By Ibrahim Jaffa Condeh and Kevin Hill
According to a recently released report by UNICEF on child labour and school attendance, 78% of children between the ages of 7 and 14 in Sierra Leone are engaged in child labour. The study, which covered one quarter of the world’s population, ranked Sierra Leone last among nations surveyed.
The survey used data from two types of household surveys: the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) and the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) to provide data for the tracking of the Millennium Development Goals.
The achievement of universal primary education is one of the Millennium Development Goals. Child labour, which can exclude primary school aged children from accessing an education, is a major obstacle to reaching this goal
The UNICEF report found that “children from poor households and from households without a formally educated household head are more likely to be engaged in child labour and less likely to attend school”, a situation that shows that “poverty is the root cause of child labour.”
The survey considered both economic activity and household chores and tried to distinguish between acceptable work and child labour. Child labour is work done by children that should be eliminated because it violates international labour standards, harms the child, or interferes with school attendance.
Child labour is defined by UNICEF according to the number of hours worked and the type of activity a child engages in, depending on their age. A child between 5 and 11 years old is engaging in child labour if he or she is performing any economic activity or more than 28 hours of household chores per week. Boys and girls 12-14 that are working more than 14 hrs per week of light work, or 28 hours or more household chores per week, are engaging in child labour. Those who are between 15-17 are child labourers if they engage in any hazardous work.
According to UNICEF, an estimated 158 million children aged 5-14 are engaged in child labour world-wide. This means that one in six children on the planet is engaged in child labour.
These children are often found working in hazardous situations or conditions, such as working underground in mines, working with chemicals and pesticides or dangerous machinery in agriculture, or at sea for fishing.
In Sub-Saharan Africa alone around one in three children are engaged in child labour, representing 69 million children.
Spotlight on Freetown
Chief of Rokupre-Portee Wharf on the eastern edge of Freetown, Pa Almimy Serry Thoklah, said that the situation in his community is “deplorable”, adding that there is no primary school for the children to attend, or even toilet facilities.
Parents lack education, so often don’t appreciate the value of an education. They would rather send their children to sea to work in order to help support the family. This means that those children who can access primary education are often forced to work to support their family instead.
These children serve as pillars of support for their parent’s survival. The benefits of education are totally hidden to some parents because they did not attend school themselves. Parents expect their children to follow in their footsteps. This cycle of illiteracy keeps people in the community impoverished and means that the history of the parent is doomed to repeat itself in the future of the child.
Abu Kamara, 14, started going to sea two years ago because he could not refuse his parent’s wishes. He is the only breadwinner for his family, and is expected to bring in Le25,000 to 30,000 everyday. He wants to continue working as a fisherman, as it is the fastest way to make money at Rokupre-Portee Warf.
Memunatu Koroma, a business woman in the Rokupre-Portee Wharf community, said more than 75% of the children in the area work. “The children go to sea tonight and bring back fish and firewood for sale and some for their home consumption. Through having a little money from these odd jobs they can cater for their parents when they fall ill.”
Although primary school is free to attend, many must go to work to meet their basic needs and to help their families. School fees for secondary schools act as another impediment for these young people in accessing an education.
Musa Sama, 11, stopped going to school in class 5 because his parents could no longer afford to have him continue at school. He has now spent two years doing this work. “We get out basic money from this. I am very good at doing such a business as this.”
The entire community lives in poverty, forcing all residents, including children, to contribute to basic survival. Many children in the area are orphans who have no choice but to take care of themselves.
Philip Sesay, 17, is one such orphaned child. He began going to sea when he was 14. He joins other young people going to work each day, fishing along the coast of Freetown. The youth are responsible for casting the fishing net into the sea at around 2AM, the appropriate time for success in fishing. They must keep the nets from tangling and must be very good swimmers or risk drowning during the course of their work.
Chief Pa Almimy Serry Thoklah is looking for NGO programs to support the Rokupre-Portee Wharf community, as government has failed to provide basic services to the area. The chief is aware that many of the children who go to work are directly responsible for the welfare of their parents so he cannot force them to go school.