• Friday, April 19, 2024
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BusinessDay

Stolen childhood: Nigeria’s growing battle against child labour

Child-labour

Nigeria confronts a disturbing upsurge in child labour, casting a shadow over its socio-economic landscape.

The dusty streets of Ijora Badiya Lagos became both the arena and testing ground of young Lucky Eze. Instead of carrying notebooks, he gripped the handles of a tricycle, prepared to navigate the intricate web of the city’s hustle.

Each morning, Lucky’s tricycle, adorned in vibrant hues reflecting his spirit, emerged from the narrow alleys of the neighbourhood.

The hum of the engine served as a poignant melody, resonating with the dreams and aspirations now placed on the shoulders of a young boy. His parents, their hair-turned silver and hands weathered by time, observed him depart with a mixture of pride and gratitude.

The tricycle transcended its role as mere transportation; it transformed into a lifeline. Lucky transported passengers through the chaotic streets of Lagos (between Suru Alaba and Apple junction), skillfully meandering through traffic with a combination of expertise and determination.

“I still wish to go back to school but I must provide for my parents and younger siblings. We are six children, and I am the first son. I hope to go back to my secondary school to complete my education,” he told our correspondent.

Although Lucky’s earnings from his labour were humble, they proved sufficient to stave off hunger and maintain a semblance of stability for his family. His younger siblings, harbouring dreams of education, regarded him as a guardian angel.

Child labour is the exploitation of children through any form of work that interferes with their ability to attend regular school, or is mentally, physically, socially and morally harmful. Such exploitation is prohibited by legislation worldwide, although these laws do not consider all work by children as child labour; exceptions include work by child artists, family duties, supervised training, and some forms of work undertaken.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, many children aged 5–14 from poorer families worked in Western nations and their colonies alike.

These children mainly worked in agriculture, home-based assembly operations, factories, mining, and services such as news boys – some worked night shifts lasting 12 hours. With the rise of household income, availability of schools and passage of child labour laws, the incidence rates of child labour fell.

As of 2023, in the world’s poorest countries, around one in five children are engaged in child labour, the highest number of whom live in sub-saharan Africa, where more than one in four children are so engaged. This represents a decline in child labour over the preceding half decade in 2017, four African nations (Mali, Benin, Chad and Guinea-Bissau) witnessed over 50 percent of children aged 5–14 working.

Worldwide, agriculture is the largest employer of child labour. The vast majority of child labour is found in rural settings and informal urban economies; children are predominantly employed by their parents, rather than factories.

Poverty and lack of schools are considered the primary cause of child labour. UNICEF noted that “boys and girls are equally likely to be involved in child labour,” but in different roles, girls being substantially more likely to perform unpaid household labour.

Similarly, a young plantain seller, Motunrayo, had to give up her childhood to work due to her family’s financial struggles. At just fourteen, she was sent to hawk in the hold up in Lekki and Oniru market of Lagos State.

Engaged in the daily routine of hawking her stuff to pass by moving vehicles on the busy Lekki Epe Expressway, Motun’s aspirations for education were cut off due to her parents’ inability to carter for her educational needs.

Yet, within the shadows, Motunrayo discovered solace among a closely-knit community of fellow child labourers.

Another striking story is that of a 15-year-old Aisha Babalola, who sells fabrics as a means of survival.

Carrying a weathered bag pack of tiger nuts drink made by her mother, and a heart weighed down by circumstance, she had been forsaken by the assurance of education, making her an unwilling dancer in the intricate choreography of child labour.

Aisha’s gaze once fixated on the chalkboard, now scanned the faces of potential customers. Her dreams of becoming a nurse were replaced by the immediate need to contribute to her family’s survival.

The fabrics of her school uniform were traded for worn-out clothing, and the laughter that used to fill the school corridors now echoed in the distant recesses of her memory.

As she navigated through the Owena market in Ilesa, Osun State, Aisha’s spirit flickered like a candle in the wind. Yet, during this adversity, there lingered a flame of resilience.

In the quiet moments, between hurried transactions and bargaining, Aisha would steal a glance at the school children passing by, her heart yearning for education.

“The little money I hold in my hand is a lifeline for my family, but my dreams go beyond our humble home. In the hush of the night, I allow myself to dream of a time when education isn’t a luxury when the backpack on my shoulders carries the weight of textbooks instead of the burden of survival,” Aisha lamented.

Nigeria is one of the major African countries which is grappling with an increasingly pressing and distressing issue with the surge in child labour.

Despite both local and international organisations’ efforts, like the World Health Organisation, International Labour Organisation, and United Nations Children’s Fund, to combat this deeply entrenched problem, the prevalence of child labour in Nigeria has seen a concerning uptick in recent years.

Estimates from the International Labour Organisation indicate that Nigeria has one of the highest rates of child labour in Africa, with over 15 million children engaged in various forms of child labour.

This figure represents nearly 30 percent of Nigerian children aged 5 to 17, and the numbers are on the rise.

However, in recent times, the problem has escalated to alarming proportions. Children, often as young as five, are subjected to strenuous, dangerous, and exploitative work in various sectors of the Nigerian economy.

In Nigeria, child labour is widespread, extending its reach across various sectors of the economy. Numerous children are compelled to work in unsafe conditions on farms, tending to crops. Those engaged in domestic work often endure prolonged hours, physical mistreatment, and exploitation.

Furthermore, some children, particularly orphans, engage in street vending, exposing themselves to potential risks such as trafficking and abuse.

Meanwhile, others find employment in diverse manufacturing industries, ranging from textiles to brickmaking, where they face harsh working conditions.

Factors promoting child labour

Several factors contribute to the surge in child labour in Nigeria, making it a multifaceted problem deeply entrenched in the country’s socio-economic fabric.

Widespread poverty and economic inequality are central drivers of child labour. Many families, struggling to make ends meet, are compelled to send their children to work to supplement household income. The lack of access to quality education exacerbates this issue.

Despite Nigeria’s commitment to achieving universal primary education, millions of children remain out of school. The country faces challenges such as inadequate infrastructure, teacher shortages, and socio-cultural barriers, all of which contribute to children not receiving education and being vulnerable to exploitation.

Nigeria has enacted laws to prohibit child labour, including the Child Rights Act and the Labor Act. However, enforcement remains a significant challenge. Corruption within law enforcement agencies, coupled with a lack of resources and capacity, hampers effective implementation.

Cultural norms that view child labour as a right of passage or an essential part of a child’s upbringing persist in many communities. Additionally, the prevalence of the informal economy makes it difficult to regulate and monitor labour practices.

The consequences of child labour are far-reaching and affect not only the children involved but also society as a whole.

Speaking on partnerships with the Federal Government, recently, the Country Director of ILO, Vanessa Pala, said ILO had been partnering with the federal government on how to develop policy, legislation, and strategies to tackle child labour.

She underscored that the collaborative efforts involve engaging stakeholders (private sectors and local governments) to combat child labour and pave the way for enhanced child education and development.

“Additionally, the ILO is actively partnering with the National Bureau of Statistics to ensure the accuracy of data concerning child labour throughout the country. The anticipated data will meticulously examine the extent of forced labour in each state, offering valuable insights to guide policy development in the ongoing fight against this issue.”

Meanwhile, the Executive Secretary of the National Human Rights Commission, Tony Ojukwu, said recently that the exploitation of children deprives them of their fundamental rights, creating a cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and vulnerability.

He declared, “Child labour perpetuates a cycle of deprivation, depriving children of their right to education, play and a nurturing childhood.

“It is therefore imperative that we recognise the urgent need to dismantle this cycle and create a world where no child is forced to sacrifice their potential for the sake of survival.”

According to him, 72.1 million African children are estimated to be engaged in child labour and 31.5 million in hazardous work while 15 million child workers are in Nigeria.”

He said, “Despite considerable progress in recent years, an alarming number of children in Nigeria and across Africa still in hazardous conditions are denied the opportunity to grow, learn and thrive. As the National Human Rights Commission, we recognise that our duty extends beyond this day of commemoration. Our commitment lies in advocating for policies that safeguard the rights of children, working alongside governmental bodies, civil society organisations and stakeholders to enforce legislation that effectively combats child labour and promotes education, protection, and empowerment.

In response to the growing incidence and concerns for child labour in Nigeria, the Ministry of Labour and Employment developed the National Policy on Child Labour.

The Ministry highlighted the Federal Government’s determination to eliminate child labour in its worst forms. However, the increasing prevalence presented a serious threat to the future of children and the overall development of the country.

The Ministry stated, “It hinders the overall growth and progress of children in various aspects such as physical, social, cognitive, moral, and educational, while also contributing to the vulnerability of children for potential involvement in activities like prostitution, robbery, violent crimes, and other forms of deviant behaviour.”

The Federal Government said wide and rigorous consultations were carried out as part of a consultative process to develop a regulatory framework for the elimination of the worst forms of child labour in Nigeria.

The framework includes the National Policy on Child Labour, the National Action Plan on Child Labour, and the Hazardous List of Child Labour in Nigeria.

Nigeria Employers Consultative Association, spoke recently that, “Child labour had also become a major issue for us and in our quest to frontally face the issue from the employer side.’’ NECA had a series of partnerships with the International Labour Organisation focused on creating awareness on the issue of child labour.