Many Ugandans still harbour fresh memories of a childhood that included them trekking for some good distance or even kilometres with 20-litre jerricans of water atop their heads to supply for water needs in their homes.
It is indeed still a practice for many of our children in Uganda today besides other diverse heavy chores.
It is not uncommon for grown up Ugandans to tell stories of a childhood in which society endorsed, among other chores, fetching water at the crack of dawn before school time. Later on coming back home in the evening, they join their parents in the shambas for a couple of hours before returning to the house to help with the other end-of-day domestic chores.
Seemingly, society deemed all this work that their children had to accomplish in a day as a contribution to a rural or suburban family economy. That was base and tough for the young and old alike. All told, households without adequate social protection may rely on their children’s work to make ends meet – this with no scruples.
Following this cue makes the issue of child labour a conundrum in many Ugandan contexts. The crux of the matter is in the puzzle that poverty alleviation cannot be achieved without eliminating child labour. Conversely, child labour cannot be eliminated or even curtailed without the alleviation of household poverty. A catch 22 situation!
Often, it is clear that a child is doing work beyond their ability and is encumbered to the point of gravely endangering their growth. Indeed child labour has immediate adverse health, emotional, and social consequences.
A substantial proportion of child labourers manage to attend school for just a few days of the week and a few hours of the school days.
We know that child labour that sometimes leads to street children, is an important concern and component that should be part of our national development strategies. However, there are also grey areas that warrant deeper reflection lest our commitments remain only Philistine sentimentalism.
I used to watch a single mother toil from can see to can’t see to keep his children in school and to provide for their other needs. She used to ask one of the eldest children to help vend some maize that she had bought and fetched from a garden six miles away, with her baby on her back.
This mother in would attend to the other children, prepare supper, and make pancakes for sale for the following market day.
Today, if a boy is found selling maize on the streets, he would be bundled up by the authorities and his mother labelled a child abuser. Similar scenarios abound.
What can one think of such situations? How can we talk of freeing our children from some heavy chores while their families are steeped in dire situations and total squalor? How can we ensure the rights of children and eliminate street children against abject poverty in many of our homesteads?
I know that such a mother may receive a barrage of criticism, but the debatable point is that elimination of child labour should be planted in poverty reduction efforts primordially. It is also a resolute and progressive path that goes with a raising of awareness.
In 1802 in England, Robert Peel Senior, pushed that apprentice pauper children should be restricted to 12 hours per day of working, and that night work should be banned.
In 1819, the Factory Act restricted factory work to children of more than the age of nine, and children between the ages of nine and 16 were not to work for longer than 12 hours each day.
It is clear that relieving a country of child labour comes gradually with a change in the whole social-economic context of a nation or region. This is similar in many respects with the fight against street children that we see today. As it is noted at international level by the United Nations and by the International Labour Organisation, for too long, child labour has been seen as an isolated issue
In reality, however, it is a phenomenon that cuts across policy boundaries – schooling, health care, labour market conditions, enforcement of core labour standards and legislation, social protection, basic services access, income distribution, social norms, and cultural practices, among others.
Basically, we are underscoring the importance of a broad and integrated response to child labour in Uganda if any change is to be experienced.
It does not take much thought to realise that legal approaches to this situation is important, but it is not the end and all – as it may not address the underlying causes of this vice (or indispensable practice for some) on the ground.
I know that this may be a bold claim, but a justified one. Tackling the issue of child labour and street children should begin with tackling household poverty in order to curtail families’ dependence on children in employment for household survival.
This is the alpha and omega of this phenomenon, if we do not wish to be reabsorbed by our old jungles.
Dr Sr Najjuka is a lecturer and researcher,
Faculty of Humanities and Social sciences,
Victoria University. firstname.lastname@example.org