New Internationalist

Give us a break!

12 June is World Day Against Child Labour. ChildHope Executive Director, Emma Crewe, explains why the campaign to get kids out of work and into school is more important than ever.

children working stacking bricks

Children growing up in Britain and across Europe today may moan about school work, but typically they have the freedom to learn, rest and play. Teenagers might work at the weekend, do a paper round or help out at home, but serious work is the preserve of adults.  

Yet according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 215 million under 18 year olds are active in some sort of child labour, with over half of them engaged in the most abusive forms, including sexual exploitation, pornography, slavery, armed conflict and drug trafficking.  

Child labour keeps children out of school, destroys their health and causes trauma in its worst forms. It clearly should be stopped. But the right solutions are less obvious. Many assume that working for the family – whether in the home, shop or farm – is unproblematic. But how many hours does a child have to work before it becomes a problem? Once you have identified the boundaries, how do you get children out of labour?

The short answer is, with difficulty.

In 1992, the ILO’s International Program for the Elimination of Child Labour and the US Child Labour Deterrence Act (which banned imported products made by child labourers) started to have an effect. Development agencies and activists in the Global North and South took up the challenge of eliminating child labour, but with mixed results. In some cases, prohibition of children from factories led to them resorting to more abusive forms of labour. For example, when the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association suddenly released 40,000 children from employment, many of them then had to resort to working on the streets, rag-picking and sex work.

So how to eliminate child labour sustainably, without impoverishing children and their families? One NGO in Peru, Proceso Social, has managed to get thousands of children out of stone-quarrying, rubbish recycling and other street work. It has also managed to get schools to adapt to the needs of those still involved in work, and trained teachers to be child-rights promoters and to monitor their pupils’ well-being, to ensure they attend and remain in school.

Butterflies, a life-skills education programme in India, has set up child-run savings and credit schemes for street and working children across South Asia and  encourages children and adolescents to continue their studies while empowering them with knowledge and skills to become entrepreneurs. Butterflies is working with 12 organizations in India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Nepal to develop a scheme called the Children’s Development Khazana (Bank). The bank offers over 14,000 street and working children the opportunities to save money and earn interest on their deposits which they then spend on health, education or professional training.

The Organization for Child Development and Transformation in Ethiopia prevents child labour, especially sexual exploitation, by working with local governments and communities to address the root causes of risky child migration – AIDS, abuse and poverty in rural areas – and intercepting runaways who might otherwise get tricked or forced into sex work, domestic labour or street work.

So which approach develops the most sustainable and transformative outcome for children? And what do children have to say about the issue? There is no simple answer to these questions – each culture requires a different response, depending on the capacity of NGOs, the state and the private sector, as well as the views of children themselves. It is not for us in Europe to decide the best solutions to child labour globally. A collaborative process between local governments, NGOs, community members and children is necessary. Children and their families should be included and we need to listen to their views.

Emma Crewe works for ChildHope, an international development charity dedicated to promoting social justice for children and young people in Africa, Asia and South America. Find out more about child labour here.

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