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 Saturday 12 September 2009
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SIERRA LEONE: Whether to criminalize child labour

Photo: Anna Jefferys/IRIN
The lucky ones: these Kono district children attend school and only work at an artisanal diamond pit on weekends
LUNSAR, 4 September 2009 (IRIN) - The child rights act ratified in November 2008 in Sierra Leone criminalizes child labour, but some child rights experts say instead of prosecuting parents, the government should focus instead on getting children into school.

“We don’t want to penalize or criminalize poverty. Many of these parents have few options,” said Annalisa Brusati, child and youth protection coordinator at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Sierra Leone. “The aim of the act is to reduce child labour, not to have everyone committing crimes. Parents need to be aware of how to make new choices,” she said.

Exploitative labour is defined in the act as work that deprives children of their health, education or development opportunities. Full-time schooling at state-approved schools is required for all under-13’s who must complete primary and junior secondary levels; those aged 13 and above can engage in “light labour” and are not legally required to attend school, according to the act.

An estimated 18,000 children still work or live on Sierra Leone’s streets, according to the government’s National Commission for War-Affected Children’s executive secretary Alhaji Mohamed Kanneh. Most of them are involved in street-selling, stone-breaking,  fishing, or work as porters and cooks for diamond miners. Many are deprived of attending school as a result.

Advocacy efforts by child rights groups to pull children out of diamond mines and into school have been successful, Brusati told IRIN, but have not stamped out the practice altogether.

High numbers of street children involved in exploitative labour are partly a hangover from the civil war that officially ended in 2002 and partly because of high living costs and unemployment, said Kanneh.

“A community issue”

Getting children out of work and into school involves all sectors of society, says Josephine Conteh, who set up a primary school to educate working children in Lunsar in northern Sierra Leone. More than 100 working children – many of whom were orphans or separated from their families and all of whom worked full-time as guides to blind beggars – have attended since the school’s opening in 2006, Conteh told IRIN.

“Before this school opened the future of these children was bleak, as they would spend most of their time begging with no consideration to their education,” Conteh said. With no official funding, her school relies on donations.

IRC is helping communities set up child welfare committees to find ways to send working children back to school in each of Sierra Leone’s 148 chiefdoms that make up the country's 14 districts.  

“This is a community issue, not a family issue,” said IRC’s Brusati. “Seeing it [child labour] as a community problem will show us the way out.”

Committees that have already been set up have helped families save money for school fees, urged schools to cut fees and encouraged communities to set up funds to support families unable to pay, Brusati told IRIN.

At the district level, the National Commission for War-Affected Children is holding workshops with district councils in Bo, Bombali and Koidu on dangers faced by working street-children and how to get them into schools.

Dangers include greater vulnerability to sexual abuse, accidents, disruption of education, delinquency, health hazards and teenage pregnancies, according to UNICEF.

But national-level progress is slow. A commission to monitor enforcement of the act, including monitoring by-laws, which districts must pass in order to implement it, has been announced but not yet set up, the government’s Kanneh said.

“It [child labour] is a serious embarrassment to the nation because not enough has been done both by the government and other stakeholders to address the problem,” he told IRIN.

The Ministry of Social Welfare charged with enforcing the act receives 1 percent of the government’s annual budget, according to the IRC. The ministry must develop a work plan and budget to implement the act, Brusati told IRIN, for only then can it appeal to the president for more financing.

Attending school is children’s best chance to find more meaningful, less exploitative work when they are adults, said IRC’s Brusati. While recognizing the high unemployment rates across the country, educating children is a vital step to getting youths into a tight labour market, she said.

“Education is a part of breaking the cycle of poverty in which the majority of Sierra Leoneans find themselves…Everyone needs to be educated...not only to negotiate their basic rights but to overcome the lack of skilled labour in this country.”


Theme(s): (PLUSNEWS) Children, (PLUSNEWS) Economy, (PLUSNEWS) Education, (PLUSNEWS) Human Rights


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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