The right to be a child: intersections between girls’ education and child labour
“They forced me to work all day… I do not know how many hours. I had to clean the house when I got up and before going to sleep. I was so tired all the time, I just wanted to go home. Now I am learning to read and I am very happy, as is my mother because she did not have the opportunity to do so.”
- Aziza, student and ex-domestic servant, 11 years old, Mauritania
Last November I interviewed Aziza as part of a Master’s dissertation project which highlighted the main barriers to girls’ education in Mauritania. Aziza had been forced into slavery as a domestic worker, had to sleep on the floor, worked around 18 hours a day, and suffered regular beatings.
Aziza’s is not an isolated case. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there are 152 million children in child labour worldwide, 88 million of whom are boys and 64 million are girls. Nor is this a recent issue. In 1999, the ILO International Convention 182 against the worst forms of child labour confirmed that eradicating this practice, in particular enslaving girls as domestic workers, was a priority. The convention has since been ratified by 181 countries worldwide, but child labour remains a major issue.
Today is World Day Against Child Labour, which aims to highlight the magnitude and consequences of children being enlisted in the workforce. It is a day on which we demand that governments fulfil national and international agreements, report on progress, and be held to account for delivering on their commitments.
The impact of child labour on education
Domestic child workers are usually aged between 5 and 13. This is in violation of ILO convention 138, which establishes the minimum age for light work as 12–14 years for developing countries, if it does not pose a barrier to education, and 15 years for full-time work, so as not to hinder completing compulsory post-primary education. However, the consequences of child labour for education are always negative, with millions of children unable to go to, stay in and succeed at school because of it.
Yet in relation to education, child labour can also create a catch-22 situation. For many households in extreme poverty, the small income that children earn is needed to support the family and pay for school-going requirements such as tuition fees, uniforms, and text books. At the same time, child labour inevitably disrupts children’s schooling and leads to high levels of drop out, keeping them and their families trapped in a cycle of poverty.
The untold toll of child labour for girls
For girls, within the wide framework of child protection, it is particularly important to acknowledge intersections between child labour, education access and gender-based violence (GBV). When girls are deprived of access to education due to labour, they are more susceptible to violence, discrimination and exploitation, including sexual violence, early marriage and teenage pregnancy. High poverty rates and lack of registered civil status, especially in rural areas, fuel exploitation, street vending, and sex trafficking.
Yet child labour is an even more complex issue for girls than data suggest. Too often, traditional gender roles that place the burden of domestic chores on girls’ shoulders add another level of unpaid labour. According to a UNICEF report, girls between the ages of 5 and 14 spend 40% more time, or 160 million more hours a day, on household chores and collecting water and firewood compared to boys. Too often, this unpaid labour goes unnoticed and leads to a form of ‘time poverty’ that significantly limits study time, academic achievement, and, ultimately, life prospects.
Delivering on the promise and potential of education
For girls like Aziza, education has the potential to act as a catalyst for breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty. Safeguarding girls and enabling them to access a safe and quality education must therefore be an international priority. Governments need to step up and take action by integrating gender-sensitive policies and programming, particularly in education, child labour, and GBV, which address the root causes of poverty and its consequences. This includes making girls’ work visible and adapting policies to the realities of extreme poverty to help them stay in school and succeed.