The Youngest Workers

168 million children under age 14 involved in child labor worldwide

(This article appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of SSA Magazine.)

Can household economic strategies such as savings groups and seed grants bring the poorest families in Burkina Faso far enough out of poverty so that their children can stop working? Will sensitizing parents on child’s rights by addressing normative beliefs and knowledge related to child labor, child marriage and value of education protect children from labor-related family separation, violence and exploitation? In a new evaluation study I’m launching with a number of partners in this West African country, we’re using a three-arm randomized controlled trial to try to answer these questions and test two different approaches to preventing violence and exploitation of children.

Answers are desperately needed, because 168 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 years old are involved in child labor globally, according to the International Labor Organization. The largest numbers are in Asia and the Pacific—78 million or 9.3 percent of the child population. However, the higher prevalence still remains in Sub-Saharan Africa—59 million children or 22 percent of children on average.

Burkina Faso (translated as Land of Honest People) is among the countries with the highest prevalence of child laborers in the world, and with an ongoing food and nutrition crises due to repeated droughts, the situation for many ultra-poor households has worsened. While the legal age of employment is set at 16, 1.25 million children between the ages of 5 and 14—or more than a third of the nation’s child population—–are in the labor force.

Millions of children worldwide are put to work in ways that often interfere with their education and harm their physical, psychological and social development. Only 40 percent of children in Burkina Faso attend primary school, and attendance plummets even further during the farming season when children are helping out their parents. Many Burkinabé children work to augment the incomes of their families by farming, tending animals or assisting their parents with petty trade. In addition, from early morning until late evening children are engaged in domestic activities like cleaning, washing, taking care of siblings, collecting firewood or fetching water that requires carrying a five-gallon water canister for miles.

Furthermore, many children are sent away to work in gold mines, cotton fields or cacao plantations in the south of Burkina Faso or Ivory Coast or other neighboring countries. Children are considered a cheap labor force because, instead of money, they can be paid in just food and shelter. Children tend to come for seasonal work with their parents, but sometimes they can be sent alone or trafficked. Children who are separated from their families and sent away to work are at high risk and more likely to be exposed to physical deprivation, violence or exploitation. Adolescent girls, who are sent away to work as domestic servants or maids to the capital city, Ouagadougou, may face the risks of sexual exploitation and abuse.

More than half of child laborers worldwide, 85 million, are involved in hazardous labor, which includes carrying heavy loads, being exposed to toxic chemicals such as pesticides in agricultural work, working with dangerous equipment or tools such as using machetes on cacao farms, and working under extreme conditions like extreme heat or underground. Due to their size, children are often more “suited” for jobs that require working in small or confined spaces like tunnels at gold mines. Children often comprise between 30 to 50 percent of all workers in gold mines, and one quarter of all children in the world working in mines are in a region of the Sahel shared by Burkina Faso and Niger.

Although less frequent, some children end up exposed to the worst forms of child labor, a category of violence defined by the United Nations as including practices similar to slavery, debt bondage, serfdom and forced labor.

Extreme poverty is considered a major contributor to child labor and heightens children’s risks of being separated from family or exposed to violence and exploitation. Girls are often faced with early and forced marriage to reduce financial burden on the family. A lack of information and cultural norms are believed to have an impact as well. In search of better opportunities and unaware of the risks, parents may choose to send their children away for work. Parents may also undervalue the importance of education, particularly for girls, and underestimate the opportunity cost of domestic chores that diminish time and energy for studying.

I hope that at least one of the interventions we will be testing will demonstrate positive effects on child protective outcomes. However, targeting individual families can only go so far. Villages identified for the pilot study are among the poorest even by Burkinabé standards, often lacking electricity and sources of clean water, let alone schools. Children often have to walk, often without shoes, more than two hours to attend school. In these circumstances, structural/macro-level policy changes are essential.

Leyla Ismayilova is an assistant professor at SSA.