Nearly a quarter of a million children, or 16 out of every 100 children worldwide, are engaged in exploitative child labour—in violation of Convention on the Rights of the Child and international labour standards. Almost three-quarters of them work in hazardous environments, such as mines or factories, or with dangerous substances, such as chemicals.
The majority of child labourers are “invisible” – hidden from sight and behind the reach of the law. Many of these children are not only being exploited, they are often being denied education, basic health care, adequate nutrition, leisure time and the safety and security of their families and communities. In general, girls’ domestic work is the most invisible of all and there is some evidence that girls may constitute the majority of child workers.
UNICEF regards education as a powerful means of preventing child labour. Children who are in school are at less risk of exploitation. Conversely, children who are working and have an opportunity to learn are in a better position to improve their situation.
Since 1986 UNICEF has sponsored an inter-regional programme called “Education as a Preventive Strategy,” which seeks to respond to three main challenges:
- Access. Getting working children into the classroom. Strategies to achieve this include early childhood programmes, distance learning, bilingual education and flexible scheduling of classes, so that children who are working can also attend school.
- Second chance opportunities. Getting working children in school often requires transitional arrangements, including non-formal education and accelerated classes.
- Retention. Keeping children at risk of dropping out because of economic, cultural and social reasons, in school. Interventions include financial incentives to families, and improving the quality of education by integrating life skills and livelihood components.
Among the 35 countries where the programme is operating is India. In Firozabad in Uttar Pradesh, for example, children are often employed in the glass bangle industry to help their families make ends meet. Although child labour is strictly prohibited by law, enforcement rarely occurs in the homes or small informal enterprises where most of these children can be found. Making a bangle involves 32 steps, many of which can be hazardous to children: heating and joining the ends of the bangle over a kerosene flame; cutting designs in the bangles using fast moving blades; and using chemical-based silver and gold polish for decoration.
Project Chiragh, supported by UNCEF and other partners, uses education as a lever to support children and their families who depend on this trade. Raising awareness about the dangers of child labour and the value of education is carried out through street plays, door-to-door canvassing, folk songs, dances and magic and video shows. Following such campaigns, children between the ages of six and 14, especially girls in hard-to-reach areas, are encouraged to attend Alternative Learning Centers after work, as a stepping stone to formal education.
In Benin, children from impoverished families are often sent to urban areas to become domestic workers or to find employment in other areas. Some of these children are illegally “trafficked” within and between countries. The lucky ones are intercepted at border crossings and sent home. Others, mostly the poorest children with the lowest levels of education, slip through the cracks.
To prevent this from happening in the first place, UNICEF sponsored training for 170 village committees in Benin in subjects including child labour, child trafficking and child rights. Committee members, in turn, alerted parents to the dangers of trafficking and of the value of education. Radio broadcasts and TV spots—many of which were produced with or by children—also helped to spread the word. As a result, trafficking of children in areas governed by village committees has declined dramatically over the last three years, in part because of vigilant monitoring and surveillance efforts by committee members themselves.
In Lebanon, 128 teachers and school advisers were trained in counselling techniques to identify potential dropouts and to keep them in school. While most children in that country attend primary school, drop out rates for secondary school tend to be high in northern and southern regions and in the Bequaa Valley. The “sentinel system” programme has been so successful that a similar training module for teachers will be integrated into the pre-service training of all teachers in Lebanon. Another aspect of the programme provided “second chance” vocational training for children 14 to 18 years old. Through the project, vocational instructors from private and public schools and social workers linked children in training with employment opportunities in their communities.