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Children on the Frontline

Putting Uganda’s Working Kids Back in School

Ugandan teenagers, 16-year-old Monica (l) and 14-year-old Raya (r) are grateful to no longer have to work to earn a living for their families so that they can now attend school. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

, Jun 13 2013 (IPS) - Children around the world may complain about attending school and doing their homework, but not 14-year-old Raya*. For two years she was forced by her illiterate parents to spend every day, rain or shine, selling sugar cane from the family garden to customers on the streets of Entebbe, about 35 km outside the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

Sometimes she sold the crop alone, sometimes she sold it with her mother’s help. Children, travellers and the elderly were her main customers, but many people would take the sugar cane and run away without paying for it.

Raya’s daily earnings, normally 8,000 Ugandan shillings (three dollars), were used to put food on the table for her parents and four sisters.

“It happened when my mother had no money and she could no longer take me to school,” recalled the current grade nine pupil.

“School is the best because you come to school to get skills on how to make money in future. I’m very happy.” -- 14-year-old former child labourer Raya

“It wasn’t easy … The day was harsh because the sunshine was too much and I would walk long distances looking for customers. If I rested, we wouldn’t have food that night. I didn’t like it because I wanted to go to school.”

There are 2.75 million children aged five to 17 years engaged in economic activities in Uganda, according to the 2009/2010 Uganda National Household Survey (UNHS) report.

The National Action Plan on Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour in Uganda 2012/13 to 2016/17, defines a child as a person below the age of 18.

The report, published by Uganda’s Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development in May 2012, defines child labour as “work that is mentally, physically, socially and/or morally dangerous and harmful to children; work that interferes with children’s school attendance; hazardous work which by the nature or circumstances under which it is performed jeopardises the health, safety and morals of children.”

Just over half – about 1.4 million – of Uganda’s child labourers toil away in hazardous jobs that include stone quarrying, brick-making and laying, sand and clay mining, charcoal burning, fishing, car washing and hunting.

Many others work in hotels and bars, where they often end up being beaten or sexually abused, said social worker Barbra Ongodia from local NGO Kids in Need (KIN). Some also work as house servants and in the construction and commercial agriculture industries.

Ongodia told IPS that there could actually be over 10 million child labourers in Uganda, a country with 34.5 million people. According to Ongodia, many of the child labourers come to Kampala from northern Uganda and work in the capital, after experiencing years of trauma from the war against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

The LRA fought in the north and northeastern parts of Uganda for 23 years, until they were kicked out of the country in 2006. The war, which forced close to two million people into camps for internally displaced persons for decades, was the most brutal that Uganda has faced since independence from Britain in 1962. It was also characterised by its use of child soldiers and brutality.

The rebel group is currently operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and western South Sudan.

According to UNHS statistics, western Uganda has the highest number of cases of children working, followed by the eastern and central regions, then the north.

The increasing prevalence of child labour is attributed to several factors, including high levels of poverty, the burden of HIV/AIDS, education costs, food insecurity and the soaring number of orphans under 18.

Ongodia said that child labour threatened all Ugandans. “The skills of the country are being undermined because these children are not learning, they are just becoming vagabonds,” she said.

Hamidu Kizito is a local journalist who has, for a decade, followed the “Stop Child Labour” campaign in Uganda by the Dutch development organisation Hivos. He told IPS that there is a “cultural trait” attached to children working.

“I remember … when we were growing up, we used to work, but we were not overworked,” he said.

“But over time there were families where children were overworked at the expense of their education and health … The struggle is how do we change the perception so everybody knows that this is not right,” he said.

Raya was eventually taken off the streets with the assistance of a KIN Child Labour Free Zone-committee, which consists of ordinary members of the community who help the NGO identify working children. KIN has found some children who have been working for up to five years, Ongodia said.

KIN works with the families of child labourers and parents are taught business skills. They can also borrow money from village savings and loan associations (VSLAs).

Today, Raya’s mother weaves baskets that she sells by the roadside, netting her about 300,000 Ugandan shillings (116 dollars) a month.

Despite being robbed of her education for two years, Raya does not blame her family for forcing her to work on the streets.

“I wasn’t mad at them because they had a lot of problems and they had to feed the whole family,” she said.

Raya has just completed her latest round of examinations. She enjoys Maths and English, and hopes to become an accountant.

Her best friend is Monica*, a 16-year-old former street food vendor, who was also helped by KIN. After Monica was taken off the streets, her mother joined a VSLA. Now, the schoolgirls spend all their lunchtimes together.

“Some children take it for granted to be in school, but they think others are like them. Some children are not in school but they would like to be,” Raya said.

“School is the best because you come to school to get skills on how to make money in future. I’m very happy.”

*Surname withheld to protect identity of minors.

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