Breaking the relationship between child labor, poverty and illiteracy

June 12 is World Day Against Child Labor

Mongolian child labour. © ILO

A child working at a lumberyard in Mongolia

CREDIT: © ILO

"I have been very strongly advocating that poverty must not be used as an excuse to continue child labor and exploitation of children. Child labor perpetuates poverty. Child labor creates poverty. If the children are deprived from education, then they are bound to remain poor for the whole of their life. So it's a triangular relationship between child labor, poverty and illiteracy.”

Those words, spoken by Kailash Satyarthi hours after learning he had been awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for his longtime advocacy for children's rights and education, summarizes why we observe World Day Against Child Labor each year on June 12.

Kailash reminds us that one of biggest impediments to giving many children even a basic education is child labor, which, in turn, is driven by economic and cultural pressures that weigh heavily on the poorest and least educated families. If we hope to achieve the fourth Sustainable Development Goal, which calls for educating all the world’s children by 2030, we must break the vicious cycle Mr. Satyarthi describes.

Too many children still must work rather than learn

As of 2012, 168 million children aged 5 to 17 years worldwide were still trapped in child labor, according to a 2015 International Labour Organization report, and they comprised almost 11% of the child population as a whole. More than 120 million of these children were part of the core school-aged group of 5 to 14 year olds – about 47% of all out-of-school children. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest percentage among any regions of children in labor, at 21%.

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The report points out that labor at an early age unquestionably impedes a child’s ability to go to school and learn. In some countries with high levels of child labor, the ILO report shows, school attendance rates are only about half of those of non-working children and literacy rates are low. Also, school attendance levels drop the longer a child works each day. 

Barriers to accessing schooling may push some children into labor

At the same time, the report notes that “the lack of accessible, affordable and good quality schooling can also act as a push factor for children to take up work.” That’s why GPE’s support for developing countries’ efforts to build strong and sustainable education systems is so essential.

We should be encouraged that between 2000 and 2012, the number of children between ages 5 and 17 who were engaged in labor dropped by almost 78 million, a reduction of almost one-third.  During that time, the number of girls in child labor fell by 40%, compared to a 25% drop for boys, though formal counts suggest that more boys continued to work than girls.

Recommendations to fight against child labor and for education

Still, overcoming the triangular relationship between child labor, poverty and education will require extraordinary commitment to a range of policies, and many of the ILO’s recommendations complement strategies developing countries are already pursuing with GPE’s support, such as:

  • Aligning each nation’s goals on education with those on child labor.
  • Including goals and strategies for reducing child labor in national education plans.
  • Reducing all cost barriers to getting an education.
  • Ensuring that education is accessible to all children, especially those from communities typically left behind.
  • Building more schools so they are more accessible to disadvantaged and remotely located children.
  • Offering sufficient accommodations for girls, especially those at the age of menstruation.
  • Recruiting and train more teachers who are qualified to ensure learning.
  • Making high-quality learning materials available to all.
  • Promoting early childhood care and education, which is proven to boost a child’s performance in school and life, and
  • Properly managing the school-to-work transition by expanding opportunities for work through pre-vocational training and other tools.

World Day Against Child Labor reminds us that the breadth and complexity of educating the world’s children cannot be underestimated. But clearly, addressing and ameliorating the awesome challenge of child labor is a big part of the solution. Likewise, the more we educate children, we will remove many of the reasons that drive them into early work. 

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The Global Partnership for Education Secretariat is headquartered in Washington DC and has approximately 100 staff. The Secretariat provides administrative and operational support to all its partners including...

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