Child labour is a key concept in international law but unfortunately, it has no clear definition. UNICEF defines it as work that exceeds "a minimum number of hours, depending on the age of a child and on the type of work" [Source]. The International Labour Organization (ILO), on its part, defines child labour as "work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development." [Source]. The organization states that work that does not affect children's health, personal development or interfere with their schooling should not be eliminated. This includes helping parents at home, assisting in the family business or working to earn pocket money.
Lack of clarity in the definition of child labour has given perpetrators of child labour and child exploitation freedom to interpret the concept to their advantage. Abusive parents and guardians argue that working long hours (under pressure and abusive conditions) in the family business is necessary for the child's personal development and helps the child to better appreciate what it means to be hardworking.
Some advocates for child labour have invoked poverty and economic hardship as justification of child labour - arguing that children must work hard in order to support struggling parents in developing countries.
Even more bizarrely, some have argued that "child labour" is a western concept that is not applicable in developing countries.
This mentality, together with the ambiguous definition of "child labour" explains why thousands of children suffer in developing countries. Many perpetrators of child labour and economic exploitation of society's most vulnerable mistakenly think that a viable economy could be built on the backs of children.
On 19 August 2011, I shared an article on Facebook condemning the economic exploitation of children in Bamenda, north west region of Cameroon. The article, which raises genuine concerns about the plight of children as young as 6 years old, was dismissed as "absurd" - an indication that even some educated Cameroonians of the "Facebook generation" still think that there is no problem when parents send out 6-year-olds to the streets to sell groundnut, sweets and biscuits - in the name of supporting the family business.
The following video series explains why child labour in Cameroon should be discouraged in its early stages before victims graduate into more severe and hazardous forms of child labour. It is the story of Etienne Babila, a child labourer rescued by the ILO from a cocoa farm in Cameroon.
Cameroon is party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 32 of the convention state that: "States Parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development."
The state has a duty to protect its children.
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