WEST AFRICA – July 11 2020

COVID-19 could increase child labor in West Africa

Although coronavirus has been slow to take hold in Africa, hotspots have emerged with a scale and depth of financial shock forcing many families to resort to child labor.

COVID-19 economic backlash threatens to roll back years of progress in reducing child labor in West Africa.

“The last two decades have seen significant strides in the fight against child labor. However, the COVID-19 pandemic poses very real risks of backtracking,” says Benoit Piot, SOS Children’s Villages International Director for West, North and Central Africa, echoing concerns raised by the International Labor Organization and UNICEF.

With latest data suggesting that every African country had recorded an infection as of mid-May, “what the pandemic has laid bare are the challenges we face in protecting and promoting the well-being of the most vulnerable children and young people,” Mr. Piot added.

In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, the economic backlash of the pandemic has put many businesses at a standstill and caused a surge in child labor. With schools closed due to the lockdown, some children are being sent out to find day work to help support their parents.

While a number children work on construction sites exposed to safety risks, others try their luck in markets selling foodstuffs, bottled water or the new trend: facemasks.

In Yamoussoukro, the administrative capital of Côte d’Ivoire, 17-year-old Naminata* is all too familiar with this, having worked several years on the market as a ‘tantie bagage’ carrying heavy loads for people to earn money to support her family or help pay for school.

Although she now works as a tailor apprentice after receiving vocational training from SOS Children’s Villages, she knows how difficult it was for her family to abandon resorting to child labor to meet basic needs. She can imagine how difficult it must be for many families now.

“Because of the pandemic we don’t have any clients. When I come in to work, I do not have any standing orders so I don’t do much and cannot support my mother anymore,” says Naminata.

“My mother’s business of selling foodstuffs has also been affected because of the restrictive curfew in place forbidding anyone to work on the streets beyond mid-afternoon. She had no other choice but to start an extra job working twice a week as a washerwoman,” she adds.

One of the greatest challenges to addressing child labor in Côte d’Ivoire is the complex web of reasons why children work and the inextricable link to poverty.

Mamadou Diakite, who heads the SOS family strengthening program in Yamoussoukro, says: “causes may vary from community, and even from family, and are often not due to one specific factor. However, when these factors result in losses in household income, expectations that children contribute financially can intensify.”

“While it remains somewhat unspoken, for many families child labor is a coping mechanism in times of crisis,” adds Mr. Diakite, who continues to work with community leaders and child protection committees on the issue.

SOS Children’s Villages started its ‘tantie bagage’ project in 2017 supporting around 50 young girls to receive vocational training, with a further 25 girls expected joining later. Although this project had started to show encouraging results for both parents and their children, the coronavirus now risks pushing families back into poverty.

SOS Children’s Villages priorities in Africa

Present in 47 countries on the continent, SOS Children’s Villages’ mandate is all the more important at this time to ensure that boys and girls, young women and young men are not “worse off” once the crisis has passed, says SOS regional program director Fiona James.

“Although very few countries on the continent have reached the peak of new cases, there will still be new pockets of vulnerabilities, children on the fringe of society who risk being exposed to further exploitation and losing their rights. We are still only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of the impact on the resilience of families to absorb the shock of this health crisis and the domino effect that this has on protecting the rights of children.”

SOS Children's Villages is working to identify and analyze the emerging needs of families while also adapting to a new way of working, says Ms. James. SOS teams in the field are putting a greater emphasis on strengthening relationships with community-based organizations as well as partnerships with other child-focused organizations to avoid overlaps and better deliver the help children and families need in this time of crisis.    

*Names changed to protect the privacy of the children

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