Today, on World Day Against Child Labour, I think back of the children I met when I was working for the Child Rights Desk at the Human Rights Institute in the Philippines.
I met children who made brooms for a living, stepping with their bare feet first on coconut husks and then to make the husks more durable, soaking them in the chemicals normally used to embalm dead people. I talked to children who helped their families earn money by making pyrotechnics devices, such as fireworks or matches. Most of them were suffering from respiratory and eyesight problems. A number had burns, as fires were common occurrence in a neighbourhood of makeshift houses.
These children, and others like them around the world, who are child labourers are deprived of their childhood. They are denied the right to go to school, to play, to rest, to enjoy good health and to develop to their fullest potentials.
The International Labour Organization estimates that while there was a decrease from the 2000 figure of 246 million, globally there are still 168 million child labourers. This is more than ten per cent all 5-17 year-olds. At 78 million, Asia Pacific has nearly a tenth of this share. More than half of the global estimates, or 85 million, are still in hazardous work. In Asia Pacific, a third of child labourers engage in hazardous work.
Eliminating child labour is a complex challenge because the causes are wide-ranging. Poverty is only one among social and economic factors. Children are forced into labour by various circumstances. They can be street children, victims of child trafficking, migrant children, or stateless children. The problem is that many of the existing counter-measures often deal with only one of their problems.
Effective action requires more joined-up interventions. UNICEF advocates for, what we call a “systems approach”. This approach aims to put in place an integrated system of laws and services – social welfare, education, health, security and justice – to prevent and protect children from harm and abuse.
Some of the most cost effective preventive interventions emphasise providing families and communities with incentives and alternative opportunities for earning a livelihood to keep their children away from hazardous work. These incentives include eliminating schools fees and other costs, and providing social assistance to families with children to support children’s attendance at school.
These measures work best when they are complemented by training in effective parenting, life skills education, and where service provision is still lacking, providing alternative – for example, community-based – modes of delivering health, education and other social services to reach the most vulnerable children.
Today, on the World Day Against Child Labour, I wonder what has become of the children I met in the Philippines. We need to work towards the day when no child is deprived of his/her childhood. After all, children are only children once.
Grace C. Agcaoili is Child Protection Specialist for UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific