April 12, 2016 By Joseph S. Margai
Negligence on the part of the Government of Sierra Leone to support and promote the wellbeing of Sierra Leonean children has left many of them doing menial jobs to eke out a living.
Many of these children could be seen carrying and selling wares on the major streets across the country, while others are seen scavenging in waste dumpsites to make ends meet. Some may have lost their parents and are in the care of aunts and uncles who have subjected them to forced labour, among other corporal jobs.
These children, predominantly boys, are very determined to succeed in life despite their circumstance, and could be seen pushing and pulling carts. Others who are unserious join cliques and armed robbery gangs.
Girls on the other hand are mostly susceptible to teenage pregnancy, prostitution, and early marriage. Some though are abused by young men who pretend to render them assistance.
These silent ugly experiences that these children are going through have a potential to put their future at stake, as most of them are not going to school and have resorted to petty crimes.
In most cases, these sad developments are meted on children whose parents (if they are alive) cannot afford to meet their needs. The case is more serious with those that have lost their parents. Also, single parents, especially women do not have the courage to ‘bear the cross’ in order to raise their children. They will rather opt to send their children to relatives in big towns.
Similarly, in some homes in Sierra Leone, especially those that are deprived, parents depend on their girls to feed them. Being saddled with an early responsibility, the girls are sold off into early marriage or engage in prostitution, among other vices, to feed the home. Those engaged in prostitution have to grapple with sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies and child trafficking.
To address all of these challenges that children in Sierra Leone are faced with, the government has established the National Commission of Children, in addition to the Children’s Directorate in the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs and the Child Labour Unit in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security.
But despite the establishment of these institutions, scores of children are still in the streets, suffering, with little or no attention from the state. Many benefits that are meant for street children are being enjoyed by those whose parents can afford to meet their needs.
Head of Child Labour and International Labour Standards Unit at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, Abdul Karim Conteh, acknowledges that child labour is on the increase in Sierra Leone, especially Freetown, the capital.
“Some of the solutions to child labour are livelihood support programme for vulnerable parents and children, affordable education programmes for children whose parents are poor, among others. These solutions should be firstly done before the enforcement of the laws on child labour,” he suggests.
Conteh discloses that since child labour was integrated into the Ministry of Labour in 2010, after the government signed an agreement with the International Labour Organization, they decided to implement two major conventions – 138 Minimum Age for Employment and 182 The Worst Forms of Child Labour – which have both been ratified by Parliament.
“These conventions stressed that the child should start to do non-hazardous jobs at age 15 and hazardous jobs at the age of 18. Hazardous jobs for children below 18 are underground mining, street trading, chemical industries, some work in the agriculture sector, cart pushing and pulling; children should not serve as apprentice for vehicles below 18 years, working at sea, etc.,” he states.
The Advocacy and Communication Coordinator at the National Commission for Children, Addie Valcarcel, has expressed optimism that with the adequate sensitisation on the dangers of subjecting children to child labour, they have recently seen a significant reduction in the act.
Mrs. Valcarcel describes as ‘risky’ the practice of sending a child that is below the age of 14 to sell on the street, especially for girls who may be abused by ill-motivated men. She adds that a boy below age 14, who is sent by his guardian to sell on the street, may be indoctrinated into acquiring negative lifestyle.
“Street trading destroys the future of children. We are not saying children cannot help their parents at home, but they should do so under their supervision,” she insists.
She hastens to disclose that the Commission frowns at parents and guardians who send their children to fetch water at night, noting that child trafficking is a crime and that most of the children who sell wares on the street are not with their biological parents in Freetown.
She says the Commission monitors and coordinates the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child, the African Charter on the Right and Welfare of the Child and Part III of the Child Right Act of 2007.
“The Commission also renders advice to the government on policies for the improvement on the condition of the child. There are too much dropout of school girls due to early marriage, but we have been implementing a project to reintegrate the girls back to school,” she reveals.
However, Deputy Director of Children’s Directorate at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, Joyce Kamara, says that the Ministry is working with the Commission in their campaign against child labour, visiting dumpsites in the capital, Freetown, and contact tracing and reunifying children with their families.
The Children’s Deputy Director also alleges that some blind beggars are in the habit of discouraging their children not to go to school. “Most of these children abandoned their homes and come to live in the street because after their day’s activity of begging, they give them some amount of money. When the children are being used to having money on their own, they can no longer heed to the advice of their parents at home,” she states in one an interview with this reporter.
She recalls that they recently received a complaint from one of the children who reported a blind beggar whom he alleged hired him but failed to pay him. Ms. Kamara says that the blind beggars most times target street children and that even when the ministry tries to get them off the street, they are stubborn to stay because of what they are benefiting from the beggars.
“This is a worrisome concern for us at the ministry because if these children’s future is not secured at this moment, I’m afraid what will happen to the future of this country,” he says “We have several strategies that we have been putting in place to address some of these problems of the children especially those that are roaming around without parental care.”
She says children who have abandoned their homes or their parents in the provinces to come to Freetown will be re-unified with the latter so that they can have the parental care they deserve.