do this Halloween? I’m not entirely sure. But I know I’ll start with a conversation.  To end this problem of child labor in the cocoa industry, more consumers need to know about the true cost of the chocolate they are buying.

By Michele Garnett MacKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ Director of Advocacy

More Resources to Learn about Child Labor in the Cocoa Industry:

The Dark Side of Chocolate – 2010 documentary by Miki Mistrati & U. Roberto Romano. In 2012, they produced a follow-up film called Shady Chocolate. The Shady Chocolate website includes an interactive cacao map and information how to write letters to the industry via the International Cacao Initiative.

Slave Free Chocolate has a list of ethical chocolate companiesFood Empowerment Project’s Chocolate List is also available as a free smartphone app.

End the inhumane detention of refugee women and children

Child from HondurasDuring National Week of Action, open your eyes to U.S. horrors

As families across Minnesota prepare for the delights and frights of Halloween, a separate, hidden, and chilling reality exists in Texas, where more than 2,000 immigrant mothers and children are in for-profit detention facilities because they dared to flee to America to escape the horrific gang and domestic violence plaguing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

The children in these facilities aren’t deciding whether they want to be Sofia the First or Captain America for Halloween. They are wondering whether they will be in jail for another week or forever.

This does not need to be their reality for much longer. In a class action lawsuit filed earlier this year, California Federal Court Judge Dolly Gee ordered family detention to end. This lawsuit was filed and succeeded because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had failed to provide basic human necessities, such as adequate food, drinking water, medical care, and appropriate facilities to immigrant children in detention.

Judge Gee’s order states that: 1) children can no longer be held in unlicensed facilities and must be given access to adequate food, drinking water, and proper medical care, and importantly, 2) since ICE has been holding immigrant children in sub-standard conditions since June 2014, all immigrant children―with their mothers―must be released from detention and the lock-up facilities must be shut down by October 23, 2015.

It is shocking that the simple proposition that innocent children do not belong in jail has resulted in such a pitched battle in federal court, but it has. Furthermore, there are signs that the government has the appetite for further litigation, as the Department of Homeland Security has stated that it intends to appeal Judge Gee’s decision.

This week is National Week of Action to #EndFamilyDetention, designed to call attention to the human rights abuses the U.S. government is inflicting upon children and their mothers. Events like the one held yesterday at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis—grown from grass roots efforts of local attorneys and advocates―are being held in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, San Antonio, and throughout the country.

Local immigration attorneys have visited these family detention facilities to provide desperately needed legal representation to mothers and their children who are young and scared. Most of the mothers have experienced sexual violence, extortion, and death threats. They have seen their family members murdered before their eyes. A significant number of the children have the same sad history. About 90 percent of the families have been found to have a credible fear of returning to their country, the first step in qualifying for asylum in the United States.

The Advocates for Human Rights, a non-profit based in Minneapolis, has launched the National Asylum Help Line to connect Central American families released from detention and seeking asylum with free immigration legal services near them so they can have a fair day in court and a chance to live in safety.

Asylum seekers should be treated like human beings when they come to our country, and until recently, they often were. Before June 2014, these mothers and children most likely would have been identified and then immediately released to family in the United States. They would have received a court date to appear in immigration court to present their case for asylum. Many would have hired an immigration attorney or found a nonprofit organization to represent them in their cases. Orderly, painless, inexpensive.

By contrast, we now have a system that increases the pain all around. Mothers and children are detained indefinitely in a remote location where legal access is barely available and family visitation virtually impossible. Families are jailed in for-profit detention facilities that value profits over providing a basic level of care to children. And all of this costs taxpayers millions upon millions of dollars.

It is beyond inhumane, beyond ridiculous. It is an outrage.

As immigration attorneys, we believe and know that refugees, including the youngest and most vulnerable, have the right to seek asylum, a right that is protected under international law as well as United States laws. But how do we treat these refugees in America, the land of the free? We jail them.

To those who would argue that these women and children are breaking the law by “entering illegally,” it is important to understand that these individuals are presenting themselves to border patrol and claiming a fear of return—as they have the legal right to do―because they are afraid they will be killed if they go home. This most basic of human rights ensures that those who flee persecution have a chance to be heard before being deported to torture or death. By violating our internal and international obligations to process the cases of these asylum seekers in a humane and orderly fashion, we are the ones who are the true lawbreakers.

We hope that as more Americans understand the horrors these refugee mothers and children escaped, as more Americans learn that these vulnerable families are being held in deplorable conditions in for-profit jails run by the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, as more Americans find out how expensive it is to perpetuate this ill-conceived system of misery, they will agree with Judge Gee, and hopefully, family immigration detention will end.

By: Twin Cities’ immigration attorneys Kara Lynum and Michelle Rivero, and The Advocates for Human Rights.

Note: This blog post was published in the Star Tribune‘s editorial section on October 22, 2015.

Good Question

Child from HondurasWill the United States step up and be a moral leader for the refugees fleeing Central America?

Sonia Nazario, author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and The Advocates’ 2015 Human Rights Award recipient, asks this question in her news report on how the United States, according to Nazario, “has outsourced a refugee problem to Mexico that is similar to the refugee crisis now roiling Europe” (The New York Times, October 10, 2015). The outsourcing includes “payments” of tens of millions of dollars from the United States to Mexico to stop Central American migrants from reaching the United States/Mexico border to claim asylum.

Nazario writes:

The crackdown has forced migrants to travel in ways that are harder, take longer, are more isolated and have fewer support mechanisms. New measures have made riding on top of freight trains north, a preferred method for anyone who cannot afford a $10,000 smuggler fee, incredibly difficult. In Tierra Blanca, Veracruz and elsewhere, tall concrete walls topped with concertina wire have been constructed to thwart migrants. In Apizaco, the Lechería train station outside Mexico City and elsewhere, chest-high concrete pillars, or rocks, have been installed on both sides of the tracks so migrants cannot run alongside moving trains and board them.

Read “The Refugees at Our Door,” by Sonia Nazario.


For those Central American families who make it into the United States, The Advocates for Human Rights provides free legal services to help them seek asylum. For migrants who are not located in the Midwest, The Advocates helps them, too, with its Asylum Helpline that connects families released from U.S. immigration detention centers across the nation with free legal services. Migrants are encouraged to call the Helpline at 612-746-4674 to receive basic legal screening, information about the legal process, and referrals to agencies in areas in which they live.

Pledges & Punts at the UN: The U.S. Government Responds to UPR Recommendations

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Today marks the formal end of the U.S. government’s second Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. But on many important issues, it’s really just the beginning of many years of work to implement the United States’ human rights obligations.

During the interactive dialogue part of the UPR in May 2015, the U.S. government received 343 recommendations from countries around the world. Today the government formally responded to each of them, stating whether it accepted, accepted in part, or noted (diplomatic UN-speak for “rejected”) each one. At the Human Rights Council in Geneva this morning, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scott Busby acknowledged that the United States hasn’t “been perfect in our efforts, and we still have many challenges.”

The Advocates for Human Rights has been engaging in advocacy throughout the UPR process, lobbying on the death penalty, immigration detention, and the rights of non-citizens. We submitted stakeholder reports on those issues back in September 2014, and we traveled to Geneva in March to lobby delegates to the Human Rights Council to encourage them to raise our issues in the interactive dialogue.

Those lobbying efforts were successful. For example, 45 countries presented recommendations to the United States on the death penalty, and 23 offered recommendations on the rights of non-citizens. The Advocates lobbied nearly every country that made recommendations on those issues.

Here are some highlights from those 343 recommendations, and the U.S. government’s responses:

Death penalty

Transparency on lethal injection drugs

Some of the U.S. government’s responses were discouraging. Knowing that the government was not likely commit to abolishing the death penalty, The Advocates lobbied France and many other countries to highlight the issue of state laws and practices that keep secret the identity and sources of drugs used in lethal injections. Transparency regarding the types of drugs used and the sources of those drugs is increasingly important in light of the Supreme Court’s June 2015 decision in Glossip v. Gross, which places additional evidentiary burdens on individuals seeking to challenge the proposed method of their execution as a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

During the interactive dialogue in May, France took up our issue, recommending that the U.S. government “[c]ommit to full transparency on the combination of medicines used during executions by injection.” Today, however, the U.S. government formally “noted” that recommendation, providing no explanation other than its position that the death penalty comports with our country’s human rights obligations.

Moratorium

In explaining the government’s decision to reject calls from 37 countries around the world to abolish–or at least consider a moratorium on–the death penalty, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Busby told the Human Rights Council:

I’d also note that we received numerous recommendations–including from Ecuador, Austria, Lithuania, Congo, Nepal, and many others–concerning our administration of capital punishment. Domestic civil society also raised capital punishment as an issue of concern. While we did not support the majority of the recommendations on this topic, we respect those who made them. Our continuing differences in this are a matter of policy, and not what the rules of international human rights law currently require.

Racial bias and wrongful convictions

The U.S. government made some important pledges concerning the death penalty today. For example, we lobbied Angola and Poland about racial bias in the administration of the death penalty and about wrongful convictions. The government accepted these recommendations:

  • Angola: Identify the root causes of ethnic disparities concerning especially those sentenced to capital punishment in order to find ways [to] eliminate ethnic discrimination in the criminal justice system.
  • France: Identify the factors of racial disparity in the use of the death penalty and develop strategies to end possible discriminatory practices.
  • Poland: Strengthen safeguards against wrongful sentencing to death and subsequent wrongful execution by ensuring, inter alia, effective legal representation for defendants in death penalty cases, including at the post-conviction stage.

We also lobbied on the issue of compensation for victims of wrongful convictions. The U.S. government accepted, in part, a recommendation from Belgium to “[t]ake measures in follow-up to the recommendations of the Human Rights Committee to the US in 2014 with regards to capital punishment such as measures to avoid racial bias, to avoid wrongful sentencing to death and to provide adequate compensation if wrongful sentencing happens.” In its formal response, the government stated that it “support[s] consideration of these recommendations, noting that we may not agree with all of them.”

Immigrant detention

The U.S. government made several pledges on the detention of migrants, accepting a recommendation from Brazil to “[c]onsider alternatives to the detention of migrants, particularly children.” The government accepted, in part, a recommendation from Sweden to “[h]alt the detention of immigrant families and children, seek alternatives to detention and end the use of detention for reason of deterrence.” In its response, the government punted on the controversial use of immigrant detention to deter future migrants, but added that it is “working to shorten detention families may face while their immigration proceedings are resolved.”

One issue we lobbied on was the lack of due process in immigration removal proceedings. Honduras was particularly receptive to these issues, recommending that the United States “[e]nsure due process for all immigrants in immigration proceedings, using the principle of the best interest, especially in the case of families and unaccompanied children.”

Honduras is one of the main countries of origin for the unaccompanied children and families coming to the United States to seek asylum, so it was rewarding to see that government’s interest in the plight of its nationals.

In responding to Honduras’ recommendation, however, the U.S. government glossed over its international human rights obligation to ensure due process, instead asserting that “[n]oncitizens in the U.S. facing removal receive significant procedural protections.”

On the issue of the rights of children in immigration proceedings, the government ignored the fact that unaccompanied children have no right to a government-provided attorney, offering merely that “[t]he best interest of a child is one factor in determinations by immigration judges. [The Department of Health and Human Services] provides care and placement for children who enter the U.S. without an adult guardian, considering the best interests of the child in all placement decisions.”

Rights of migrants

Our lobbying and advocacy on the rights of migrants highlighted many of the findings in The Advocates’ groundbreaking report, Moving from Exclusion to Belonging: Immigrant Rights in Minnesota Today. One of the issues we highlighted was discrimination against and profiling of non-citizens. Iran, Mexico, and Nicaragua called for an end to discrimination and violence against migrants and non-citizens, among other targeted groups. In partially accepting these recommendations, however, the U.S. government glossed over migrants, describing efforts “to counter intolerance, violence, and discrimination against members of all minority groups, including African-Americans, Muslims, Arabs, and indigenous persons.”

Another issue we highlighted is excessive use of force by officials on our country’s southern border. Mexico called on the United States to “[i]nvestigate cases of deaths of migrants by customs and border patrols, particularly those where there have been indications of an excessive use of force, and ensure accountability and adequate reparation to the families of the victims.” The government accepted the recommendation in part, adding that it “cannot support parts of this recommendation concerning reparations.”

The U.S. government expressed its support for recommendations to “[r]eview in depth migration policy” (Congo), to “[f]urther improve the rights of immigrants” (Senegal), to give “special attention . . . to protecting migrant workers from exploitative working conditions, specifically in the agricultural sector” (Portugal), and to “[e]nsure the rights of migrant workers, especially in the sector of agriculture where the use of child laborers is a common practice” (Holy See).

But in responding to Algeria’s call to “[t]ake necessary measures to combat discriminatory practices against . . . migrant workers in the labor market,” the U.S. government ignored the obstacles immigrant workers face in combating discrimination. As we explained in our stakeholder report,

“immigrants who experience discrimination often do not complain, either because they are unaware of their rights under the law, because it is easier to leave the employer than to pursue a complaint, or, for undocumented workers, because fear of deportation keeps them silent.”

The U.S. government, in responding to Algeria’s recommendation, ignored these complexities, stating simply that “U.S. federal labor and employment laws generally apply to all workers, regardless of immigration status.”

What’s next?

The U.S. government may be breathing a sigh of relief that the UPR is finally over, but The Advocates and other members of civil society know that today is just the beginning. Now we begin the process of working with the government to implement the recommendations the government accepted. And we haven’t lost hope for those “noted” recommendations–surprisingly, research shows that governments often implement, at least in part, UPR recommendations that they formally reject.

To learn more about the Universal Periodic Review process, read the chapter on Advocacy at the United Nations in The Advocates for Human Rights’ 2015 toolkit, Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A Step-by-step Guide to Human Rights Fact-Finding, Documentation, and Advocacy.

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

No Matter Their Country, All Refugees Need Attention and Help

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Aylan & Galip Kurdi

The photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach is an image we should never forget. Instead of romping on the resort beach, Aylan―in his red shirt and dark pants—lies lifeless, his face buried in the sand.

Aylan; his brother, Galip; his mother, Rehan; and his father, Abdullah, had fled the violence in Syria, crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece, and with plans to eventually make their way to Germany or Canada. But high waves flipped the 15-foot rubber raft they were in, pitching them into the sea. The little boys and their mother, and at least nine others, drowned. Only Abdullah survived.

The Kurdi family was on that boat because they were desperate. Eleven of their relatives had been slaughtered at the hands of the Islamic State [ISIS] in the Kurdish-Syrian city of Kobane in June.

There are more refugees in the world trying to escape unimaginable violence than at any other time since the world began keeping records of such desperate journeys. The international community has failed to address the crises. Countries’ policies that exacerbate and intensify the suffering of refugees compound the grief.

Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are fleeing or are stranded. They are crammed into rubber boats, trucks, and cargo holds, and arriving in Europe en masse. Thousands are trekking across Hungary to Austria, evoking images of people fleeing the Nazis in World War II. Parents cling to their children for dear life. But many drown in the water or suffocate in a truck in the middle of the night, reaching out for a hand to pull them to safety.

While Hungary, Germany, Austria, and other European nations have gathered recent attention, fingers must also point to the United States’ refugee policies. The United States has not risen to its ability to take in Syrian refugees (about 1,500 since the start of the Syria’s civil war in 2011).

Also consider the United States’ shameful treatment of refugees from Central America. While these refugees occupied headlines a year ago, our attention to their plight has largely shifted elsewhere. Despite less attention and fewer media stories, they still need help. Thousands of children and families continue to arrive at the United States-Mexico border, fleeing horrendous violence in Central America. Many remain locked up in United States detention centers.

In the United States, Central American refugees are met by a ruthless immigration system that jails them, denies their due process rights, mistreats the vulnerable, and fails to abide by international human rights standards. Reports describe children being held in “The Freezer”— rooms deliberately kept cold to make children and mothers suffer. People, including children, are denied basic medical treatment. Children are administered adult doses of vaccinations (and without proper consent), causing sickness. Children as young as five appear in court alone, forced to “represent” themselves in complex, English-speaking legal proceedings. They are met by judges showing little mercy and prosecutors labeling them as national security risks.

After the horrors of WWII, the international community recognized that refugees require protection. The world understood that there are people who have no other option but to flee their homelands, and that international and United States law must protect them. This is not how the United States and other countries are acting and responding today. Instead, they behave and respond in blunt, inhumane, and unforgiving ways; they treat refugees as criminals and terrorists, and even worse.

Domestic politics confuse and conflate the crises. National leaders’ xenophobic and racist rhetoric fuels the fire. As refugees reach countries that have enormous resources, a troubling trend is exposed when people are not treated with dignity, humanity, and compassion. Each year, countries move closer to policies condemned in the past. As refugee flows expand, the United States and European countries are systematically denying refugees of their rights, violating human rights law, and the promises they had made and the treaties they signed.

You and I must hold our respective governments accountable. We must confront the consequences of the world’s collective failure to help migrants escaping violence in search hope and safety. We must pressure our governments to turn toward, not away from, refugees.

If you live in the United States, urge President Obama and U.S. Congress (House of Representatives and U.S. Senate) to increase the annual refugee admissions goal from the 2015 number of 70,000 to 200,000 for 2016.

The Advocates for Human Rights represents Syrian and Central American asylum seekers in legal proceedings and ensures that their right to asylum is protected. If you are an attorney or can interpret, please consider volunteering with The Advocates and support these refugees.

The words of Adnan Hassan, cousin of Abdullah and Rehan Kurdi, condemning the world for turning its back on Syrian refugees, can speak for all refugees, no matter the country they flee:

“Do we deserve to have our children picked up from beach shores because their parents panicked and wanted to save their children, save them from terrorism, from kidnappings, from being slaughtered?” Hassan asked in an interview with reporter Jack Moore (International Business Times, September 4.) “How long will they let our children either be killed by terrorists or drown trying to escape?”

By: Deepinder Mayell, director of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee and Immigrant Program.

You & I Can Give a Child a Bright Future

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Thomas Dickstein with students at The Advocates’ Nepal School in 2011.

A week away from the start of my final year of high school, I am ready. My pencils are sharpened, ready to attack the loose-leaf paper in the three-ring binders waiting in my backpack. My textbooks are in the mail, I’m all signed up for the school bus, and I’m excited about receiving my school laptop. And yes, I’ve started my college applications.

All over the world, there are kids my age and younger who aren’t preparing for school. Instead, they get ready each morning (or night) for work. Sometimes it’s in a factory, sometimes it’s in a field, and sometimes it’s elsewhere—a brick yard, perhaps? Are they paid? Maybe. Are they fed? Possibly. Is it dangerous and back-breaking labor? Usually. Do they receive an education? Probably not. What about their futures? Dismal.

There are many such children in the Kathmandu Valley. But in one community, things are different. Three-hundred fifty kids wake up each morning, pack their backpacks, and head to school. Six days a week, they sit down and learn. They take classes in all the subjects one would expect in a typical school. In addition to Nepali, they also learn English, preparing them for international business in the future.They even get to join clubs and explore their passions with extracurricular activities.

The school they attend, the Sankhu-Palubari Community School (SPCS), was established by The Advocates for Human Rights in 1999. Today, its students earn top scores on Nepali standardized tests, and its graduates are moving on to secondary education and universities, obtaining top jobs, and returning “home” as teachers, argonomists, and other professionals eager to improve the community’s quality of life. Some even dream about making a difference abroad.

Without The Advocates’ school, this would not be possible. You see, Nepali public schools have fees for textbooks, uniforms, school supplies, and meals. The students at SPCS are from families that struggle to put food on the table, even without paying school fees. To solve that, the Advocates eliminated cost from the equation. It doesn’t cost a cent to attend SPCS. All school supplies, textbooks, uniforms, and lunches are paid for by the school.

That’s what makes SPCS great.

Just over half the students at SPCS are female, and they’re mostly surpassing the boys in class rank and test scores. Currently, more than 50 percent of SPCS students are girls, a huge gain in the percentage in place when the school first opened. SPCS supports girl students so that they stay in school, and the school has made remarkable strides towards gender parity in a country where education of girls is often not valued equally with education of boys. Impressed? If not, consider the fact that female literacy in Nepal lags behind that of males by a staggering 33 percent, according to the International Labor Organization.

I’ve seen the school with my own eyes. It’s not a four-story metal-and-glass, state-of-the-art facility like my high school. It’s a house about the size of my family’s, nestled between two farm fields, with brick factories dotting the surrounding hillsides. Inside the school, magic happens. Students are eager and engaged, and teachers are committed. For the students, SPCS is their ticket out of a life of factory, brick yard, or field labor. The education they receive brings unlimited opportunity to their lives. In the 21st Century, the sky is no longer the limit. And it certainly isn’t the limit for graduates of the Sankhu Palubari Community School.

I encourage you to learn more about the school. It truly is a magical place. By clicking here, you can watch a video I produced about the school, read more about it, and even donate to help support the school. Did I mention that just $250 covers an entire year of costs for one student? That includes textbooks, uniforms, school supplies, and a daily meal. Yeah, click that link now. Here it is again in case you don’t want to scroll back up to it.

By: Thomas Dickstein, high school senior and a volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights, who gives his time and talents to support the Sankhu-Palubari Community School.