UNICEF is committed to doing all it can to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in partnership with governments, civil society, business, academia and the United Nations family – and especially children and young people.
Halima, 10, used to work in the cocoa fields. Now, she’s in her first year of school and dreams of becoming a teacher. See why she's on track to realize her dream.
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By Louis Vigneault-Dubois
SAN PEDRO, Côte d’Ivoire, 26 December 2014 – On a warm September day, Halima sits in the back of the classroom, listening carefully to her teacher. At 10 years old, she is the oldest student in her class. She is just starting her first year of school, in the small village of Koffikro in south-west Côte d’Ivoire. Until now, her parents have refused to send her to school.
A community built on cocoa
Koffikro is a farming community about 20 km from San Pedro, the second largest port city in the country. The main crop is cocoa. Raw beans are grown, harvested and exported to be transformed into chocolate bars for those with a ‘sweet tooth’, the world over. Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa production accounts for approximately 40 per cent of the world’s supply. Most cocoa is produced in the south-west of the country.
The use of child labour to produce cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire is widespread, at the expense of children’s education. The small village of Koffikro has taken steps to ensure that all children, like Halima, go to school.
Carried out by a dense network of some 600,000 small-scale farmers, cocoa production is labour intensive. Farm wages are low, and the use of child labour is widespread. Many farmers feel they have no choice but to use their own children or children from their extended family to help on the farms, just to make ends meet.
Halima’s father comes from the north of Côte d’Ivoire. He migrated to Koffikro 25 years ago, lured by a small patch of land. After the hard work of clearing forest, he planted a cocoa farm, one tree at a time, and he has been harvesting ever since.
“When I work on my plantation, I get good results,” he says. “I’m a farmer. I have to teach my children what I do so that tomorrow they can be good farmers – just like me.”
A committee reaches out
Assisting parents on cocoa farms is common practice in Cote d’Ivoire. It is seen as an integral part of the process of socializing children and a way for parents to teach their children farm work and transfer their knowledge to the younger generation.
But, for children like Halima, this tradition has come at the expense of formal education, and carries with it the burden of physical labour. “Before I came to school, when I worked in the fields, I would gather the cocoa, put it in sacks and transport it,” she says. “When the cocoa is loaded into the sack, it gets very heavy.”
In 2010, UNICEF and the Government of Côte d’Ivoire set out to tackle all forms of child rights violations in a comprehensive way. They focused on the region in which cocoa is produced, because of its proportion of vulnerable children. A child protection committee was established to reach out to the population. They would bring together education, health and protection in their outreach, encouraging parents to send their children to school and to spare the children from injuries associated with field work.
Members of the committee began to go from door to door in the community to speak with parents about taking their children out of the field and sending them to school. They met with some resistance. Farmers were struggling to make a living from their farms and said they couldn’t afford to send all of their children to school. They needed the children to help with farm work because they could not afford paid labour.
And traditions were strong. According to Désiré Kouadio, president of the local committee,
“[Farmers’] office is the field, so, when we go to the field, it’s natural to us that our children come with us. We never really saw the importance of school because the people moved from Bouake, Korhogo, Mali and Burkina Faso to settle in our village to have a farm, and the children would simply follow their parents’ path.”
The committee pressed on, discussing the value of education, ensuring that health services were utilized.
School becomes a priority
Four years after the process was initiated, it would be difficult to find a child in Koffikro village who doesn’t go to school. Formal schooling is now viewed as essential to children’s development. It is widely accepted for children to assist on the farms as long as their work doesn’t interfere with their education and they don’t have to perform tasks that could harm them.
The shift in perception is down to awareness – but also to support available to the community. To help farmers overcome the challenges of paying for education and carrying out backbreaking labour, UNICEF has invited farmers to meet with professional agronomists to learn how to improve their harvest and to organize and share the farm work among themselves. UNICEF has also set up a mothers’ club in Koffikro to help with small income generating activities to raise money to pay school costs for the poorest in the village.
Halima’s family now have the knowledge and support they need to get Halima an education. “After the awareness-raising, I decided that money was no longer going to prevent me from sending my youngest, Halima, to school,” says her mother.
“Now I realize that, if I want to be prosperous as a farmer, I have to do the hard work as an adult and send my children to school,” adds Halima’s father. “Now that Halima is going to school, she can focus on becoming a teacher – which is what she wants to be. The days she’s not in school, she will come with me to the field to learn, but she will not do the hazardous work that she used to do.”
Halima’s parents are not alone. The new appetite for education quickly overstretched the capacity of the small local primary school, and classrooms became overcrowded. To support the community, UNICEF built three additional classrooms to help local education authorities cope with the sudden demand.
As for Halima, her first days have been promising. “I will finish my studies all the way, and I will become a teacher,” she says. “[T]omorrow, I will also be able to teach other children.”