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A working childhood for many youngsters in Zambia

Millions of children across the world are forced to work, locking them into a cycle of poverty.

This is because such children are frequently deprived of education, a vital ingredient to ending deprivation. This month, Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister and now a United Nations special envoy on education, has published a report which lays out the impact child labour has on educational opportunities. Entitled ‘Child labour and educational disadvantage: breaking the link, building opportunity’, the report highlights the struggle faced by many children forced out of school by work.

Using research from the Understanding Children’s Work insititute, the report estimates that around 15 million primary school-age children are having to work instead of attending school. And while in some parts of the world the number of child labourers is falling, in Africa, the numbers are going up. Commenting on how this situation affects development targets, Mr Brown comments “unless we defeat the scourge of child labour, the commitment to get all children into school by 2015 will count for nothing”.

In Zambia, for example, around 40% of youngsters aged 5-14 (an estimated 1.3 million children) are involved in child labour. Though many of these children attend school during their younger years, child labourers tend to lag behind non-labourers at every stage of primary education. Research suggests this is because children will often be working for over twenty hours a week and this doesn’t include time spent on household chores. Therefore, working children are often older in their school classes because of having to repeat years.

Working children in Zambia also tend to drop out of school earlier than their non-working friends; those who are working by the age of 8 can expect to spend one year less in school than their peers. And by the age of 15, there is a 17% point gap in school attendance. This means that by the age of 16, the average grade completed by working children in the country is one grade lower than non-working children. Support with extra school fees can help to address the problem, since many families in Zambia cite school costs as a barrier to keeping their children in school.

Following the publication of the report, Gordon Brown has called for an international summit on child labour next year. He wants to use the meeting to draw up plans to eradicate child labour. With the provision of extra support for education, the UN’s special envoy believes that such a goal is totally achievable.

Laurinda Luffman signature