To end child labour we must understand the realities of children

Published on 12 June 2019

Kelly Shephard

Head of Knowledge, Impact and Policy

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines child labour as work that “deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development”. Currently, 152 million children are recognised as being involved in child labour. Whilst child labour takes many forms, there is an urgency to eliminate the worst forms of child labour (WFCL) – all forms of slavery, child prostitution, pornography, illicit activities or work, which by its very nature will harm the health of a child.

These definitions and numbers are important as they help us to be specific, but how far do they match the lived realities of the world’s children? As 12 June is the ILO World Day Against Child Labour the shocking statistics are just that, shocking. But they must not stop there. They should serve as a reminder that we have to be realistic and recognise that the issue WFCL is complex and deep-rooted in cultural norms and chains of power. All too often WFCL is hidden or pushed into unregulated domains as there are strong incentivise for both children and organisations to “invisibilize” this type of labour.

It is for this reason that in the autumn of 2018, IDS and our partners welcomed the opportunity to work with the Department for International Development (DFID) to improve understanding of the factors that drive modern slavery and the worst forms of child labour and develop innovative interventions to counteract them.

Without doubt, child welfare should be high on the world’s agenda, but a greater understanding of the drivers of child labour are urgently needed. We should not rely solely on the assumptions and definitions of organisations and government departments as this will not lead to scalable interventions and ultimate improvements in poor and uncertain family futures. Instead, we should work with young people to build their trust and look to include children’s perspectives when deciding meaningful priorities for action.

Research for innovation

In a ground-breaking programme, focus will be given to the South Asia region and aims to build a strong evidence base and generate innovative solutions to the WFCL, exploring how to take these to scale. In this sense, it is neither a typical research programme nor a typical NGO implementation programme – but is designed to build on the strengths of all the partners to work towards the desired end impact of a decrease in the number of children in the WFCL in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal.

The programme design aims to build on children’s and other stakeholder’s perspectives and experiences. By taking a participatory, adaptive and child-centred approach to evidence and innovation generation, and using intentional scaling strategies, in each country activities will generate evidence of the drivers of and effective innovative interventions to reduce WFCL.

In the short term these will raise awareness of risks, and of where WFCL exists in the informal and unregulated domains of supply chains, such that stakeholders directly involved in programme interventions, as well as policymakers and other key stakeholders in the child labour programming system, will be motivated to engage in developing innovative solutions. In the longer term, we hope it will take us closer to the ultimate goal of ending the worst forms of child labour and those vulnerable to being drawn into it.

The Child Labour and Modern Slavery programme builds on a growing body of research that IDS has undertaken on these issues including mapping existing evidence on modern slavery, and is part of a broader area of work on participation, inclusion and social change at the Institute.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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