State of the World's Children State of the World's Children

Children are pushed into work that is often damaging to their development by three key factors, according to the report: the exploitation of poverty; the absence of relevant education; and restrictions of tradition.

Poverty drives children into hazardous labour. Yet if employers were not prepared to exploit children there would be no child labour. The parents of child labourers are often unemployed or underemployed, desperate for secure employment and income. Yet it is their children - more powerless and paid less - who are offered the jobs. In other words, says UNICEF, children are employed because they are easier to exploit.

Both national and international economic developments in recent decades have served to increase inequality and poverty. During the 1980s, in many developing countries, government indebtedness, unwise internal economic policies and recession resulted in economic crisis. Structural adjustment programmes in many countries accentuated cuts in social spending that have hit the poor disproportionately. In Zimbabwe, reports of both the Government and the International Labour Organization (ILO) have linked the explosion of child labour directly to the impact of the country's structural adjustment programme. Gradually, structural adjustment programmes have been modified in order to mitigate their effects on the vulnerable. In new agreements between governments and the international financial institutions, public expenditure on primary education and other basic social services is increasingly being protected. National policies and priorities also contribute to the problem. Cuts in social spending have hit education - the alternative to child labour - particularly hard. In the countries experiencing economic hardship in the last decade, per capita spending on education has declined significantly. In all regions, spending per student for higher education fell during the 1980s, and in Africa and Latin America, spending per pupil also fell for primary education.

Education is underfunded and in decline. But the school system in most developing countries is blighted by more than just a lack of resources. It is too often rigid and uninspiring in approach, with a curriculum that is irrelevant to and remote from children’s lives. As a result, keeping children in school is proving to be even more difficult than enrolling them in the first place: 30 per cent of children in developing countries who enrol in primary school do not complete it, and this figure rises to 60 per cent in some countries.

"Education has become part of the problem," says the report. "It has to be reborn as part of the solution."

Tradition and entrenched social patterns also play a part in propelling children into hazardous labour. The harder and more hazardous jobs become, the more likely they are to be considered the province of the poor and disadvantaged, the lower classes and ethnic minorities. In northern Europe, for example, child labourers are likely to be African or Turkish; in Argentina, many are Bolivian or Paraguayan; in Thailand, many are from Myanmar. An increasingly consumer-oriented culture, spurring the desire and expectation for consumer goods, can also lead children into work and away from school.

"Respect for diverse cultures," says the report, "should not deflect us from using all the means at our disposal to make every society, every economy, every corporation regard the exploitation of children as unthinkable."

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