By Dorothy Jobolingo
Friday 12th June: A deepening economic crisis and the loss of millions of jobs dominate headlines in Western Europe and the United States. But African nations are witnessing a different kind of labor crisis -- the use of young children and teenagers as cheap workers in exploitative jobs and industries. In many cases they have no choice, as their impoverished families need the help of their children to make ends meet.
Take Uganda. By the government's own figures, child labor is a major problem. Some 1.76 million of Ugandan 5 to 17 year-olds -- 17 percent -- are involved in some kind of work.
Figures recently published by aid agencies the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the AVSI Foundation show that, in the north and northeast of Uganda, the situation is even worse with 41% of children involved in some form of labor and 15% involved in very harsh, dangerous work - things like stone quarrying, brick-making, prostitution and the brewing of illegal alcohol.
Friday 12th June is World Day Against Child Labor. While media headlines in the United States are dominated by job losses, African countries are seeing a different kind of labor crisis - young children and teenagers being forced into harsh, dangerous jobs. Take Peter Keem, 7, pictured here in northeastern Uganda. Peter has spent up to eight hours a day crushing stones to be used in construction. “It’s hard work”, he admits, “but I have to do it. My father is dead and my mother is very poor. I want to make money for school books and food.”
In Uganda, 17% of all 5 to 17 year-olds are involved in some kind of work. Children like 12-year-old Angelina Nachake from Moroto Town who has been forced to work to support her family since her father died when she was just 5 years old. She sits in the hot sun for up to 12 hours a day, separating corn kernels from stones and dirt so that they can be used to make illegal home-brew. She earns around 25 cents (U.S.) a day.
The International Rescue Committee and AVSI Foundation are helping children escape child labor and enter school. For example, they support poor parents with savings and loans schemes, as well as paying school fees and providing educational materials. Okemo Koma Joseph, 15, from Kitgum is now back in school where he drew this picture. He says, “I want to be a mechanic, but my problem is school fees. If you keep helping my parents, I will complete my studies and I will be a mechanic.”
How can poor parents in countries like Uganda be persuaded to allow their children to attend school instead of spending their days breaking stones? There must be a two-pronged approach: one that provides parents with opportunities to earn a regular, sustainable income; and one that also improves the quality of schools and education. (Drawing by Akanyo Christine, grade seven, Kitgum primary school.)
Another 26% are at risk of becoming involved. This could mean that a child has an elder sibling already working as a child laborer, or that a child's family was so mired in poverty that it was likely that he or she would be forced to seek work.
The IRC and AVSI looked at two regions of Uganda: the north, where years of fighting between the rebel Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan government forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes; and the northeast, specifically Karamoja, which has suffered from years of underinvestment, unemployment and more recently a prolonged drought.
In both regions, parents cited a lack of money as the main reason for sending their children out to work rather than keeping them in school. Parents also questioned the value of sending their children to run down and ill-equipped schools when they could be earning a living instead. In northern Uganda, for example, the educational infrastructure has been decimated by years of protracted fighting and neglect. Many teachers have been displaced and forced to move elsewhere.
Similarly, the northeast, while not subject to the same kind of widespread fighting as seen in the north, suffers from violent clashes between rival pastoralist clans. It's also a remote, drought-prone, impoverished region-- hardly a favorite on the list of places newly qualified teachers choose to be based.
So what can be done to stop the scourge of child labor? How can poor parents in countries like Uganda be persuaded to allow their children to attend school instead of spending their days breaking stones? There must be a two a two-pronged approach: one that provides parents with opportunities to earn a regular, sustainable income; and one that also improves the quality of schools and education.
The Ugandan government and international donors must put more funding behind projects like one recently launched by the IRC and AVSI in Uganda. The LEAP project - Livelihoods, Education and Protection to End Child Labor - helps poor parents to maximize income via savings and loans associations. It also repairs school buildings, trains teachers, provides educational materials, pays school fees and works with the Ugandan authorities to promote enforcement of laws that that prohibit child labor.
Thank to this effort, more than 11,000 children who might otherwise have wound up as child laborers are attending school instead. One of them is 16-year-old Rita Lotip from Moroto Town. For four years, she worked as a domestic servant, fetching water, cooking meals and cleaning clothes. She says she wanted to go to school but, as the oldest child in her family, it was her 'duty' to help provide for her siblings. Now, thanks to the LEAP program, Rita is back in school and eager to learn.
Rita has high hopes for the future. She says she wants to be a teacher, to tell other kids that 'education means wealth'. More funding must be made available to tackle the root causes of school absenteeism so that more children like Rita get such a chance.
Dorothy Jobolingo is a child labor expert with the International Rescue Committee in Uganda.