People tell childhood stories about scraped knees trying to ride a bicycle or family stories about trips to the mountains where someone fell off a tree. One hundred sixty million children shall never share such stories. This is the number of children engaged in child labor, possibly with the lack of any opportunity to improve their life. Child labor is defined at the international level by two ILO Conventions as any economic activity performed by children below the minimum working age, of hazardous nature and in harmful conditions, and specifies which are the worst forms of labor and hazardous work. The prevalence of child labor at a global level is alarmingly high and the positive trend toward the progress of the last 20 years has stalled. The African continent is the worst affected region in the world, particularly Sub-Saharan countries, that account for 26% of the child population in child labor.
Extreme poverty is the main driver. Children work to provide an additional source of income, or after economic shocks. Poverty is often coupled with a lack of infrastructure and inadequate access to social services and quality education. Most child labor is done within the family unit, through household chores, participation in the family businesses, and farming the family land. Agriculture is, in fact, the main sector in which children are employed. Frequently, harmful work in the household results in school dropout, because families value the much-needed economic contribution by children more than the participation in quality education. Lack of awareness of the harm caused by child labor and socio-cultural norms are to be considered in the incidence of child labor. The overlaying and cumulative dimensions of the phenomenon need to be addressed by looking at the greater picture. The call is for all the stakeholders involved in the protection of children to adopt effective policies to address poverty and ensure basic social protection through national programs or humanitarian action by non-state actors.
Social protection is vital in reducing poverty and vulnerability. However, as of 2020, there are still gaps at a global level. Particularly, in Africa, only 17.4% of the population is covered at least by one social protection benefit, with great disparities across regions. The reasons behind this are the lack of coverage in rural areas, weak governance, underfunding, and ineffective implementation of social protection schemes at the legislative level. However, African countries have expressed strong political will toward the implementation of a social protection floor. The African Union through Agenda 2063 is committed among other things to ending child labor. The “Ten Year Action Plan on the Eradication of Child Labour […]” addresses the causes and effects of child labor and aims at strengthening national legislation and capacity building. Agenda 2063 together with the 2015 “ Ouagadougou + 10 Declaration and Plan of Action[…]“ identifies social protection as a key priority policy.
Measures of social protection usually take the form of cash transfers. However, cash alone is not sufficient to let children escape exploitation instead it could lead to increasing levels of child labor. On the other hand, integrated social protection or cash plus has proved a useful tool in the hands of governments and NGOs. Cash plus programs provide for the combination of cash or assets with complementary interventions to promote households’ and children’s well-being. Such interventions could take the form of basic services, like access to healthcare, but more often they include sensitization training to inform caregivers about the harm of child labor and the benefits of education. To be effective the design of cash-plus programs must include an assessment of the socio-cultural context. The impact of poverty is affected by behavior in the household. Here is where roles are shaped and decisions on children’s future are made. Evidence has sown that families value the involvement of children in work as essential to create their work ethics and in the acquisition of skills.
Complementary orientation in cash-plus programs has to take into account the value that African families accord to labor. Sensitization and orientation should not just information on the bad outcomes associated with child labor but rather offer an alternative view of labor. Instead of simply showing negative effects they should promote safe practices to be associated with school enrolment. A good program, in which cash inflow ensures better livelihoods, would leave time for parents to teach their children safe and healthy agricultural and work practices making the cultural value associated with them at the service of children and not as a means to exploit them.