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IJM Blog: Year for the Elimination of Child Labour


IJM Blog: Year for the Elimination of Child Labour

The inaugural blog from IJM UK's Policy and Advocacy team highlights the work of IJM Ghana in tackling some of the worst forms of child labour, including child trafficking. We also explore the role of UK government and why securing children’s safety is critical to creating a generation that can lead the world into a brighter future.


ike numerous industries around the world, the fishing industry in Ghana’s Lake Volta sees far too many situations of children trafficked for forced labour.

Children as young as five years old have been forced into life-threatening situations by their exploiters. They are often physically and sexually abused and forced to dive into the lake to disentangle fishing nets, putting them at risk of drowning.

“We had gone to draw the net and I was asked to dive and disentangle the net. When I went down, I was unable to disentangle it because it was dark down there. So I came up and was hit by the paddle at the back of my head. That’s how I got the scars”, said one survivor.

Many of the children brought to safety by Ghanaian authorities and IJM have witnessed another child lose their life on the lake.

Child Trafficking Today

According to the International Labour Organization, child labour is work that deprives children of “their childhood, their potential and their dignity”. The worst forms of child labour include the sale and trafficking of children.

Children who are trafficked suffer heightened risks and harms as compared to non-trafficked children. In Lake Volta, IJM’s research found that children who were trafficked worked longer hours, performed more hazardous work and were more frequently prevented from attending school as compared to non-trafficked children in the fishing industry. Further, respondents noted that trafficked children did “not have proper clothing and shelter” and were more likely to be beaten, with trafficked girls at risk of sexual exploitation and forced marriage.

IJM’s work tackling the trafficking of children has provided firsthand experience of how children can be violently exploited and abused for forced labour. This exploitation can often last for years, leaving children traumatised and robbing them of an education and, consequently, social mobility.

Much progress has been made in tackling child labour over the past two decades. The estimated number of children engaged in child labour in 2000 was 246 million, compared to 152 million in 2016. However, the spread of COVID-19 and resulting restrictive measures has meant that this progress is at risk of being drastically reversed. Up to 150 million people are estimated to have fallen into extreme poverty in 2020.

The coupling of school closures with an increase in poverty creates conditions for child labour and its worst forms to grow. Increased financial stress, the death of adult wage earners or family members falling sick may place pressure on children to work. With children not in school, traffickers have more opportunities to lure and deceive children into exploitation. An IJM operation in 2020 found that 35 teen girls had been promised employment while schools were closed. Instead, they were trapped and forced to work 14-hour days in spinning mills.

The pandemic has diminished informal and formal child protection mechanisms. School closures and stay at home orders have meant that teachers, who normally act as safeguards against abuse, can no longer look out for signs of exploitation.

Many public justice systems in low- and middle-income countries are operating at lower capacity than normal as resources are diverted to COVID-19 responses. As a result, law enforcement agencies are stretched and less able to identify and protect vulnerable children or hold offenders to account. At a time when the risks of exploitation are high, traffickers are enjoying increased impunity from detection and prosecution.

All children have the right to be a child, irrespective of nationality, family income and identity. This right must be honoured at this time when it is most under threat. We cannot let cultures of impunity prevail.

The United Nations have declared 2021 the Year for the Elimination of Child Labour.

Year for the Elimination of Child Labour

The United Nations General Assembly declared 2021 as the Year for the Elimination of Child Labour as a reminder to member States of their commitment “to take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour”.

Governments should reinforce their commitment to fulfilling children’s rights this year by investing in strategic and sustainable solutions to ending the worst forms of child labour. The key to achieving lasting solutions to child trafficking is to target its root causes: vulnerability and impunity. As vulnerabilities are exacerbated by COVID-19 disruptions, it is crucial that COVID-19 responses are focused on child protection and challenging cultures of impunity.

IJM’s research into children trafficked for forced labour in Lake Volta asked communities what they thought reducing vulnerability to forced labour looked like. It was clear that the arrest, prosecution and conviction of traffickers was key. As justice systems are placed under the strain of ensuring public safety during the pandemic, more must be done to ensure that government agencies tasked with anti-trafficking interventions are resourced.

Further, IJM found that reducing vulnerability to child labour required increasing access to education and economic empowerment. However, children cannot access opportunities and resources if they are subjected to abuse and trafficking. For children to learn and thrive, they need freedom from violence so that they can attend school and build skills. Without this freedom, children will not have the opportunities they need to achieve social mobility. Increasing access to education and economic empowerment requires cultures of impunity to be dismantled so that it is too risky for traffickers to exploit children.

The UK’s Role in Ending Child Trafficking

The UK has taken a leading role in countering modern slavery internationally. However, more could be done to hone its approach to tackling modern slavery, and the worst forms of child labour in particular. For the UK to remain at the forefront of this fight, it must commit itself to protecting children and holding offenders accountable.

The recent review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact of the UK’s approach to tackling modern slavery through aid programmes highlighted the need for a clear statement setting out the UK government’s anti-slavery objectives, aligning with IJM’s call for an international modern slavery prevention strategy. Core to a successful modern slavery prevention strategy is the bolstering of equipped, effective and empowered public justice systems which are able to protect vulnerable people and bring offenders to justice, thereby challenging cultures of impunity.

This will have a positive knock-on effect on other development efforts. As shown in IJM’s research, tackling cultures of impunity enables sustainable development and poverty alleviation efforts. Protecting children’s rights through access to education is crucial to progress and the UK’s prioritisation of girls’ education is welcome. However, these initiatives will be undermined if rule of law is weak and justice systems under resourced. A girl cannot access an education if she is subjected to violence on her way to school or is forced to work. Access to education must go hand-in-hand with strengthening public justice systems so that children are able to attend school safely and without fear of violence.

Towards a Brighter, Safer Future

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally shifted our politics, social relationships and economies. We do not fully understand the impact that it will have on our world’s future. Forecasts show that it could drastically reverse progress made in reducing child labour, including its worst forms, leaving millions of children at risk.

Yet, with uncertainty also comes the opportunity for change. We can stop children becoming more vulnerable to trafficking for forced labour by strengthening child protection measures, challenging cultures of impunity and increasing access to education. Ensuring that empowered law enforcement prioritises child protection and holds offenders accountable will give children the freedom they need to learn and flourish.

As we look towards an uncertain future, we must prioritise the protection of all children. Securing children’s safety and preventing abuse is critical to creating a generation that can lead the world into a brighter future.

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