South Africa's forgotten children

The theme for this year’s World Day Against Child Labour is "Caution! Children in Hazardous Work". The 12 June global event will attempt to shine a spotlight on the most exploitative and harmful forms of child labour, many which occur in South Africa.

Evidence of the active movement to protect children and end child labour can be seen in the large number of International Labour Organization policies and other legislation enacted over the past decade.

Different forms of child labour

South Africa recognises three types of Worst Forms of Child Labour: the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, Children Used by Adults (and other children) to commit Crimes and travelling long distances to fetch and carry water.

All these forms of child labour are harmful to a child’s physical, psychological, moral and social development. They are all also (save fetching water), incredibly difficult to track and monitor.

South Africa’s Department of Labour (DoL) has over the years risen to the task of tackling these issues by making amendments to labour legislation to include the criminalisation of child labour and regulating work done by those less than 15 years of age.

What are we fighting?

There are few shelters to accommodate adolescent victims of exploitation and trafficking, especially older children who have been sexually trafficked, as well as those who are transgendered, HIV positive or drug users.

There are many gaps but one of the worst is the widespread lack of knowledge and understanding of child labour and that it is a crime. Many see it as a foreign idea, something which is not an issue in South Africa.

There are currently few recent national statistics concerning child labour, let alone its worst forms.

The statistics

In 1999 Statistics South Africa conducted a household Survey of the Activities of Young People. It found that out of 14.4 million children between five and 17 years, more than 3.3 million were working in commercial agriculture, subsistence farming, manufacturing, construction, trade, transport, informal finance and services (which includes domestic work).

Of this total, 247 900 children were found to be in the Worst Forms of Child Labour category. But this figure is considered by many to be a gross underestimation of the actual number of children involved in exploitative labour because the survey was limited to children within households and did not include the large number of children who live and work on the streets. This includes thousands of young girls forced into sex work.

The hours children spend daily travelling long distances to fetch water in rural areas means this goal will not be achieved until child labour issues are addressed. 

A 2006 Human Sciences Research Council study found that children as young as five are walking as far as 3.7 kilometres every day which means they get to school late or are unable to attend altogether. One girl child interviewed said: “Sometimes you are so late that you find yourself coming to school without washing. We girls are not comfortable at all coming to school without washing.”

Doreen Gaura is the Anti Child Labour Programme Coordinator at Activists Networking Against the Exploitation of Children. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

Were you aware of how many children are subjected to child labour?
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