Millions of African children at risk of labor exploitation

Children in Africa exploited for labor purposes are denied education opportunities that could help pull them out of poverty. (Photo: Charles Braddix)

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JOHANNESBURG—A young child sits on the side of the road in Madagascar, crushing rocks with a hammer almost too heavy for him to hold.

africa-exploitation400African children living in extreme poverty are at high risk of being exploited and trafficked for labor.  (Photo: Charles Braddix)Another child accidently slices his hand open with a machete while opening cocoa pods on a plantation in Ghana.

A young teenage girl, trafficked for the sex industry, walks the beaches of Kenya looking for business.

A young boy squats naked in a mineshaft in Burkina Faso, chipping ore and loading it into buckets all day long.

A child soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo carries an automatic weapon he was forced to use to kill villagers he knew.

The words of a young child in South Africa, originally written as a poem in the Xhosa language, read:

How can I live in this world?

Oh, what can I do?

It is so dark ahead of me.

Mother and father do not want us.

They sell us to thugs.

Every day, millions of children in Africa are at risk of being exploited, resulting in slave-like working conditions.

africa girl baby350Young girls in Africa are at high risk of being exploited for the sex industry or used as domestic workers. They often become pregnant. (Photo: Charles Braddix)“Forced labor robs children of a childhood, which in turn negatively affects their ability to be constructive members of their communities for the rest of their lives,” said Mark Hatfield, Africa director of Baptist Global Response, a Southern Baptist humanitarian aid and relief organization. “Forced child labor deals a mental blow to the individual child, taking away his ability to dream about a future outside of his present status.”

According to the International Labour Organization, an agency of the United Nations, Africa has the world’s largest child labor population, with the agriculture and mining sectors among the worst offenders. Experts cite poverty as the primary reason for forced child labor in Africa.

The problem is severe in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 40 percent of all children ages 5 to 14, about 48 million children, work for survival, according to the ILO. Child trafficking for the purpose of labor is common throughout Africa, where family members often exchange children for money, goods or gifts.

“Children forced to work before they reach a reasonable age limits their future capabilities by taking away their right to a basic education, which can be the springboard out of poverty,” Hatfield said. “Child labor perpetuates the poverty cycle by keeping the child in a low income, subsistence-only status all their lives.”

In expanding economies, the demand for labor increases. Unable to cope with high production quotas, industries turn to exploitative child labor, the UN reports.

africa boy200Millions of children in Africa are employed with low or no wages, poor living conditions, hazardous work environments, no healthcare and little to no education opportunities. (Photo: Charles Braddix)“Children and teenagers enter the risk of being used as cheap labor,” a UN report states. “Most of these children are vulnerable due to poverty. They are unaware of their rights, overworked, can’t resist.”

The report notes children employed with low or no wages, poor living conditions, hazardous work environments, no healthcare and little to no education opportunities.

Tim Cearley, head strategist for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board’s work in sub-Saharan Africa, asks rhetorically: “Why should people care about children in Africa? Does it matter?”

He responds: “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me.’ I believe we must find ways to share Jesus’ love with the ‘least of these’—helping them know the safety and security they can find in Jesus and in Christian community.”

Cearley and his wife, Charlotte, reach out to young street boys in the neighborhood where they live.

“They hang out one block from our house with their begging cans and seem to be starving under the control of their ‘master’ who lives on our street,” he said. “We try to show them love by giving them real attention in our limited (local language), providing some bread or food and trying to share the Good News.”

Cearley notes his IMB colleagues give lots of time in building relationships with children in sub-Saharan African cities. 

“It takes lots of energy that is supplemented by good partnering U.S. teams,” he said. “Many see Jesus for the first time in acts of kindness and feel his touch in genuine love. In a few cases, we see lives transformed as they come to know freedom in Christ.”

africa girl basket400In sub-Saharan Africa 40 percent of all children aged 5-14, about 40 million children, work for survival. (Photo: Charles Braddix)Cearley and Hatfield lament children find themselves exploited by the people who should be providing for them and showing them love and care—the children’s family and friends.

“A reasonable amount of responsibility in the way of daily chores is healthy and expected in most rural and low-income African families,” Hatfield said.

But children who must help their families every day by helping with subsistence farming, carrying water, herding cattle and other hard work never get the opportunity to go to school, Cearley added.

“A friend in Mozambique was in this category and only learned to read and write her name as an adult,” Cearley said. “Others are brought to larger cities as part of a religious custom to learn humility by begging. But they are often abused by those who are supposed to be teaching them.”

The “horrible business” of trafficking “affects children and teens all over Africa,” he continued. “I have heard horror stories from central Mozambique. A South African friend was part of a sting operation that found a house of (exploited) kids while looking for her missing house-worker’s child in 2012. That child had been drawn away from her home by men from her own tribe, who were in league with a Nigerian Mafia gang operating in a nearby city that was selling these kids and shipping them off.”

A call for action now resounds around the globe—from government and nongovernment organizations to nonprofit, charitable and Christian groups.

“The Bible teaches us to speak up for the oppressed, help the captive, love the children,” Hatfield said. “The question is, what are we going to do about it?”

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