It is bad enough that nearly half of this country’s children—25 million boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 16—are out of school. What is worse is that at least 3 million Pakistani children below the age of 14 are labourers, many of whom are trapped in the system of debt slavery.

Addressing the problem of child labour is not as simple as banning the practice or forcing parents to enrol their children in school. Putting children to work is not a decision families take lightly and is often prompted by crushing poverty. While the government has failed to solve this problem, one non-governmental organisation is trying to make sure that children who work are not denied an education.

“I was trying to sell insurance when I came across a group of brick kiln workers who scoffed at the idea of paying 1,000 rupees for an insurance policy,” says Anjum Raza Mattu, Founder President of the Insan Dost Association. “When I learned about the conditions of bonded labourers, I decided to take out a rally from my university in Okara and we had a massive response.” Thus began a journey that ended with the formation of the Insaan Dost Association, which aims to put child workers in school.

After the rally, Mattu was approached by other activists and together they formed the Bonded Labourer Liberation Front in 1990. After some initial success, including raising wages for workers, Mattu was advised to start an NGO which was registered in 2002 as the Insan Dost Association.

The challenge is to make sure the children of bonded labourers, who often work alongside their parents, receive an education. “It is very hard but you have to provide incentives to the parents, the children and to the debtors,” Mattu explains. “Parents have to be persuaded that educating their child will not endanger their debt repayments and the children have to be shown that education can help them increase their income. Debtors, meanwhile, have to be convinced that they will get their money back.”

Insan Dost enrols these children in school and pays for their school supplies but the children continue to work. Some may argue that allowing children to continue working defeats the purpose but Mattu insists it is the only way to get the children in school. “This way, at least they are getting an education,” he says, “and they stand a better chance of paying off their debt and subsequently finding decent employment.”

There are many reasons why the system of debt slavery persists and chief among them is the lack of education. Labourers end up in debt slavery for extended periods of time, sometimes for their entire life, because debtors exploit their illiteracy and pay them far less than they have rightfully earned. Workers cannot demand fair wages because they lack the basic skills to counter the claims—and the complicated calculations—of their debtors. By educating the children, Insan Dost is making sure that the entire family has a better chance of breaking the cycle of poverty and debt.

Focusing on the districts of Kasur, Okara, Pakpattan and Sahiwal in the Punjab, Insaan Dost has enrolled more than 17,000 child bonded labourers into 800 government schools. Of these children, all between the ages of 5 and 10, 9,000 are boys and 8,000 are girls. But enrolling a child in school is not enough. Insan Dost operates a network of 50 field coordinators, assisted by volunteers, whose job it is to monitor the progress of a cluster of 10-12 children. “The coordinator will look into wage issues, deal with any problems a child is having at school or at home, and ensure that the children make it to school.”

Over the years, Insaan dost has won numerous awards including the 6th International Bremen Peace Award in 2013. This recognition has helped the organisation raise funds which will be used to expand operations to 15 more districts, with plans to begin working in Sindh in the future.

Not only has the government failed to address the plight of these children, there are no official records of the number of child workers and child bonded labourers. Some surveys suggest there are as many as 3.3 million child labourers in the country, while a Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report from 2011 estimates the number of children who work as bonded labourers to be between 3 million and 8 million.

“People’s desperate circumstances are exploited,” says Mattu, “and the tragedy is that they internalise their oppression. Parents will say to you, ‘God made us poor and education is not in our fate’. I tell them you are in this position because you are uneducated, your fate will be different with education. The only way to free yourself from slavery is by getting educated so that no one can exploit you. Without education you will remain a slave.”

The challenge is daunting and Insaan Dost has a long way to go. But in just over a decade this small organisation has already transformed the lives of thousands of children and their families. Their story shows that small steps are important and change is possible when concerned citizens stand together to fight for the rights of those less fortunate than themselves.