From work to school

By Cristina Ferández Pereda

No nation in the world can presume that there are no child laborers among its people.

More than 240 million children work every day instead of going to school. They load rocks and sand, handle explosives, crawl in tunnels of mines or work in water. Many times they use dangerous tools, breathe dust or are in contact with toxic products. This situation will cause them life-long health problems.

They are millions from countries that signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child. From 1989, it forces governments to protect children from “economic exploitation and from undertaking any work that might be dangerous or interfere with education, or that is harmful to their physical, mental or spiritual health or for their social development.”

In Latin America, more than 18 million children work on the streets, in mines or on plantations. Ten years ago the International Labour Organization and the Spanish Agency of International Cooperation and other international organizations and ONG, began fighting to send child workers to school. Thanks to their collaboration, 100,000 minors attended high school.

Their work is based on the International Program for the Eradication of Child Labor. IPEC aims to combine national policies with projects that will compel various countries to ban child labor.

The first accomplishments of the Program have demonstrated that it is possible to end child labor through the application of a series of measures. It’s necessary to help the mining communities of these countries organize themselves into cooperatives, acquire legal rights, improve security measures in the workplace and secure certain essential services in health, education and hygiene in the workplace.

However, these organizations cannot replace the governments. The aim is to give a model to the countries in which child labor is most prevalent. Afterwards, the national governments must, once they have acknowledged the necessity to educate children, secure the defense of their rights and prevent their return to the streets, plantations or factories.

As Gillermo Dema, the coordinator of IPEC for Central America, Panama and the Dominican Republic, says, “we are convinced that the fight against child labor is a long-term effort. This program aims to help the countries that have this problem, but we must understand that it is the affected nations that must eliminate it. We help and give tools.”

UNICEF distinguishes between two types of child labor: the work of children in peasant or artisan families, who, due to the level of poverty, require the cooperation of the youngest, and the exploitation of children for a company or employer outside the family. In this last case, the child cannot fit in school time in their work schedule.

The general rule in child labor is the greater the poverty, the more kids work. The alphabetization programs for minors like IPEC are conscious that one of the first steps is to combine work with education. Behind every working child, there is a family that counts on his salary, no matter how small. Acknowledging the importance of education may be the first step for them to learn another job and leave the vicious cycle of poverty.

No country in the work can presume that there aren’t any working children among its people. The majority of them are found in Africa, Asia and Latin America. With projects like IPEC a growing number of children are leaving the labor market to enter school, to build a better future.

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