State of the World's Children State of the World's Children
Five key initiatives form part of a comprehensive strategy against hazardous child labour, according to The State of the World’s Children 1997: promoting and enhancing education; building on national and international legislation and improving enforcement; empowering the poor; mobilizing society; and campaigning for companies to take greater responsibility for their actions and those of their subcontractors.

The single most effective way to stem the flow of school age children into abusive forms of employment or work is to extend and improve education so that it will attract and retain them. There are now 140 million children aged between 6 and 11 not attending school - 23 per cent of primary school age children in developing countries - and perhaps an equal number who drop out of school early.

Many of these children work, often in jobs that are disabling and dangerous. Millions more are trying hard to balance the demands of work and schooling - and this juggling act is a particular problem for girls.

Primary education must be made universal and compulsory. Good schools need to be created all over the world, with programmes that will attract children to school and reduce drop-out rates. There are innovative programmes already in action all over the world that could serve as models, including the non-formal schools of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) and the Escuela Nueva network of village schools in Colombia.

According to UNICEF, education systems must teach useful skills that are relevant to children and their parents; be more flexible, adapting to children’s circumstances; get girls into school; raise the quality and status of teachers; and cut the family’s school bill, removing the costs of books, supplies, uniforms, transportation and other costs that impact disproportionately on the poor.

"Basic education can be afforded," says the report, "if it is made a priority, as the Convention on the Rights of the Child demands that it must be...this is a question not of scant resources but of political choice. It would cost an estimated $6 billion a year, on top of what is already spent, to put every child in school by the year 2000. That may seem an enormous sum. Yet it is less than 1 per cent of what the world spends every year on weapons."

Legislation has a vital role to play in combating hazardous child labour, according to the report. Laws and their enforcement will not defeat hazardous child labour on their own - but the job will also never be done without them.

A country’s legal code makes an important statement about what society considers to be acceptable behaviour. UNICEF believes that all countries should establish a coherent set of child labour laws both as a statement of intent and as a springboard for their wider efforts. Governments should also extend the scope of their legislation to include the informal sector, which, as the report consistently shows, accounts for the vast majority of child labourers. Child labour legislation can also be a means of educating people and promoting debate on the issue - and the report shows how legislation has been used in this educative way to combat child labour in Brazil.

Another vital means of preventing hazardous child labour, the report maintains, is empowering poor families and providing them with economic alternatives to child labour. In India, for example, children are given up into bonded labour because their parents have incurred a debt that they are unable to repay by any other means. One way to prevent this modern form of child slavery is therefore to give alternatives to poor families in urgent need.

Group credit schemes, one means of doing this, are already proving highly successful in many areas of the developing world. The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, for example, has achieved widespread international recognition for its success in providing credit to people - particularly women - who would never receive it from mainstream financial institutions.

Governments have the primary responsibility for tackling the child labour problem. But, according to UNICEF, mobilizing society provides the best guarantee that a government will take its responsibilities seriously.

This is effectively what happened in the Philippines, where activism by NGOs and church or community groups provoked an enthusiastic response from the Government. The report shows that this kind of mobilization is paying dividends all over the world: from the South Asian coalition that raids work sites and frees child labourers, to the Kenyan employers’ association that has launched a plan of action against child labour, to Sri Lanka’s multimedia campaign against the exploitation of child workers, to the West African working children who recently held their second campaigning conference in Mali. The report also calls for greater corporate responsibility. It lends its weight to the campaign by trade unions and religious, consumer, environmental and human rights groups for transnational corporations to adopt codes of conduct. These codes would guide the corporations’ operations in developing countries and would include prohibitions against hazardous child labour by them, their local contractors and their subcontractors. The report notes some of the corporations that have adopted such codes.

The challenge now is to extend this notion of corporate responsibility for child labour to national companies. The Abrinq Foundation for the Rights of Children in Brazil is one organization - itself financed by the private sector - that is already hard at work on this. Through its child-friendly company programme, it calls positive attention to Brazilian businesses that do not employ children and that support child development activities. The State of the World’s Children 1997 advocates action by all sectors of society. But it also stresses that governments have already committed themselves to the goal of eliminating hazardous child labour by ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They must now ensure that their commitments are made good.

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