Image from ‘Kolavari Sri lankan tuition song-By Risinu Gamlath’ video, courtesy Sirasa TV

For a very long time now I have watched little children performing at children’s reality shows in Sri Lanka, which are marketed as children’s ‘talent shows’ in our country. Little children come on stage wearing costumes and makeup in the manner of adults and perform to the best of their abilities. Their little voices sing adult songs and dance like grownups to be on the spotlight. Unfortunately there is nothing childish about their performances except for the child’s age and their little bodies that puppeteer adult images. Those children are the shadows of their parents who push them, market them and sell them: that is the cold truth regarding ‘child stars’ which no parent (guardian) or the media institutions that run those shows want to admit.

In a cynical world where talent is marketed, many electronic media institutions in Sri Lanka market these children (with their parents consent) to be popular amongst the masses. It is a contest for them. To be the most watched television channel in the country. And it is a contest for the parents too: to be the guardians of those talented little angels, whom they indirectly sell for popularity, money and recognition.

Why isn’t this behaviour identified as child labour when, in fact, parents are making money out of selling their kid’s talents by letting him/her perform on live musical shows, concerts and other entertainment programmes for payment? According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) a working child is identified if he or she is involved in any form of the economic activity for a payment, profit or family-gain.

Children are taken from one show to another, to keep the money flowing in with parents undervaluing formal studies and school education. A renown local musician coming from a musical background, Mario Ananda Abeykoon noted that he was recently attacked and slapped by a father of a ‘little star’ for publicly speaking about this matter during a show held in Ambillipitiya. Referring to the event Ananda said, “On 17th of April 2014 in the Ambilipitiya town there was a girl singing around 12.30am during a musical show. I was next inline to perform and when I was invited on to the stage to perform, I spoke in public asking parents to stop marketing their children… After singing one song I showed my disagreement for what they were doing to their children by getting off the show, when a set of people including the father of the nine year old girl came to me and slapped me and scolded me in filth saying I have no right to speak like that”

Speaking further he pointed out that according to the ILO the education of children cannot be interrupted at any given point regardless of whether the child is engaged in none-hazardous or hazardous forms of labour and that he spoke out that day because the child was expected to attend school the following day after performing so late in the night and missed her sleeping hours.

According to the Sri Lanka Child Activity Survey conducted in 2008/2009 by the Department of Census and Statistics and Ministry of Finance and Planning out of the total population an estimated 2.5% (107,259 from 4338709) are engaged in child labour. In this report it is explained that 1% (43,343) children are engaged in non-hazardous forms and another 1.5% (63,916) children in hazardous forms of child labour in Sri Lanka.  The legal punishment for employing child labourers is a payment of Rs. 10,000 as compensation along with one year imprisonment.

Today there are many reality shows for children in Sri Lanka with children’s rights being publicly violated. However, no one is pointing the finger at their parents or telling the relevant authorities to control or oversee these reality TV shows. Our silence is helping these violations take place.