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Giving exposure to child rights in Mali


A photography workshop in Bamako enables young people to explore their world through the camera lens and shed light on issues affecting their lives.

© UNICEF Mali/2014/Diarra
A 14-year-old boy welds engine parts near a car repair shop in Bamako, Mali, photographed by workshop participant Gaoussou Kyasso Diarra.

BAMAKO, Mali, 1 December 2014 – Its title may sound dry and legalistic, but to the eight children and teenagers leaning around a table in animated discussion in Bamako, the Convention on the Rights of the Child has real meaning, every day of their lives.

“What is a right?” asks their mentor, stoking the debate. Sékou Keita, a 24-year-old former child mechanic, is permanent secretary of the Association des Enfants et Jeunes Travailleurs du Mali (Malian Association of Children and Young Workers). With support from UNICEF, he has brought them together for a photography workshop to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Convention.

“A right is something you are allowed to do,” says a 17-year-old girl who works as a fabric dyer.

“It is more than that,” says the youngest boy in the room, an 11-year-old former street child who now attends school. “A right protects children from adults who want them to do things that are wrong.”

© UNICEF Video
Gaoussou Kyasso Diarra, 14, found many examples of children engaged in heavy labour in the metalwork shops behind Medina market in Bamako.

Through the work of the association, each has learned the nature of rights the hard way. Gaoussou Kyasso Diarra, 14, ran away from home last year, after a clash with his father, a tailor, and mother, a market trader. The association mediated on his behalf, and he now stays with a friend in the same Bamako neighbourhood as his parents. He works as an apprentice butcher while attending a part-time accountancy course at a professional college.

Extreme conditions

Gaoussou enthusiastically grabs one of the cameras on loan for the workshop, and he hits the streets knowing precisely what angle he wants to approach.

“Most children in Mali work. It is normal here. But I think it's wrong when children are put to heavy labour. I am going to look for examples and photograph them,” Gaoussou says.

At the city-centre Medina market, he plunges into a network of narrow pathways leading to workshops where metal of every description is banged, bent and forged by a motley workforce working in conditions of extreme heat and noise.

© UNICEF Mali/2014/Diarra
Vieux Coulibaly, 6, cuts and hammers strips of metal at his father's workshop behind the Medina market in Bamako. "'He does not have a choice,'' says Gaoussou.

It does not take long for Gaoussou to find his first subject.

“This is Vieux Coulibaly. He is only 6 years old. He is at school, but whenever he has free time, his father brings him to his workshop to hammer out strips of metal with his small hands. These working conditions, especially the noise, are bad for a child, but he does not have a choice, because this is his father's place,” Gaoussou says before snapping shots of the boy from several angles. For the first time in his life, Vieux sees his own image on the screen of a digital camera. He smiles with delight.

Show the whole world

As he walks through the market with his camera, Gaoussou meets with some resistance: “I tried to photograph a boy making aluminium cans. He was about 11 years old. But his boss would not let me. He accused me of wanting to make money from the image. That is unfair,” Gaoussou says.

© UNICEF Mali/2014/Smith
Photographer Harandane Dicko edits photographs taken by the members of the Malian Association for Children and Young Workers.

“We are simply here to show the whole world the challenges and the conditions facing the children of Mali. But the boss did not understand.”

Photographer Harandane Dicko is on hand for the edit. The best 15 photographs taken by the group were displayed at the Bamako International Conference Centre during an event in November marking the anniversary of the Convention. Mr. Dicko says he has given the youngsters technical guidance but has been careful not to influence how they approach the topic of child rights.

“We explain the Convention and then leave the children to express themselves through the photographs,” he says.

“Their focus is totally sincere and raw. As a professional photographer myself, I am learning from the process.”

Drawing a line

Mr. Keita welcomes the workshop as an opportunity to shed light on the reality facing children in Mali. In his view, child labour is a deeply held custom, and opposition to it must also come with efforts to raise awareness. 

© UNICEF Mali/2014/Diarra
At the Medina market, an 8-year-old boy operates the mechanical bellows on a forge.

“The phenomenon is rooted in Malian society and runs through generations of father-to-son and mother-to-daughter businesses. Going to work is part of our socialization,” says Mr. Keita, whose association fights to prevent the exploitation of child workers and to facilitate schooling and vocational training for them whenever possible.

“This workshop is helping us to show that a line must be drawn somewhere. Children must not be taken out of school to be put to work. The legal working age is 15 and should be respected. Children must not be subjected to labour that is harmful to their physical or mental well-being," he says. "The workshop is valuable for the children taking part, and UNICEF's support gives us as an association access to our country's decision makers.”



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