CASES of child labour have been on the increase as children are finding themselves exploited in key economic sectors. 

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines child labour as work that is inappropriate because of a child’s age, the nature of the work, the number of hours worked or some combination of these factors.

It is not surprising to find children aged 10, and some even below, working in agriculture and mining industry, among others, as vendors, commercial sex workers or domestic help.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic that not only altered the way of life but also impacted the economic situation of most families, it aggravated the issue of child labour in Zimbabwe as it brought additional poverty to already vulnerable populations. 

The breakdown of the family unit, as most children lost parents and guardians to COVID-19, as well as the closure of schools resulted in some children being forced to work to contribute to the family income.

Over the past few years, there has been an increase in the cases of child labour. 

According to the Vendors Initiative for Social Economic Transformation in Zimbabwe’s position paper: “Nearly 20 000 children have turned to vending as a means of survival during the COVID-19 lockdown.”

On the other hand, UNICEF reported that 13 percent of children in Zimbabwe were engaged in child labour during the same period.

A study on child labour conducted by the Ministry of Labour in partnership with international and local partners, including ILO and UNICEF, revealed a spike in the prevalence of the worst form of child labour. 

Children’s Rights Advocate Mada Nkiwane said when children engage in child labour, other rights, including the right to health and education, are infringed upon. 

“As children spend hours of their day on the streets as vendors, or on farms as workers or in the home as domestic help, they lose a portion of their childhood that they will never regain,” she said. 

“These children miss out on education, play time and other childhood activities and this has implications on their development.” 

It is pleasing to note Government has taken steps to address the issue of child labour. 

A National Action Plan for Orphans and Vulnerable Children has been in place since 2004 and it guides the provision of care for these children. 

It is these vulnerable children who are prone to engagement in various forms of child labour. 

Government has engaged labour organisations, including the Zimbabwe Commercial Trade Union and Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Union, to seek ways on how to deal with child labour.

Government has also responded by reuniting children found on the streets with their families. 

Programmes, such as the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM) have been in place to assist children from vulnerable backgrounds to access education. 

Nkiwane said there was still more to be done to curb child labour. 

“Stakeholders can consider adopting a bottom-up approach and work together with the affected families through participatory approaches such as workshops to hear from communities how to deal with the issue of child labour,” said Nkiwane. 

“A multi-sectoral approach is key with institutions including the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, Farmers Unions, Miners Associations, Traditional leaders, community leaders, religious leaders and school heads.” 

Nkiwane said it is important to not leave children out when raising awareness on child labour. 

“There is need for children to be educated on child rights by incorporating them in the school curriculum,” she said. 

“Children should be empowered to enable them to report when they are being exploited.”

Nkiwane said there is need for gaps existing in child labour related issues to be addressed. 

“The first gap is that there is no clear definition of what the term ‘orphans and vulnerable children’ means, especially in the current economic climate and increasing vulnerability of children in the country,” she said. 

“There is no follow-up or assistance to children reunited with family after being removed from the streets.” 

Government programmes, such as BEAM, said Nkiwane, should be made accessible to the appropriate candidates. 

“The processes of applying to be under BEAM is tedious, with media reports indicating that officials running the programme are allegedly corrupt,” she said. 

“Stakeholders should chip in as we find that BEAM only offers education with no food, clothes, shelter and this may defeat the efforts by Government as those children might end up engaged in child labour to access the other essentials, but with support they will not (sic).”

Policies and legislation, she said, should be reviewed and take into consideration cultural aspects and lived realities. 

As efforts continue to be made to fight child labour, it is hoped a lasting solution can be found.

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