Mar(k): Travel, Hiking, and "Doing Good"

musings on our life of travel and volunteering

Hard work to eliminate child labour

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Originally published in the July 2010 edition of The Advocate

By Mar Knox

In Ghana, the term “kayayee” refers to children, who leave their family and homes in rural areas, and move to urban areas (most notably Accra), in search of a better way of life.  Regrettably, this decision can often mean a life on the streets for these children; often engaging in dangerous work, being exposed to potential exploitation, and going to bed at night with an empty belly.  It has been estimated that as many as 30,000 children could be working as porters in Accra; many others are working in the sex industry.  Children as young as seven years old work in a variety of jobs in addition to these ones; one of the most common ones is fishing.

It is staggering to think that around 20 percent of Ghana’s children are engaged in some form of child labour, which is defined as “all work, which is harmful and hazardous to a child’s safety and development”.  This is more than 1.2 million kids.  Of the children involved in labour activities, more than 240,000 of them (almost 20 percent) are involved in something hazardous.

However, not all work that children do is harmful to them.  Some work, such as doing chores around the house actually helps a child to develop certain skills and encourages him or her to learn about family duties.  Child labour on the other hand, which is regularly participating in the labour force in order to earn a living, or supplement household income, is the activity which needs to be eliminated.  Often times, this very work prevents these children from participating in school and can be exploitative.  Any time a child’s health, development or safety is compromised; there are reasons to be concerned.

The basic building block for child rights is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Ghana was the first country to ratify this convention.   Additionally, children in this country are protected by a variety of legislative measures including Article 28 of the 1992 Constitution which states that “every child has the right to be protected from engaging in works that constitutes a threat to his health, education or development.”   There are also a myriad of other laws in Ghana that deal with protecting a child’s rights.  These include the Children’s Act of 1998 and the Labour Act of 2003.  All of these legislative documents make it illegal to have children engaged in exploitative or hazardous activities.

Recently, President John Atta Mills himself made comments about child labour, during a speech read on his behalf to mark 2010’s World Day against Child Labour.  He stated, “It cannot be disputed that Africa has more than a fair share of the world’s child labourers. The latest ILO Global Report shows that while Asia Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean continue to reduce child labour, sub-Saharan Africa has witnessed an increase both in relative and absolute terms.  This region also has the highest incidence of children working, with one-in-four children engaged in child labour.”

Enforcement proves difficult

The difficulty, it seems, is in the enforcement of these laws.  A variety of factors are at play; limited funding, general apathy about the issue, and difficulty in prosecuting the wrongdoers.  Even when there is the availability of staff to monitor child related labour issues, the difficulty lies in finding the children at risk;  often times the enforcement officers deal with registered labour organisations, rather than targeting the informal sector of the economy, where most child labour is performed.   Additionally, police officers and labour officials are often unfamiliar with the provisions of the law when it comes to protecting children.   In any event, it seems that in many cases, even when infractions were identified, prosecution is not made.  Certainly it seems that in order to send a strong message about child trafficking, the government should make the prosecution of violators a priority.

The Legal Resources Centre (LRC) believes that more and better labour inspectors must be put in place to address the problem. Ms Gakpleazi of the LRC states, “We either need a far greater number of labour inspectors or the current labour inspectors must do a better job. The status quo is unacceptable. Labour inspectors must be made accountable. When problems continue to exist in regions, the labour inspectors of those specific areas must be evaluated and held accountable.”

Some children do eventually make it off the streets.  Through the efforts of government agencies (like the Department of Children) and a variety of NGOs who focus on such matters, some children are able to break the vicious cycle of repeatedly going south to Accra, earning some money and returning to the north.  There is obvious benefit in coordinating the efforts made between government agencies, private sector NGO-led initiatives, and civil society.  Some effective networks are already in place, such as the Child Protection Network that was set up in 2007 and works across the three northern regions.  However, rehabilitating children is resource intensive and finding the requisite funds to monitor such programs, and staff the relevant organisations with skilled personnel remains a challenge.

In addition, not all NGOs use best practise approaches when dealing with the children. Often times, well meaning NGO’s “return” the children to the communities; but this often has the opposite effect, as the communities see these children return to their villages in bright white 4WD vehicles; with school uniforms, exercise books, etc…   This makes others in the village sometimes think, “I’ll send my child down south so they, too, can get these good things”.  So clearly, a sustainable solution at addressing the problem needs to be found.

Rooting out the Causes

As with so many issues related to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, getting to the root cause of the issue is the most effective way of tackling the problem.  In this instance, breaking the cycle of poverty in these children’s families is essential.  Too often, children are forced into working to assist impoverished families.   Local custom and economic circumstances often are at play in these situations, where children are encouraged to work to help support their families, or are asked to work to pay off the debts of their parents or other family members.

One such example is boys as young as ten or twelve years of age, working for fisherman in exchange for a yearly remittance to their families.  In these cases, the consent of the parents is given; it is therefore necessary to help the families improve their incomes so that they do not need to “sell” their children.  A variety of initiatives are available;  some parents may receive micro finance to either start a business or support their existing businesses;  the belief being that if the parents have a secure livelihood, then they will be better able to support their children.  Other parents may receive skills training so that they can earn a better income.

When children are not working, the chances for them to be in school are obviously greater.  It is certainly true that not all “working children” miss school; in fact, it seems that some children are forced to work to pay for their school fees or associated expenses, like exercise books, school uniforms and the like.  However, one thing is for certain; the more a child works, the less time that child has to study and improve their lot in life through getting a good education.  So we can see the negative relationship between working and schooling.

Advocating a better alternative

Peter Tanga, Field Facilitator with Youth Alive

According to Peter Tanga, a Field Facilitator for Tamale based NGO Youth Alive, advocacy at the community level is the key to keeping children off the streets, and minimising the likelihood that they will be exploited through child labour.  He explained how Youth Alive used radio programming to highlight different children rights issues, as well as the always popular phone-in sessions.

One such phone in program involved 19 year old Mohammed Fushina, who had become pregnant when she was 15 years old and in Junior Secondary School. The radio programme involved the chief of her village, her teacher and herself.  It was a very popular program, and ultimately Fushina was fortunate enough to be accepted back into her family by her father.  Regrettably, she does not know the whereabouts of the child’s father, who disappeared upon learning of her pregnancy.

Another method that Peter has used has been to show the children in these remote villages a video of what life on the streets is really like.  Such videos, spoken in the local Dagomba language, illustrate the harsh realities.  This is a very different image than what they often hear from girls who have come back from labouring.  As Peter explains, “those girls polish themselves, and they look good.  But that is not the kind of life they have (in Tamale or Accra)…. They live in very poor conditions and have the issue of humiliation”.

Moving Forward:  Long Term Solution Lies in Livelihoods

What really, is the answer so that child labour is eliminated?  As has been illustrated above, many of the root causes of this abhorrent practise stem from endemic poverty in rural areas.  Education through advocacy is one avenue, but a far longer-lasting solution relies on initiatives to improve the livelihoods of the rural poor, such that parents and their children are lifted out of the endless cycle of poverty.

It is very gratifying to see success stories in this area.  One such example is Abdul, who had originally spent his childhood guiding his blind father around Tamale to beg, which was the only source of income for his family.  Once he was connected with the programs available under Youth Alive, Abdul was placed under a master craft person as an apprentice for three years.  He graduated in 2003 as a fully fledged vulcaniser, and today is proud to have his own successful tire business.

Success stories like Abdul's provide inspiration for other street children

What is even more gratifying is that Abdul is now able to help others; he is supporting six apprentices in their journey to become vulcanisers.  Within his family, Abdul will be able to pay for his own child to go to school, and also helps to pay for his sibling’s school fees.

In Abdul’s own words, “I am now very proud of myself because of the transformation that has taken place in my life. I no longer depend on anybody for survival.”

Through examples like Abdul’s, there is hope for an end to endemic poverty, and we hope, an end to child labour.


Written by Mar(k)

August 12, 2010 at 4:29 pm

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