The prevalence of child labour is an alarming, disquieting global phenomenon. Africa boasts the world's highest incidence rates of child labour, with International Labour Organisation statistics from 2016 indicating that nearly one out of every five children partakes in child labour.

World Day Against Child Labour is an International Labour Organization-sanctioned holiday launched in 2002, aiming to raise awareness and activism to prevent child labour. Celebrating this day helps create awareness about child labour's educational, mental, economic, socio-emotional, and physical hazards.

A total of 160 million children – 63 million girls and 97 million boys – are in child labour globally. The problem is severe in Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 40% of all children aged 5–14 struggle for survival. 86.6 million of the 16 million children in child labour are from Africa. Child labour refers to any work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children and interferes with their schooling. By depriving them of the opportunity to attend school or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work is linked to child labour pratices.

Child labour in Africa has involved children working as child labourers, miners, sex slaves and farm labourers. Guinea Bissau, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Chad, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Niger, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Guinea have Africa’s highest child labour records. In Guinea Bissau, more than 60% of the children are involved in child labour.

Estimates given by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation in 2021 show that the vast majority – four out of every five children – are engaged in child labour within the agriculture sector. Root causes include household poverty, limited access to quality education, inadequate labour-saving technologies, and traditional attitudes towards children’s participation in agriculture.

Indeed, the FAO notes that “climate change, inequality and poverty continue to pose challenges to rural livelihoods where child labour is often used as a negative coping mechanism.” Child labour in agriculture harms children, damages the agriculture sector and perpetuates rural poverty. Children’s work in agriculture is unpaid within the family unit. It could include carrying heavy loads, encountering hazardous pesticides and other chemicals, or working extremely long hours.

Although poverty is generally considered the primary cause of child labour in Africa, recent studies show that the relationship between child labour and poverty is more complex than a downward linear relationship. Scholars now believe various factors, including structural, geographic, demographic, cultural, seasonal, and school supply factors, can simultaneously influence child labour.

In addition to poverty, factors such as lack of resources, credit constraints, income shocks, school quality, and parental attitudes toward education are all associated with child labour. According to UNICEF, population growth, recurring crises, extreme poverty, and inadequate social protection measures contribute to African child labour.

Nonetheless, it may be essential to distinguish between child work and child labour. Children in Africa have worked on farms and at home throughout history. And that is not unique to Africa; many children have worked in agriculture and domestic situations in America, Europe, and every other human society throughout history.

Many African countries have signed a memorandum of understanding with the ILO to launch a programme under the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC)

Scholars suggest that this work, especially in rural areas, is a form of schooling and vocational education where children learn the arts and skills from their parents and continue working in the same hereditary occupation as adults. Thus, child work provides a cultural routine that helps children learn valuable, practical skills and enables these societies to provide for themselves in the next generation. Historically, children were informally schooled by working informally with their family and kin from a very early age. In many African rural communities, young children help adults in tending crops, nine-year-olds help carry fodder for animals and responsibilities scaled with age. And that work was not hazardous.

Many African countries have signed a memorandum of understanding with the ILO to launch a programme under the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC).

As part of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, all 193 member states have pledged to effectively eliminate forced labour, modern slavery, human trafficking, and the worst forms of child labour — including child soldiers — by 2025. Nonetheless, progress is not on track to meet this target. Eradicating child labour globally will not be achieved without a breakthrough in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly agriculture.

Recommendations to fight child labour include prioritising education for children, supporting decent livelihoods for smallholder farmers and miners such as through social protection, better and stronger organised farmers’ and miners’ groups that combat child labour, integrating child labour prevention into the design of investment programmes for agriculture, mining, and rural development, and introducing labour-saving technologies.

Article submitted by Samson Mhizha


The Future Africa Research Leader Fellowship (FAR-LeaF) is a fellowship programme, focussed on developing transdisciplinary research and leadership skills, to address the complex, inter-linked challenges of health, well-being, and environmental risks in Africa.