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Reclaiming childhood: UNICEF and partners protect child labourers in Egypt

© UNICEF Egypt/2006/Wiens
Ahmed, 14 (at left), at the Maritime Scouts Association club in Alexandria, Egypt, where working children have opportunities to study, play sports and learn social skills.

By Simon Ingram

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt, 11 April 2006 – It is mid-morning in one of Alexandria's bustling working-class neighbourhoods. In a small ironing and dry-cleaning shop, 14-year-old Ahmed is already hard at work. It has been one year since he began working here, joining the growing numbers of Egyptian children – an estimated 2.7 million between the ages of 6 and 14 – driven out of school and into the workforce by poverty or other circumstances.

The Egyptian Government is making moves, supported by UNICEF, to combat child labour. Earlier this year, it drafted a new national strategy against the practice, and there are programmes in place to ensure adequate assistance for children like Ahmed who are already caught up in the labour market. But as the figures show, child labour is widespread and will be hard to banish immediately.

Less work, more school

“As things stand, there's little doubt that many poor families have no alternative but to take their children out of school and put them to work, simply in order to make ends meet,” says UNICEF Senior Programme Officer Hannan Suleiman.

In view of this situation, UNICEF's child labour strategy in Egypt is threefold:

  • Prevent more children, especially the siblings of those currently working, from joining the labour market
  • Improve the quality of life of working children by providing them with access to education, health care and recreation
  • Partner with other organizations to tackle poverty through employment and decent working conditions for parents and caregivers.

“Our ultimate aim is to ensure that these children stop work, go back to school and enjoy the kind of childhood that most other children have,” says Ms. Suleiman.

© UNICEF Egypt/2006/Wiens
Ahmed is one of some 2.7 million children employed in Egypt. He works at a laundry in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city.

No easy life for a teenager

Ahmed’s story shows how difficult child labour can be. His 12-hour workdays in the Alexandria dry-cleaning shop follow a familiar routine of doing different tasks around the shop and making sure customers get their clothes back on time.

“I get up in the morning and go to work,” explains Ahmed. “In the afternoon, I collect the laundry from customers and take it to the shop for ironing, and then take it back.” It is no easy life for a young teenager, but Ahmed says it's better than being at school – a place he remembers mainly for the beatings he suffered at the hands of teachers.

His employer, shop owner Ibrahim El Sayed, is a lawyer by training. He believes that by employing Ahmed, he is helping the boy learn a trade that could secure his future.

“In the beginning, Ahmed came just to help out in the shop,” says Mr. El Sayed. “But now he knows how to operate the dry-cleaning machines, how to wash and separate the different colours of clothes and how to iron them. So learning a skill like this is better for him, and in any case he knows how to read and write.”

Cooperation from employers

On Sundays, Ahmed goes to work late, having spent most of the day at the Maritime Scouts Association club on Alexandria's seafront. Under a 1993 project agreement with UNICEF, the Scouts help ensure that working children like Ahmed receive essential protection, health care and other services.

© UNICEF Egypt/2006/Wiens
Part of Ahmed’s working day involves delivering newly ironed clothes to customers in Alexandria.

From youth centres spread across Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city, social workers from the Scouts visit the child labourers in their workplaces. They discuss working conditions with employers and provide the children with gloves, goggles and other safety equipment.

According to Magdy Mohamed of the Maritime Scouts, much depends on winning the cooperation of employers. “If I want the boy for any of our activities or for training, or for literacy classes,” he says, “I have to get permission from the employer because it means taking him away from his work.”

Developing partnerships

Bringing the child back into the learning process is another vital goal of UNICEF and the Scouts. Literacy and art classes in the clubs are combined with football, table tennis and judo sessions to encourage as much participation as possible. At the same time, there is a focus on teaching life skills and social skills to help keep youngsters out of trouble.

“Any boy of Ahmed's age and circumstances is liable to be led into bad ways,” notes Mr. Mohamed. “Through the club here, we try to help him choose his friends and pastimes carefully.”

There is little evidence to suggest that progress towards the elimination of child labour in Egypt will be rapid, but the developing partnerships among the government, UNICEF, non-governmental organizations and employers should ensure at least one thing: Ahmed and his friends will remember more from their childhood than just the long hours of toil.




11 April 2006:
UNICEF’s Simon Ingram reports on the organization’s work with child labourers in Egypt, as experienced by 14-year-old Ahmed.

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