CHILD LABOR: The plight of the Girl Child.
Blessed with a tripartite U.N agency in the International Labor Organization that brings together governments, employers, and workers of 187 member states, the world expects progressive labor standards to transcend all continents regardless of background and culture. Everyone must be accorded an opportunity to participate in decent work, this means that any circumstance where work exposes an individual to abuse of his or her rights and dignity must be condemned and dealt with to extinction. The ILO clearly states that Child labor refers to the employment of children in any work that deprives children of their well-deserved childhood, interferes with their ability to regularly show up at school, and that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful. Today, we will focus on the girl child. In many parts of Africa, tradition has dictated gender roles based on the customs of the societies. Girls are raised to provide the biggest percentage of labor in their families and communities at large. In some communities, these gender roles are taken to the extreme – Girls have to work in order to feed their families. This happens in societies suffering from extreme poverty. UNICEF Data on child labor shows that the prevalence of child labor is highest in sub-Saharan Africa. In the least developed countries of the region, around one in four children (ages 5 to 17) are engaged in child labor that is considered detrimental to their health and development. e.g. Mining, vending merchandise in the markets and on streets, picking coffee etc. In most regions, girls are most likely to be involved in child labor, doing domestic work in the homes of the wealthy as gender disparities are observed. Amnesty International alleged in 2016 that some cobalt sold by Congo Dongfang mining was produced by child labor, the Chinese company obviously denied the allegation, but there is no smoke without fire. Many young girls are employed in stone quarries, at coffee plantations, other people’s homes and in the markets. They are paid peanuts and are exposed to diseases, violence, and bad weather. This is not in line with their development.
Lizelle is a 12-year-old Namibian girl, with two siblings and a mother to take care of. Her father died 3 years back. The village stone quarries have been their means of survival for the last three years. She has already spent a year in hospital after she was injured working at one of the small stone quarries. She was chipping stones and a pile of dirt fell from up high, it landed on her and injured her leg. Her left thigh is now covered in scars. Lizelle is one of the hundreds of thousands of underage laborers in Sub Saharan Africa. Girls are put to work by their parents and because there is not enough to feed the families. Lizelle and her friends smash stones into small pieces and the gravel is sold to builders for construction. Officially, child labor is illegal in most African countries. If you visit any place where young girls are employed, the employers will be quick to deny it. Lizelle squeezes labor among lessons at school to make sure her family feeds. She goes to school in the morning and works in the afternoon. She works with her mother, side by side. When families are poor, I mean extreme poverty, the work the children do does generate an income and the families see it in that way. However the children’s income is very small, they earn so little and this fact worsens and increases the level of poverty. While Lizelle is at work, she risks blindness as chips of rock fly in the air, the same applies to the other children. With such hazardous work, girls are exposed to a great risk which jeopardizes their development and growth.
From the village quarry, it is about 7 kilometers to the town. Life is a little better, but children fly between cars selling whatever they can, life on the streets and the markets can be just as dangerous as the quarry. Kameya, Lizelle’s 13-year-old neighbor sells oranges and bananas. She has to walk to town every day in order to earn something. The markets are very dangerous, one can be run over by a car, or be kidnapped or robbed. Kameya is proud of the fact that money she earned from the markets and helped her mother to pay off a certain debt – All this at the expense of her education. This tells you how much she is attached
to what she does and how far she is willing to go to make sure she works in order to help her family. She gets up between 5 and 6 am, while other children are preparing to go to school, treks to town to help her mother sell fruits, she does this until 9 am, regardless of the dangers she encounters throughout this period. When it comes to the girl child in Sub Saharan Africa, dealing with this vice becomes more difficult because they labor at different levels, i.e. there are children who sell things, and there are those who are used for begging for money and others do hard manual labor. These children need to go to school, they need to get involved in child development programs. We live in a generation where raising children is very expensive, but this should not be a reason for us to intentionally destroy and stifle our children’s growth and development. Our desire to see the girl child grow to harness her full potential should override our selfish need to use them as a source of labor.
There is a lot of things we can do as civilized people. Collectively, we should strive to promote the rights of the girl no matter their background and circumstances. To support that agenda, we should make sure they are able to learn, study and find refuge from this tough world. For girls like Kameya and Lizelle, places or institutions that offer an education and moments of playing with other children, give them an escape route from the pain of trying to earn money as children under horrible environments. Many children dream of becoming doctors, lawyers, but they never live to see their dreams come true. The dreams die as soon as they have them. Other children will dream of making it in life so that they can help other poor children. This is because they know that their fellow children that they see in stone quarries and markets every day are suffering.
With Prince Wako foundation pulling different strings to empower the girl child, celebrating Labor Day with them this year got me thinking – Yes we can still do more as a people to eliminate child labor and resultantly empower more girls all over Africa. Well I know the goal of most governments is to have all their children going to school, in East Africa, most of the governments provide free primary education and also give additional scholarships to girls, in public Universities, this is a wonderful thing. This has been supplemented by NGOs providing snacks for children at school. With this, many girls that would have been forced to provide labor due to extreme poverty have been able to attain a decent education, but more still needs to be done. The laws against child labor must be enforced and international codes of labor practice should be adhered to by all employers. If all efforts are exploited and governments maintain proper monitoring systems, girl child labor will become a mystery in Sub Saharan Africa.