Housekeeping, plantation work, prostitution: many children in Africa have to work – and are thus deprived of their childhood. Most of them are of primary school age. Experts warn: bans alone will not help.
Fatoumata was only twelve years old when she left her village in Mali to look for work in the city. Education was not a priority for her parents, instead it was now time to get up early in the morning to do the dishes for a foreign family, make breakfast and take the children to school. The work of a mother or a father carried out by a child. “I’ve been doing this job for four years. In the various families in which I worked, there was often not enough to eat and not a good place to sleep. I was insulted by my employers,” says 16-year-old Fatoumata. “To get my salary of up to 10,000 CFA Francs (€ 15.25, editor’s note)I had to endure all the pain in the world. Sometimes I went back to my parents in the village empty-handed. “
Fatoumata is not an isolated case. All over the world children are forced to do life-threatening work that endangers their health, safety and moral development. In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of children who have to work is higher than anywhere else in the world. A fifth of all African children, around 72.1 million, are affected. (For comparison: a total of almost 80 million children live in Europe.) More than half of them are still under the age of eleven, which makes Africa’s children the youngest child laborers in the world on average.
Forced labor, prostitution, gold mines
Child labor has many faces. “This also includes dangerous, exploitative or physically strenuous work,” explains Ninja Charbonneau from the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF. “Forced labor, prostitution and working in gold mines are just a few examples.” Most of the children in Africa work in agriculture and animal husbandry, around eight million children, like Fatoumata, work in the service sector and just under three million in industry. Child labor is often unpaid and most work in small family businesses.
“The damage done to the children is enormous, it means the end of their childhood,” says Charbonneau. “The children cannot grow up normally and carefree, as is actually their right. This often means that they do not go to school. And this solidifies this vicious circle.” Because without education, the children would later find it harder to get well-paid jobs. “As a result, they have less chance of getting out of poverty, and that continues for generations.”
Minimum working age of 15 years
Like Fatoumata, thousands of young girls in Mali are leaving their homes to go to the big cities. Diallo Assitan Fofana, Chairman of the Association for the Promotion and Protection of the Labor Rights of Women and Children in Mali, explains. “They are migrant workers who work in the households of the big cities to help their parents in the villages and to support themselves. Many of them are minors, did not attend school or have dropped out.” The International Labor Organization of the United Nations (ILO) stipulates a minimum working age of 15 years. But the international standard is often only partially implemented in national law. In Botswana, Eritrea, Kenya, Nigeria or Uganda, for example, the minimum age protection does not apply to children outside formal working relationships.
Africa’s fight against child labor seems to be stagnating: According to UNICEF surveys, the number of cases increased from 2012 to 2016 – despite targeted measures by African governments. “Many factors play a role here,” says Charbonneau, “but it is primarily the economically sluggish one Development of many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Another factor is conflicts. In conflict countries we observe that the proportion of children who have to work is usually increasing. ” Whether in Mali , Somalia or Sudan : Growing poverty is forcing children to help secure the family’s livelihood. “Families are displaced and no longer have normal incomes, or the main breadwinner has been killed or separated from the rest of the family.
Education and fair working conditions
The United Nations has committed to ending child labor by 2025. “But it is clear that we are not fast enough at the moment,” said Charbonneau. And changes in the law alone are not enough: “It is not enough to ban child labor in general. If the family is dependent on income and is otherwise left with nothing, then you may not have done them a favor at first.” Instead, the whole environment and general working conditions would have to be changed.
Charbonneau names four approaches: “The first is to create effective legislation to ban child labor in the most severe form, and to enforce this ban.” Second, the circumstances for the families as a whole should improve: “For example, there must be social security in the event that both parents are unemployed. Parents need fair job opportunities and fair pay so that the children don’t even have to work.” For the children, there must also be free and high-quality educational offers so that they can stay in school.
Thirdly, it is about a social rethinking, says Charbonneau: “We have to point out that child labor is still a problem and that it is harmful to the development of children. And the fourth is that companies must also make a large and important contribution and stronger than before. “
Small progress at the national level
But there is also progress, says Ariane Genthon. She works for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) as a program officer for child labor in agriculture. “More and more governments and industries in agriculture are taking action to address the problem of child labor in agriculture,” says Genthon. “But that is a complex problem. And therefore it cannot be solved with individual measures, or only by a state. It takes coordinated efforts to combat child labor.”
After all: Countries like Ivory Coast, Mali and Rwanda have already legally strengthened occupational safety for children, other governments have appointed new committees or working groups. In 2017, for example, the Gambian Ministry of Social Affairs set up a national coordinating committee for child labor. In Benin, a new government working group on combating trafficking in human beings organized a workshop to develop a national anti-trafficking policy, action plan and data collection guidelines. And Mali raised the minimum age for work to 15 and expanded the list of dangerous jobs or activities prohibited for children.