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There is need to rethink the place of work in children’s lives, taking into account African culture and the perspectives of children in Africa. While children in high-income families and societies often enjoy a childhood of leisure, work is taken for granted as constitutive of growing up for the majority of the world’s children. While many parents in Africa regard the international campaign against child labour as an ethnocentric imposition contrary to accepted child rearing practices, many children are concerned that the burdens imposed on them interfere with their learning and development. While work activities can contribute to growing up, child development also depends on constructive interaction with the people around them. We need to learn what work means for children in different situations.
Much discussion of children’s work considers only the point of view of adults – what they expect or demand of children. In practice, the experience of work, and the benefits or harm that it brings to children’s lives, is strongly affected by how children perceive their work. Children’s perspectives are therefore essential to understanding the benefits and harm of work in their lives.
Most childhood work in Africa consists of unpaid work, whether domestic chores in the home or work on small farms or in other family enterprises, through which children learn their roles in society and acquire standing in their families through their contributions. Nevertheless, even domestic work can be extensive in poor households, especially when it includes collecting fuel and water or the care of sick in the family. While many children receive benefits from extended families, wealthy kin sometimes exploit the cheap labour of poorer kin under the guise of offering help. When work extends to helping on farms and tending livestock, it can incur hazards and may interfere with the child’s schooling. How do we ensure that the work children rightly undertake as part of the educative process of growing up does not become so harsh or extensive as to hinder their development?
Paid work in Africa often begins at an early age. Earnings of children can help with family budgets in poor families. Contribution to family income gives to children status and respect in their families. Work can provide escape from restrictions at home, due to poverty or other constraints. Especially as children reach adolescence, work can help to extend relations beyond the home, meeting with peers, learning to deal with adults, and learning skills that are necessary for future life. When children are out of school for any reason, work provides constructive activity that is preferable to idleness. And yet work can also be psychologically and physically abusive, hazardous, and interfere with schooling. Apprenticeships can involve much work with little respect and little training in return. How do we allow children to benefit from the opportunities that work offers, while protecting them from exploitation?
There is a fear that children’s work hinders their attendance or performance at school, and so restricts their future possibilities. And yet in many situations, it is the work that provides for school expenses, and work can create future opportunities particularly for children who are not very proficient at school. Are school and work essentially incompatible? What kinds of work are compatible with schooling and what kinds of schooling are compatible with work? When children work instead of attending school, is it the work that is keeping them from school or the failure of the school system that drives them to work?