For years, Uzbek authorities have denied widespread reports that children are sent to the fields to pick cotton every harvest season.
Now viewers can see for themselves, thanks to video footage collected by human rights activists and sent to RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service. There is no denying that the school-age children in the video are picking cotton and carrying heavy sacks on their shoulders. Determining whether they were taken away from their studies or forced to work in the fields proves more difficult.
The human rights activists who provided the video, whose identities are being withheld for their protection, said one of the children identified himself as 10-year-old Otabek. Others look even younger.
Human-rights defenders and the region’s independent media, including the ferghana.ru news website, have reported that the children, as well as teenagers and college students, were all forced by the state to help harvest the country’s most valuable agricultural product.
Schools and colleges have been shut down in most parts of the country since mid-September, when the harvest season begins.
The footage was shot in Uzbekistan’s major cotton-producing regions, including the Ferghana Valley, Karakalpakistan Autonomous Republic, and the Khorezm and Qashqadaryo provinces.
One of the world’s major cotton producers, Uzbekistan has long been criticized for using what rights activist say is child labor during the two-month harvest season.
The widespread criticism has led some 60 clothing companies, including Gap, H&M, and Marks & Spencer to boycott Uzbek cotton until the country ends its practice of using children as cheap labor.
In September, the organizers of a New York fashion show canceled a runway presentation by Gulnora Karimova, the daughter of President Islam Karimov, amid protests by activists who claim her collection was made with Uzbek cotton harvested by children.
This week is the tail end of this year’s cotton harvest, and children are heading back to school to resume their studies.
By Shukhrat Bobojonov and Farangis Najibullah. Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.