The domestic economy of child labor

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Many of the households and families we meet are in difficult circumstances. Most are unemployed or, even where they have a job, things are not going well. They do their best to put food on the table and make sure their children go to school, but they have no support to do so. As a result, the whole family must work together as farm laborers or in other jobs to make ends meet.

Children are supposed to be in school and now that education is free in Ghana, it is easy to blame these families for breaking the law. But really, we just blame them for being poor. We have to face reality and admit that if we don’t increase support for these families, child labor will not go away, no matter how much we preach against it.

Why is that?

There are a lot of misunderstandings around child labor. Some people believe that children work because they are bad apples or skip school. Others say that child labor in Ghana is due to child trafficking or child slavery. This kind of statement surprises me. People don’t just traffic children or force them into slavery. Children work because of poverty and hardship, and most of those we see have no other alternative.

Now there are adults taking advantage of it. Those of us who work at the local level are well aware of this. But these opportunists are lucky because of the situation in which the children and their families find themselves. Household poverty is the root cause and we are not doing enough to address it.

That’s why you have to help the household if you want to help the children. If the family is not in a good position, you cannot simply put the child in school or prevent him from working and expect everything to be fine. This kind of intervention does not end well for these children.

We have seen this so many times. A well-meaning person or NGO comes along and sponsors a child. There’s a lot of fanfare at first, but after a short time this child will either be back at their old place of work or won’t be attending school regularly because things aren’t going well at home. Unless the benevolent party continues to send funds throughout the child’s education, this initial help goes nowhere.

Many NGOs are active in the region around child labour, including yours. What motivates and shapes their work?

How NGOs access funding in Ghana is a major issue. We need money, and very often the funding comes from foreign partners with conditions. Donors generally expect you to implement a program according to their wishes. But that doesn’t mean they have the right solutions.

For example, they may ask you to use the funds for child labor awareness programs. This may be helpful to some extent, but we may wonder if children really work because they lack knowledge about the harms of child labor. My experience makes me doubt it. Instead of awareness-raising events, the funds could have more impact if, for example, they are distributed in the form of micro-finance grants or seed capital to families in difficulty. Many of the women we meet are very resourceful, and giving one of them even 2000 GHS (around $200) to start something could mean the difference between whether their children have to work or not. As an activist on the ground, you can see this clearly. You can even discuss it with the funder. But they have their own agendas and don’t always listen.

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