As rural ethiopians struggle, child labor can mean survival |

As rural ethiopians struggle, child labor can mean survival

Emily Wax

LEBASJIE, Ethiopia–Asmara Chanie herds cattle out to grazing fields at sunrise and herds them back at sundown. He is paid in sacks of barley, which feeds his family of six. Himnat Yenealem scrubs floors, washes clothes and roasts coffee beans for her employer’s breakfast. In return, she receives food, shelter and clothing. Their jobs are the norm in Africa, where manual labor is the most common form of employment. But their ages would surprise many outsiders. Asmara is 12, a skinny and friendly third-grade dropout who recently traded his backpack for a herder’s whip when his father’s harvest was poor. Himnat is a petite girl of 13, with chocolate-colored curls and a solemn temperament, whose parents died of illnesses related to AIDS four years ago, leaving her alone on the street. “I was in a bad dilemma, so I said yes to working,” Himnat said quietly, picking at her calloused hands. “I felt too scared. But at least this way, I wouldn’t be homeless and I could try to upgrade myself.” Across sub-Saharan Africa, according to U.N. research, one-third of all children younger than 14 go to work each day, making a stark jump past childhood and into responsibilities that their peers in the West don’t have to think about for years. There are so many children on the continent working that education ministries list labor as the primary reason children quit primary school, followed by the loss of their parents to HIV/AIDS and the inability to pay school fees. Many are employed informally, in neighbors’ houses or fields, and paid with food or supplies; only those who work in large factories earn cash wages. “Unfortunately, child labor is the reality in Africa,” said Afewerk Ketema, coordinator of Focus on Children at Risk, an Ethiopian aid group. He has recruited 30 working children, including Himnat, for a program in this northern town in which they can attend evening or afternoon classes. “The real truth is that child labor is not seen as wrong in rural Africa. In fact, it’s a source of survival,” Ketema said. “Children live the poverty and the poor crops more than anyone. And now with AIDS, too, parents are often sick, die or are overtaxed raising other people’s orphans. … There were so many cases of children being taken into homes as servants.” Ethiopia has one of the highest rates of child labor in the world, according to the United Nations’ International Labor Organization and the African Network for the Prevention of and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect. Nine million children ages 5 to 17 are employed, 90 percent of them in the agricultural sector, the agencies reported. Factors pushing children into the fields include ancient farming techniques, overworked land, the AIDS epidemic and a booming population of 74 million. This is a deeply religious society where families often have eight to 10 children. It is a society where AIDS and other ailments have left 4.6 million children without parents–the largest number of orphans in the world, according to a joint study in 2004 by U.N. agencies and the Ethiopian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. It is also an impoverished rural society where 85 percent of the population farms two-acre plots of land, too small to turn a profit, and nearly every plot is worked to exhaustion. Studies have shown that cultures dependent on subsistence farming also have the highest rates of child labor. “The actual style of agriculture hasn’t changed in 2,000 years, and that affects everything,” said Stuart William, a Kenyan who is working on a joint environmental and development project with the United Nations and the Ethiopian Agriculture Ministry. “When the crops fail because the land is overused, then the farmers sell off the animals. The family is then totally stripped of their assets. The farmer loses out in every way. The only thing left is to send the child to work for someone else.” Asmara’s family fell victim to such a chain of events. Last year, when the rocky brown topsoil of their farm became too eroded to plow, his weeping father, Bisat Chanie, reluctantly sold their last oxen. First he sent his oldest son, 16, to work at a sesame factory near the border with Sudan. Then he trudged up a steep hill to the nearest market to speak to a broker about finding Asmara a job. “We had nothing. Our food was done,” said the father, 50, a tall man with a gray beard, a white turban and a gentle manner. “I cried over sending them to work. I still cry. But I’m also proud of my sons for helping us. What other choices do we have?” Vail, Colorado

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