The Complicated Issues of Child Labor

When going through my notes from Tanzania the other day, I was lucky enough to find a hastily drawn picture I had created that maps out what I saw as the contributors to the practice in rural areas.

I was living in Tanzania working on a child labor project in two agricultural regions of the country. Child labor refers to the employment of children in any work that deprives a child of their childhood, interferes with their ability to attend school regularly, and is mentally, physically or morally dangerous and harmful. A vast majority of child labor is found in rural settings and in the informal urban economy. Rather than being employed in factories or by others, most children are employed by their families. I want to point out that child labor is not an issue exclusive to the developing world; it is also prevalent in the US, although more hidden. But my experience with child labor issues is in Tanzania, so we’ll start there.

Child labor in Tanzania is widespread with millions of children estimated to be working. Despite positive policy efforts including the National Child Labor Survey and the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children, the government contradicts itself by continuing to implement policies that discourage children to stay in school. They also delay the advancement in eliminating the worst forms of child labor including gold mining, sisal cultivation and fishing by failing to pass strong legislation condemning the practice.

A handwritten map outlining the different contributors to the issue of child labor

Initially, It seems relatively simple to solve an issue like child labor; a family needs their child to work because they can’t afford school and rely on that child for income. So they send them off to work in their fields or in the house of a local family. But if someone pays for that child to go to school and supports the family financially, then he or she will be able to attend school. Although that intervention would be difficult enough to carry out, it still probably wouldn’t work as well as we think because the issue is complex and multifaceted. The primary causes of child labor are considered to be poverty and lack of schools, but it’s more complicated than that. And if you try to solve the issue solely from one angle, the entire problem isn’t solved.

I'll try to explain my map in some detail. To begin, let’s acknowledge several exacerbators of the practice other than poverty: the need for cheap labor, the market demand for cheap labor, economic shocks in households, complicated family dynamics and instability, difficulty in accessing quality education, political instability or armed conflict, school dropouts, a lack of emphasis on the importance of education and ignorance on the detriments of child labor. A single one of these issues on its own may not lead to a child dropping out of school and working, but several of these combined can cause the issue. They all work in conjunction with one another until a tipping point is reached. For example, if there aren’t quality schools to be accessed locally, a family often doesn’t place an emphasis on education, often because the heads of household themselves weren’t well educated and schools weren’t accessible to them either. So lack of access to quality education can be the result of no emphasis being placed on education plus a lack of information on the negative effects of child labor.

There are other factors which cause high dropout rates in areas as well. Child labor can cause a child to drop out of school, but a child can also drop out due to hunger, not having enough food available at home nor at school (school lunches are rarely provided by public schools). A child can’t properly learn while hungry and often struggles academically. The kind of child who has a difficult time affording lunch is often the same child who is pressured to miss school for extended periods of time to work. If he or she returns to school after working for a period, he or she is behind and finds it difficult to catch up, especially while not being provided with enough nutrition. Many children we worked with reported feeling too overwhelmed with what they’d missed to be able to stay in school and not being supported by their teachers who are overburdened and underqualified to meet the needs of their diverse student requirements and education levels. Further, in rural areas, public schools are in disarray. School structures often have dirt floors, the walls are crumbling and there are not enough desks for students. These challenges often discourage children from attending school and taking pride in their education and can contribute to high dropout rates.

Child labor isn’t only exacerbated on a household level. Taking a macro-perspective, the lack of government capacity to create legislation and enforce child labor legislation as well as provide quality and affordable access to education for all children also contributes to the issue. If a national government does not implement policy that supports the eradication of all kinds of child labor, it does not set an example to local governments about the importance of the issue. Then if a local government does not buy into these policy ideals as well there is no institutional support for children to stay in school.

Something as complex as this can be overwhelming to try to solve. Here’s how the organization I was working with worked to reduce the prevalence of child labor in rural Tanzania. I do want to preface this by saying we were far from perfect in our approach, but we did attempt to solve the issue from several angles.

Our objectives were fivefold:

  • Increase school attendance amongst those who are participating in or at risk of participating in child labor

    • We wanted to ensure that school was considered a second home for students and that school fees and supplies did not prevent attendance. Therefore the program paid for school fees and supplies of qualified students who were engaged in or at risk of child labor. In addition, we started school lunch programs in all schools to incentivize student attendance. That was often the only substantial meal these children ate for the day.

    • Schools themselves were in poor shape and the quality of teaching was poor in these areas. In order to fix this, we organized renovations on small parts of our partner schools to make them a more comfortable environment for students to learn. Before, different grades were forced to share classrooms or hold class outside. In order to fix this, unstable walls were reinforced and dirt floors were replaced with cement creating more useable classrooms.

    • Since graduating, public school teachers received no educational training. The program held trainings on updated teaching techniques and methodologies, how to appropriately test a student’s education level, and how to better engage with students. Teachers were encouraged to assume mentorship roles and reduce the use of corporal punishment in classrooms. These trainings assisted teaching staff in identifying at-risk youth and encouraged them to continue their education. Teachers were given strategies to track attendance and make phone calls and house visits when a student stops showing up. School board members and local government officials were also trained on the detriments of child labor in order to get buy-in from all key stakeholders

  • Increase incomes of target households

    • Many children are forced to work for their families instead of attend school because their families cannot afford to hire additional labor; instead, they rely on their children as income generators. To alleviate the financial burden on poor households, our program trained beneficiaries (AKA parents of our student beneficiaries) in various income generating activities. These people tended to be uneducated, agricultural and very poor. There were several trainings hosted on proper agricultural techniques to increase production as well as other income generating practices including beekeeping, chicken rearing and basic small business skills. These helped households receive proper training and obtain a diversified skill set, giving them the opportunity to increase their incomes and decreasing the need to rely on children for financial support.

    • In order to prevent household shocks that can also force children away from school to work, the program established informal savings groups amongst parent beneficiaries called Village Community Banks, or VICOBAs for short. Each week, members were expected to save a predetermined amount with their VICOBA. This pool of money could then be lent at a modest interest rate to an individual member who needed capital, which they pay back over time with a modest interest rate. These VICOBAs served as a safety net for those whose livelihoods are fragile and household shocks can prove devastating.

  • Increase employment amongst youth ages 15-24

    • By the age of 15, a majority of youth in these areas drop out of school, having failed their exams and leaving them with no other educational opportunities. They’re legally allowed to work limited hours, but tend to find employment in professions that are dangerous and exploitative, with few alternative opportunities and burdened by the expectation to earn an income to support their families. While it was too late to re-enroll these children and youth in school, we set them up with employment opportunities that were safe and fruitful, partnering them with local stakeholders. Youth participants’ increased incomes helped to support their younger siblings’ school attendance.

    • The program hosted youth trainings in which participants developed goals for their lives, mapped out how to viably achieve them and create a business plan to outline their employment goals and plans. Most participants wanted to be carpenters, tailors, beauticians etc., but lacked the necessary training and equipment to accomplish their goals. The program set the youth up with apprenticeships and vocational trainings in order to get the proper instruction they needed to excel in their fields. It paid the required training fees, which has previously prohibited many talented youth from pursuing their goals. Once training was completed, beneficiaries were gifted with in-kind start-up capital in order to begin their businesses and become their own employers. Tailors were given a sewing machine, carpenters were given tools, etc.

    • To the youth not interested in learning a skill, they were asked to develop a business plan for creating a micro-business. Many became cooks or sold solar flashlights. In those instances, our program provided the pots and pans for starting a cooking business or the first round of solar flashlights that participants sold for a profit.

  • Increase availability of social protection services (like health insurance)

    • The program worked to prevent or better prepare beneficiaries for household shocks, giving them a safety net. Therefore, we focused on connecting beneficiaries to available health insurance opportunities so an injury or illness of a family member would not put a household in extreme debt. The Tanzanian government had established an insurance package for those who live in poor and rural areas several years prior, but many people were not familiar with the program or were hesitant to join. Our partners went door to door, explaining the project and its positive and negative aspects to our beneficiaries. Insurance cost between $2.50 and $5, which seemed overwhelming to beneficiaries who did not understand the benefits of insurance. So the program subsidized the cost of insurance for a year until participants could try it out and see if it benefitted their family. When a participant or their family member became sick, they were able to travel to a government-sponsored hospital for a much cheaper rate than if they were not covered, saving them money in the long run.

  • Improve government capacity to monitor child labor trends and to develop programs that reduce the prevalence of child labor

    • Because our program was time bound, we wanted to ensure that once the program ended, there were others who were going to monitor child labor trends in Tanzania and fight for its eradication. We called it “Institutional Capacity Building”. We pursued many projects that targeted government institutions from the village to national level. After being educated on the negative aspects and illegality of child labor, villages and districts created child labor committees with the help of our program. They developed their own education plans on how best to involve and educate their communities through awareness raising activities in the hope that these groups would continue to monitor the issue long after the program ended.

    • The program also worked with the national government, supporting policy that discourages child labor. We attended conferences and encouraged instituting appropriate legislation. As we lobbied, we raised attention to the issue of child labor. We also encouraged the national government to add to its educational curriculum information on child labor. If children are exposed to what child labor is, they’re able to identify it and tell an authority figure, especially if it is happening to a friend.

    • This aspect of the project aimed to raise awareness on the detriments of child labor. This was done through village meetings, debates, radio ads, billboards, signs, pamphlet distribution etc. We were trying to expose our target populations to the harms of child labor in order to change the culture that allows the practice to exist.

This  project seemed extremely well-thought out in the sense that it understands the causes of child labor and works to address the issue from all sides. But as you can tell, it required a huge execution team, buy-in from participants and government officials, an understanding of the culture, and extensive amounts of time.  It’s discouraging that in practice, this project did not meet a lot of its targets. Why? Because the project was poorly managed, funding was limited, the areas the project was working were so spread apart and difficult to visit, and changing minds and attitudes take time. So many things had to go right for this to be a success, and only a few could go wrong before it was a failure. This project needed to be on the ground working for 10+ years to make a significant difference, but that's not always what a donor wants to hear, or do. Aid is typically available in smaller increments and in smaller time frames. While we worked tirelessly on this issue, it disappointingly might not be considered a success. Did we make a huge dent in the issue of child labor in Tanzania? That’s still unclear to me.

The issue of child labor is difficult, messy and complicated. But so are other development issues. Think about water shortages, violence against women, lack of infrastructure, environmental degradation, high unemployment rates, poor education systems. I’m not writing this post to be discouraging, but instead to remind us all that there’s no simple, band aid solution to global issues. We need a thoughtful, consistent and concerted effort to make lasting change. And with more people helping us do it.

RoHo is committed. Who is with us?