A Problem Ignored in Ethiopia

Child labour has long been discussed as an issue in many parts of the world. In particular, families in developing countries have long relied on all members, even the youngest, to help shoulder the load of providing for the family. Although some experts have contended that there are ways for children to help with families’ livelihoods without being affected themselves, many children sent out to work are exposed to violations of their rights through physical and even sexual abuse, labour abuse and human trafficking. EBR’s Menna Asrat reports.

 

Seeing children working on the streets of Addis Ababa is a common phenomenon. Whether in the blue and white minibuses that crowd the streets, with shoe shine kits on pavements, or carrying packages and bundles back and forth for customers, mass migration from the rural areas of the country have been giving Addis Ababa’s labour force a younger and younger face. 

In fact, children working to help support their families has long been a normalized if not completely accepted part of life in many developing countries, including Ethiopia. However, in recent years, awareness has been rising about the risks to which children are exposed while working. These include child trafficking and modern slavery as well as abuses.

Biruk Bayew (name changed to protect his privacy) is a 13 year old boy who makes a living taking on odd jobs wherever he can. Sometimes he works as a fare collector (taxi assistant) and as a labourer. He comes from a large family, originally in the southern part of the country. Due to land scarcity and food insecurity, many of the younger children in rural Ethiopia like Biruk often drop out of school and try to find work in urban centres. His day starts at six in the morning and can stretch until nine or ten at night, with about an hour’s break in between. 

“There are 10 children in my family, so my parents couldn’t support them all. Instead of fighting over the little farming land we do have, my family encouraged us to leave the area and look for work somewhere else to help support ourselves and the rest of the family,” Biruk told EBR. “It’s not unusual in the area I grew up.” 

Biruk and his friends, many of whom work in the same areas as he does, all contribute to the care of their families where they can. According to data published by the United States Department of Labour in 2017, 41.5Pct of children aged seven to 14 in Ethiopia are engaged in some type of work while 30.8Pct combine work and school in some form.

In Ethiopia, the allowed minimum age for a child to participate in paid employment is 14, which is around the age that children will have completed primary education (although there is no explicit reference to this effect). But even then, there are restrictions on the types of work that children under 18 can perform, including working in warehouses, or transporting people and goods. 

However, the enforcement of this law put in place to safeguard the rights of children has proved a challenge, both for the local, regional and federal government. The African Child Wellbeing report, released by the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF) earlier this month, ranked Ethiopia 43rd in child friendliness out of 52 African countries. 

“The situation is not well documented in Ethiopia,” says Yehualashet Mekonen, program manager of the African Child Observatory under ACPF. “There are some figures that go around, but they don’t show the whole story. Especially in the area of domestic work, there are a lot of children who are hidden from the formal systems.” 

In Ethiopia, as with many other African countries, domestic labour is one of the areas where children are widely employed. However, child labour is divided into different categories. The worst forms of child labour, in which children in Ethiopia are legally forbidden from participating, include forced labour, illegal buying, selling and movement of children for labour or exploitation, debt bondage, where work is exchanged to pay off loans people cannot repay with goods or money, serfdom, where someone is forced to live and work on land belonging to someone else, often with little or no pay, children in armed conflict, and exposure to sexual exploitation, including prostitution and pornography.

No matter what kind of work they are engaged in, however, many children are still exposed to maltreatment by adults. “Myself and my friends are mistreated by the people who employ us,” explains Biruk. “They hit us, insult us, and push us around. We are made to do difficult work and some of my friends can’t manage it, which makes the employers more upset.” 

Creating an environment where children are not forced to work in positions that violate their rights requires a multi-pronged approach. Poverty is one of the biggest reasons for children being forced into labour. “Poverty is one of the biggest reasons for children having to work,” stresses Yehualashet. “But addressing it needs time and a multi-faceted approach.” 

One of the biggest needs of children to lift them out of poverty is education. However, even if primary education in Ethiopia is almost free, there are other associated costs that present roadblocks in the quest to educate all children. 

Another child, Abi Taye (name changed to protect his identity), who, similarly to Biruk, works for a living, even at the tender age of 10, is testament to the need for education. After moving to Addis from Gamo, in the state of Southern Nations, Nationalities and People, he found work as a shoe shine boy. “I live with six other people in one room,”        

he explains. “But even though I have to go around town all day to work, I still make sure I got toschool at night. That way I can have something better in the future.”

The 2015 National Child Labour Survey of Ethiopia, conducted by the Central Statistical Agency, revealed that it was registration fees, expenses for school uniforms learning materials, travel costs and time, and other miscellaneous expenses, that made sending children to school an additional burden for poor families. “In addition, one needs to carefully consider the indirect (opportunity) costs of children attending school which include: foregone income from economic activities, forgone learning by doing, value of children’s time in household production and the role children’s earnings sometimes play as a buffer against shocks. In some cases, children who do not attend school support themselves by working outside the family. In particular, for poor families who benefit from government-run primary schools, the opportunity cost of sending children to school might be outweighed by the actual annual payments made for those schools. There is a view that such hard earned scanty resources could be used for meeting other pressing needs of the families as well,” read the results of the survey.

However, as challenging as the solutions are, addressing the economic exploitation of children is a pressing issue. By 2050, Africa will be home to over a billion children under the age of 18. The continent’s increasingly young population is an asset, but governments also need to be able to protect and preserve their rights and potential. 

“Many people view children as just being small adults,” says Yehualashet. “There isn’t really an understanding of how being exploited, or working in inappropriate jobs can affect children psychologically. There should be more concern about it, because we are talking about the future potential of the country.” 


7th Year • Nov.16 - Dec. 15 2018 • No. 68


 

 

Menna Asrat

Deputy Editor-inChief

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