No child should be in forced labour for whatever reason

Kenyan leaders must take urgent action on child labour, in all its forms and all places it occurs.

Child labour is a serious violation of children’s rights, and despite decades of improvement, it is on the rise again.

According to a new report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Unicef, ‘Child Labour: Global Estimates 2020, Trends and the Road Forward’, the number of children engaged in child labour has risen to 160 million worldwide – an increase of 8.4 million children in the last four years – with millions more at risk due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is reversing previous downward trend that saw child labour fall by 94 million between 2000 and 2016.

Children are forced into work for various reasons. This often happens when families face financial challenges or uncertainty – due to poverty, illness of a caregiver, or job loss of the primary wage earner.

Other reasons include inadequate social protection, limited access to services such as education, and lack of enforcement of existing legislation on child labour.

The consequences can be catastrophic for children. Child labour can result in physical and mental harm. It can lead to slavery and sexual exploitation. And in almost every case, it cuts children off from education and healthcare, restricting their rights and limiting their futures.

Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) show 8.5 percent of children, or 1.3 million, are engaged in child labour.

The highest child labour rates, at more than 30 percent, are in the arid and semi-arid land (ASAL) counties. Here, boys are sent out to herd livestock or harvest sand, while girls are married early or engaged in domestic work.

The consequences can be catastrophic for children.

The Covid-19 pandemic is also having an impact – in April 2020, KNBS reported that around 1.72 million Kenyans had lost their jobs. With this significant loss of income, a growing number of families may resort to sending their children to work.

June 12, the World Day Against Child Labour provides an opportunity to take stock of the situation. Before the recent increase, significant strides had been made towards achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 8.7, which calls on all countries to “secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour… and by 2025, end child labour in all its forms”.

The government has taken some important steps in the right direction. The 2010 Constitution protects every child from violence and abuse, neglect, harmful cultural practices, and hazardous or exploitative labour.

Kenya has also ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the ILO Conventions on Minimum Age of Employment and the Worst Forms of Child Labour. Where they exist, social protection programmes that provide cash transfers to some of the most vulnerable families, have also helped prevent children entering the workforce.

However, more needs to be done. The ILO and Unicef report warns that progress to end child labour has stalled for the first time in 20 years. It points to a significant rise in number of children aged 5 to 11 in child labour, who now account for just over half of the total global figure.

To reverse the upward trend in child labour, Unicef and ILO are calling for: adequate social protection for all; increased spending on quality education and getting all children back into school; promotion of decent work for adults, so families don’t have to resort to child labour; an end to harmful gender norms and discrimination; enforcement of existing laws and policies against child labour; and investment in child protection systems, agricultural development, rural public services, infrastructure and livelihoods.

Kenyan leaders in government, businesses and communities must take urgent action on child labour, in all its forms and all places it occurs.

We need to move from commitment to action, inspire change, and scale up successful initiatives. We must not stop until every child in is out of labour, back in school and enjoying childhood.

- Chibebe is Director ILO Country Office for Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda while Zaman is Unicef Representative to Kenya.