Putting Children First
The economic exploitation of children is an insult to humanity. All over the world children continue to work, putting at stake their education, their health, their normal development to adulthood, and even their lives.
Millions of them work under hazardous conditions, which present dangers to their health, safety and welfare.
They toil in mines and quarries, are exposed to agrochemicals in agriculture, squat in crippling positions to weave rugs and carpets, and scavenge in rubbish skips.
Too many are enslaved in bonded labour, isolated in domestic service, and traumatised and abused in commercial sex trade.
According to International Labour Organisation's estimates, some 250 million children between the ages of five and 14 years are in economic activity in developing countries alone.
For 120 million of them, work is a full-time activity. The remainder combines work with schooling or other non-economic activities.
While most child labour occurs in the developing regions of the world, industrialised countries are not entirely free of it either.
In Eastern and Central Europe, for example, child labour has been reappearing in the wake of social and economic dislocation caused by the transition to a market economy.
In absolute terms, Asia, being the most densely populated region of the world, has the largest number of child workers.
Sixty-one percent of child labour occurs in Asia, 32 percent in Africa and seven percent in Latin America.
In relative terms, however, Africa comes first in the proportion of children participating in economic activity, with an estimated 41 percent of the total number of children aged between five and 14 compared to 22 percent in Asia and 17 percent in Latin America.
Every child has a right to their childhood – an existence free of exploitation, violence, neglect and extreme poverty.
Children need education, health services, consistent support systems as well as love, hope and encouragement; all these things and more are required in order to experience childhood to the fullest, and to eventually develop into healthy, capable adults.
Children cannot always be told what to do and what to think; they should be able to affect decisions that concern them.
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that, “The child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.
“The child should be fully prepared to live an individual life in society … in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity.”
However, millions of young people around the world are exploited in different ways.
Children are forced to work in factories, in backrooms, on the street, and in the sex trade.
They can be sold as slaves or even drafted to fight in wars. The violation of children’s rights is pervasive throughout many countries and fuels struggling economies, but exploitation of children is not restricted to the public sphere.
A paralegal for Gender Research and Advocacy at the Legal Assistance Centre, Yolande Engelbrecht, said children are too often the recipients of violence in their own home, where a high percentage of abuse ‑ sexual, physical, emotional, and psychological ‑ takes place.
“There is under-reporting of child abuse in all societies as a result of factors such as social norms pertaining to sexual exploitation of children and corporal punishment, the hidden nature of child abuse and the associated shame and stigma which abused children experience,” she said.
Engelbrecht said under customary law, very little appears to have been done when it comes to the recognition of the rights of the child.
From a traditional point of view, Engelbrecht said some elders take advantage of the close relationship that they have with children.
“Children are sexually abused and these days, they are likely to be infected with HIV/AIDS as a result.
“Due to the values instilled in children, this type of abuse may go on and on without being detected.
“In some instances, the abuse is never reported; so the culprit goes unpunished and continues his wicked actions with the next child victim,” she said.
In other circumstances, Engelbrecht said the abuse is shrouded in secrecy, once again protecting the perpetrator for the sake of community relations and at the expense of the child. This is typical of most rural communities. The Constitution of Namibia also protects children’s rights. Article 15(2) further states the following: “Children are entitled to be protected from economic exploitation and shall not be employed in or required to perform work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with their or to be harmful to their health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.”
The Constitution makes it categorically clear that no child is permitted to be exploited by anyone for economic benefit.
Others prefer to call it child labour. Research has shown that most children mainly work as a result of poverty or family disintegration.
Today, the issue of HIV and AIDS has exacerbated children’s plight. The child may have been born HIV-positive, or the same poverty and family breakdown scenario forces the child to become involved in promiscuous acts that affect his/her welfare.
Moreover, observations have revealed that in various supermarkets and private businesses in Namibia today, children are seen packing items at till points.
In most cases, their remuneration is a customer’s loose change. Is this not also a form of economic exploitation prohibited by Article 15(2)?
This Article must be read in conjunction with Article 15(3), which provides the following, inter alia: “No children under the age of fourteen (14) shall be employed to work in any factory or mine, save under conditions and circumstances regulated by Act of Parliament.”
Even if the government is fully committed to ensuring that children are protected from all forms of economic exploitation, a child’s plight cannot improve significantly if other stakeholders do not complement government efforts.
Furthermore, the situation regarding the protection of children from exploitation as labourers on farms appears to be more deplorable than that in urban areas.
It is difficult to monitor the illegal employment of children on farms, where it is nonetheless well known that children under the age of 16 are often employed for all kinds of labour.
This exposes some shortcomings in terms of Article 15(2). Others argue that, if these children did not perform those menial jobs, they would suffer hunger.
Therefore, in as much as Articles 15(2) and (3) protect children from economic exploitation, the practical reality seems little affected by such protection. Further protection to children is provided under Article 15(4), as follows: “Any arrangement or scheme employed on any farm or other undertaking, the object or effect which is to compel the minor children of an employee to work for or in the interest of the employer or such employee”.
According to the last Namibian Child Activity Survey of 2005, the number of children working in the country stood at 220 043, with most of them in the rural areas.
The current estimates by the International Labour Organisation put of the number of children engaged in employment in Africa at approximately 80 million.