Since the major cause of child labour is poverty, says a new study by the United Nations Children's Fund on the problem in West and Central Africa, the key to winning the battle against child labour is the economic development of the people.

By Someshwar Singh

February 1999

Geneva: The growing demand for child domestic workers is leading to increasing rural-urban and cross-border trafficking in children under the age of 15, warns a new study released here on 8 February by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

A comparative study of child domestic labour in 10 West and Central African countries has found that young children, who make up the bulk of the population, are exposed to the 'worst forms' of working conditions and girls in particular are vulnerable to exploitation.

One hundred and thirty-two million children in West and Central African countries are under 15 years of age, accounting for 48% of the population. According to ILO (International Labour Organisation) estimates, about 53 million children are engaged in one economic activity or another.

Globally, about 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are forced to work. Thirty-two per cent of these children are in Africa.

Demand for skilled labour is low in all the countries within the region, as in all non-industrialised countries, whose mainstay is agriculture. Child labour is used to meet the high demand for unskilled and cheap labour.

Over three-quarters of children working in African countries are considered as family help and therefore receive no wages. Such is the lot of 95% of working children in Mali, 80% in Senegal and 70% in Ghana.

Children who do not attend school or drop out of school are naturally sucked into this burgeoning informal sector. These children's involvement in the informal sector activities is the very symbol of child labour in the region.

Mobilised for their own survival, or quite often for that of their family, as street hawkers, workers on family farms or apprentices integrated into the productive world of micro-enterprises, African children are not considered by society as children in danger, or even children at work.

Yet, over the years, the West and Central African region has seen a surge in such hazardous child labour activities as garbage collection (in Senegal, Mali and Cote d'Ivoire), stone-breaking (in Cameroon) or mine work (in Cote d'Ivoire). More hazardous to the health of these children are the conditions under which these activities are carried out rather than the activities per se.

According to the UNICEF study, the tender age at which children start working, the physical and emotional isolation as well as sexual abuse meted out to them are the most serious and intolerable risks to which working children are exposed.

'Combining all these risk factors, is child domestic labour.'

Children serving as domestics have to perform a host of tasks. Over half of the children are also involved in some form of business or economic activity, with a working day being, on average, over 14 hours long, and no opportunities to rest.

Many countries in West and Central Africa recognise the fact that child domestic workers, particularly girls in urban areas, are the most vulnerable category facing peculiar risks, and whose status, along with children working in agriculture, calls for priority action.

The major cause of child labour is parental poverty. Economic considerations are strong determinants of child labour. These are forces which push and pull children to work. All the statistics concur that the greater majority of child domestic workers come from low socio-economic status households, characterised by parental illiteracy, and in disadvantaged (rural) areas.

Rural parents seeking a better future for their children are encouraged to place their children in an urban household, with the understanding that the children will provide domestic labour in return. The parents are willing to accept the risks that accompany this arrangement since it offers a possibility, no matter how small, of getting the children out of their present condition.

The increasingly organised fashion in which 'agents' or intermediaries are now operating, the study warns, is giving a new dimension to these 'child markets'. The proportion of child domestic workers who are thus professionally 'placed' varies from one-third to 60% - depending on the country and the study.

Curbing the traffic in child domestic workers currently depends to a large extent on strengthening legislation on the movement of minors. However, there are several institutional constraints caused by insufficient material resources, lack of awareness, and corruption.

In the final analysis, the study says, the battle to change the child labour scenario will be long. It will also require many forces (mainly regulatory and educational) at the local, regional, national and international levels to work together. And, above all, whatever be the motive power, economic development will have to be the bottom line of any insurance for change. - Third World Network Features

The above article first appeared in SUNS (South-North Development Monitor), Issue No. 4372.