Business and Economy

Urgent action needed to stop child labor in Africa as COVID-19 pushes more children into work

Urgent action is needed to address child labour in Africa’s agriculture sector, participants heard at a regional conference hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) held today.

Latest estimates show there are more children in child labour in Sub-Saharan Africa (86.6 million) than in the rest of the world combined, and the vast majority, four out of every five children, are engaged in child labour within the agriculture sector. Root causes include household poverty, limited access to quality education, inadequate labour-saving technologies, and traditional attitudes towards children’s participation in agriculture.

“We need zero child labour in agriculture to achieve zero hunger, and we need to act now,” said FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Africa Abebe Haile-Gabriel in his opening remarks at today’s event. He noted that “climate change, inequality and poverty continue to pose challenges to rural livelihoods where child labour is often used as a negative coping mechanism,” and urged greater leadership from agricultural stakeholders across Africa to accelerate action.

“There is no justification whatsoever for having millions of African children in child labour,” said Cynthia Samuel-Olonjuwon, ILO Assistant Director-General and Regional Director for Africa. “It is unacceptable that this number is likely to go up due to COVID-19. It is untenable that half of these children are in hazardous work that puts their safety, health and sometimes their lives at risk. It is indefensible that almost a third of them don’t go to school. Child labour is a grave problem that requires us to take drastic action,” she said.

The event, hosted by FAO’s Regional Office for Africa, brought together stakeholders from across the continent to engage on fast-tracking solutions to ending child labour in agriculture in Africa. Participants included technical experts, government representatives, financial institutions, farmers’ groups and labour organizations. Today’s event is part of a series of regional events around the world ahead of FAO’s high-level Global Solutions Forum: Acting Together to End Child Labour in Agriculture, in November.

The problem

Child labour in agriculture harms children, damages the agriculture sector and perpetuates rural poverty.  It is defined as work that is inappropriate for a child’s age, affects their education, or is likely to harm their health and safety. Much of the work children carry out in agriculture is unpaid and takes place within the family unit. It could include carrying very heavy loads, coming into contact with hazardous pesticides and other chemicals, or working extremely long hours.

Globally, there are 160 million children in child labour. The International Labour Organization and UNICEF estimate that the economic impacts of COVID-19 may drive millions more children around the world into work.

Through the Sustainable Development Goals (Target 8.7), countries have committed to ending child labour in all its forms by 2025, but progress is not on track to meet this target. Eradicating child labour globally will not be achieved without a breakthrough in Sub-Saharan Africa, and particularly in agriculture.

What can be done?

Recommendations discussed at today’s event include supporting decent livelihoods for smallholder farmers such as through social protection, stronger and better organized producers’ groups, integrating child labour prevention into the design of investment programmes for agriculture and rural development, and introducing labour-saving technologies.

Among those at today’s event reaffirming their pledge for greater action was Godfrey Bahiigwa, the Director of Agriculture and Rural Development at the African Union Commission.

“The African Union is committed to accelerating the achievement of SDG 8.7 and reducing child labour in Africa, and using its political and convening capacities to drive greater coordination of implementation efforts across the continent,” he said.

Taking action to end child labour

Through the Framework on Ending Child Labour in Agriculture, FAO works with agricultural stakeholders and rural communities to improve livelihoods and promote good and safe agricultural practices so that families can afford to send their children to school, rather than to work. FAO also works with national governments to advocate for policy and program changes to end child labour. 

The European Union has co-funded a multi-year, multi-country FAO project to support cotton farmers to expand their livelihoods and send their children to school instead of to cotton fields. The CLEAR Cotton Project is implemented by ILO in collaboration with FAO in Burkina Faso, Mali and Pakistan.

In Uganda, teenagers at risk of falling into labour instead attend Junior Farmer Field Schools, or ‘schools without walls’, where they learn relevant skills including innovative agricultural practices.

2021 is the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour which aims to drive progress at local, national and international levels.

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