Working children: issues and impact
A visit to any industrial neighborhood of Cairo will quickly confirm that children are a significant part of the country’s work force.
It is difficult to quantify the issue for several reasons. One reason is that most of the work done by children is confined to the informal
Studies might not agree on numbers--they range from three percent to 15 percent of children working--but they generally agree that poverty is at the root of the problem. Surveys have shown that working children usually come from large, low-income families and that the wages of working children represent almost one quarter of total household income.
The informality of children’s work seems to translate directly into long work hours, averaging from nine to 11 hours in different studies, and dangerous work environments. Children harvesting cotton routinely work 11 hours a day seven days a week in the 40-degree heat of the summer, and in a survey done by Human Rights Watch in 2002 nearly all reported beatings by foremen.
Schooling and education also suffer when children work. Studies suggest that children who try to work and go to school don’t do as well at school as other children, but also that almost half of paid child workers simply do not go to school at all.
UNICEF is working in partnership with local Egyptian non-governmental organizations both to monitor and prevent children from falling into the workforce and to protect and improve the lives of children who have no choice but to work.
On the prevention side, since 1999, UNICEF has been supporting four community monitoring mechanisms for children at risk in Cairo and Alexandria, with the aim of tracking and providing support to children who are exposed to any form of risk. Individual cases are identified at the community level by social workers and community leaders, who then forward the cases to expert/advisory committees that propose appropriate interventions.
For the children that are actually working, UNICEF -- in partnership with the Egyptian Red Crescent Society in the community of El-Nahda (an area of Cairo badly hit by the 1992 earthquake) -- and in West Helwan, is providing working children boys and girls with basic education and health care, meals, as well as cultural and recreational activities.
The projects in El-Nahda and West Helwan are based on a successful model implemented by the Regional Maritime Scouts Association and UNICEF in Alexandria since 1993.
The Alexandria project not only aims to help working children by improving their working conditions in cooperation with employers, but to develop the children’s personalities, talents and abilities as well. So far, the project which is based in West Alexandria has reached more than 2,500 working boys and in 2004 the project is being extended to serve working girls.
Also in West Alexandria, a complementary micro-credit scheme established more than ten years ago in partnership with the Sidi Gaber Association provides loans to mothers of the working children who receive rehabilitation services through the Regional Maritime Scouts. The aim is that once the mothers can start home-based businesses, this will encourage them to send their children to school instead of work.
At the national level, UNICEF has been a partner with the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood and the International Labour Organization in the development of a National Strategy for Child Labour and a National Plan of Action. The process towards the development of both documents has been a participatory one involving all those concerned with the issue in the Egyptian context.