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Children's Perspectives on Their Working Lives: A Participatory Study in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, The Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua


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Radda Barnen
S-107 88 Stockholm
Phone: +46 8 698 90 00
Fax: +46 8 698 90 14
Art no 98-2121
ISBN 91-88726-19-3
© 1998 Radda Barnen and the author
Project management: Vibeke Jorgensen/Agneta Gunnarsson
Language review: Gihan Jayawardene
Graphic design: Bertil Strandberg
Cover illustration: Helena Munther/UBV-bild
A Participatory Study in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, The Philippines,
Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua
Martin Woodhead
The Children's Perspectives Study:
Study Coordinator:
Martin Woodhead, The Open University, United Kingdom
Project Coordinator:
Birgitta Ling, Radda Barnen
Local Fieldworkers:
Ruby Noble and Fatema Multany (Bangladesh)
Konjit Kefetew and Tibebu Bogale (Ethiopia)
Cecilia Oebanda, Roland Pacis and Vio Montano (Philippines)
Maria-Eughenie Vilareal and Carlos Chapeton (Guatemala)
Carlos King and Silvia de Fernandez (El Salvador) Dharma
Carrasquilla (Nicaragua)
Research Assistants (UK):
Georgina Barnes and Molly Tyler-Childs
Since the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, Radda Barnen has been
working towards ensuring that the rights stated in the Convention become a reality for all children.
Special attention is afforded to Article 3, which emphasises that the best interests of the child shall be
a primary consideration in all actions concerning children. This implies a child-centered approach that
brings children's perceptions of their lives and needs and their suggestions for solutions into
rogramme and advocacy work. Radda Barnen also has long experience of programmes for working
children - and of the complexity of the issues involved.
In order to stimulate a child-centered approach on child work issues, Radda Barnen, in 1996,
decided to undertake a major project on the situation of working children. This report comprises one
of three interlinked parts of this project.
The objectives of the project include:
- to identify areas of consensus and division among practitioners and experts on child work issues;
- to raise public awareness regarding the impact of work on children's lives;
- to produce knowledge that can be used by Radda Barnen and others for advocacy and in order to
improve policies and programmes relating to working children;
- to develop and test participatory research methods for use in investigations with children in
different cultural settings.
This report on children's perspectives on their working lives is one of few in the world that asks
working children directly what they think about their work, how they feel about school and what their
hopes and aspirations are for the future. As such it is anopportune piece of work, especially in the ligh
of the debate surrounding child work. Many people involved in this debate have not talked to working
children and assume that they have nothing of relevance to say. This study proves that working boys
and girls are quite capable of forming rational and sensible opinions that are worth hearing.
Although the values and ideas expressed in this report reflect the views of the study coordinator
and are not necessarily the views of Radda Barnen, we would particularly like to stress the study's
emphasis on working children's own perspectives on their lives.
The other reports of the Radda Barnen project comprise a survey of organisations and experts
about their opinions regarding crucial issues as regards child work and a study of five different
rogrammes conducted for and by working children.
It is our hope that these studies will contribute to a better understanding of the
realities of working children, thereby improving programme and advocacy work and ensuring that
these activities are always carried out in the best interests of the child.
Johan Stanggren
International Programme Department
Stockholm, May 1998
Preface 5
Introduction 9
Highlights of the study 11
Chapter 1 Why listen to working children? 13
Chapter 2 Planning a participatory study 22
Chapter 3 The place of work in children's lives 31
Chapter 4 Which work is best? 42
Chapter 5 Work - the 'bad things' and the 'good things' 50
Chapter 6 School - the 'good things' and the 'bad things' 64
Chapter 7 Hard choices 75
Chapter 8 What if...? 80
Chapter 9 What matters to parents? What matters to me? 89
Chapter 10 The importance of work and school in children's lives 99
Chapter 11 Implications: Helping children's lives to work 106
Appendix I From the children's point of view:
Twenty child work situations compared 114
Appendix II A participatory approach:
The Children's Perspectives Protocol 137
References 150
This report describes a participatory study of children's perspectives on their working lives. It was carried out
during 1996/1997 in collaboration with local fieldworkers in four regions of the world, (Bangladesh, Ethiopia,
The Philippines, and three Central American countries: El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua). Over 300
children and young people participated in the study, mainly aged 10-14 years. They voiced the perspective of
children working in very diverse circumstances in both urban and rural settings.
The study aims to inform international and national policy-making on child work issues, and to provide the
basis for more effective projects of prevention, intervention and support for working children. The starting-point
was the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), particularly the goal of promoting the 'best interests' of
children by protecting them from exploitative and harmful work (article 32). The study sought evidence on this
issue from working children themselves, engaged in a wide range of occupations, in contrasting regions of the
This study is part of a long overdue trend to take account of children's own perspectives on child-work issues. A
distinctive feature is the inclusion of a wide range of rural and urban occupations, as experienced by children.
Some of these young people are working in situations that would be widely recognised as hazardous and
exploitative. The situation of others may be less extreme on the 'continuum' of harm as White (1996) has
described it. Yet others are in occupations where the hazards and potential for exploitation may be less visible
than for more highly publicised examples. By drawing attention to all these children's circumstances, this study
encourages the plight of specific vulnerable groups to be understood in a broader context of issues and concerns
faced by working children, and indeed all the world's children.
Another distinctive feature of this study is that local fieldworkers all used the same framework of activities
(The Children's Perspectives Protocol) as the starting point for groupwork with children, which they
adapted to local circumstances as appropriate. The protocol provides some basis of comparability across
diverse situations, while still retaining some qualities of in-depth work, including extensive quotations from
individual children.
One of the most encouraging developments in child policy work in recent years has been the inclusion of
children themselves, offering the perspective of child workers at conferences, through the media etc. This study
is designed to complement these efforts to involve children and young people in the 'child labour debate', by
extending the range of participants able to contribute. Through qualitative research, a voice is offered to
children who would otherwise not be heard - for example those children who live in remote circumstances, or
work in occupations that less often receive 'headline' attention. The study also aims to give a mouthpiece to
children who have no contact with projects for working children,
or movements of working children. Without research like the study reported here, these children's experiences
would pass unnoticed; their stories would not be told.
The aim of this report is to summarise the diverse perspectives of more than 300 children on a series of key themes
that affect their working lives. Strenuous efforts were made to listen to children and record what they said 'with an
open mind'. Even so, it is in the nature of social research that this report has been shaped by the way the study was
carried out: (i) by the choice of occupations studied, by the way groups were convened, by the questions asked,
and by the activities conducted; (ii) by the way local fieldworkers summarised the group discussions,
interpreted the participants' contributions and translated their words; (iii) by the way I, as coordinator of
the study, have attempted to distil and integrate a mass of material; and (iv) by the way you, the reader,
interpret the pages that follow, linking what you read to your involvement with and beliefs about the
issue of children's work. I hope this report provokes continuing dialogue amongst young people as well as adults
about how best to promote the best interests of present and future generations of working children.
My thanks are due to all those who have contributed to this project, especially to the young people who gave
their time, thoughts and experiences to the groups. I am grateful to those who led the local studies and carried out
the field work: Ruby Noble and Fatema Multany (Bangladesh); Cecilia Oebanda, Roland Pacis and Vio
Montano (The Philippines); Konjit Kefetew and Tibebu Bogale (Ethiopia); Maria Eughenie Vilareal and
Carlos Chapeton (Guatemala); Carlos King and Silvia de Fernandez (El Salvador); and Dharma Carrasquilla
(Nicaragua). I thank Georgina Barnes and Molly Tyler-Childs for preparing summary information,
Bronwen Sharp and Chris Golding for secretarial help, and Peter Barnes for press cuttings. I thank Sam
Punch de Torrez, Rachel Marcus, and others who commented on earlier drafts of this report, along with all those
with whom I have discussed these issues during the past two years. I am grateful to Jo Boyden, Birgitta Ling,
Bill Myers and David Tolfree for introducing me to this topic; and to Vibeke Jorgensen and others at Radda
Barnen for seeing the project through to completion. Finally, I thank my family and my Open University
colleagues for their support during the course of this study.
Highlights of the study
This participatory study was initiated by Radda Barnen to inform debate about the effects of work on child
development - from children's point of view.
Local fieldworkers carried out the study in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, The Philippines, and the Central
American countries: El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. A specially designed Children's
Perspectives Protocol structured group activities about all aspects of children's working lives.
318 children participated in 49 groups during 1996/1997. Most were aged 10-14 years. Their occupations
included lead mining, fireworks manufacture, weaving, brick-chipping, domestic work, market work,
porters, street vending, shoeshine, fishing and associated trades, plantation work and various other
types of agricultural work.
A few children talked about being forced to work; other children felt they had made a choice to work. Most
children had been initiated into helping their families from an early age - they felt work was a normal and
necessary part of childhood, within the constraints of their circumstances. For some, work is not just an
economic necessity; it is at the core of their identity.
Many children are struggling to reconcile competing pressures - to work, to attend school and to support
their family. Virtually all the children contribute some or all of their income to the family purse. One of the
reasons for working is to help pay the direct and indirect costs of going to school.
Working children describe the hardships and hazards associated with their work. But much of their concern is
not so much with the work itself as with the way they are treated. They recognise their vulnerability to those
(mainly in the adult world) who exploit, bully, ridicule and physically abuse them. Being treated badly has a
major influence on working children's low self-esteem.
Children do not view their 'work' in wholly negative terms, any more than they view 'school' in wholly
positive terms. Many groups disliked aspects of school, such as the harsh punishments they often receive from
teachers. When asked what makes them feel good about themselves, groups referred as frequently to 'work'
as 'school' themes.
77% of the children in this study believe that 'going to work and attending school' is the best option in their
present circumstances. 11% believe 'work only' is the best option. 12% favour 'school only'.
Local variations in attitudes to work and school were linked to work situation and prospects for schooling. In
Bangladesh and Ethiopia, about 25% children favoured 'work only' but few favoured 'school only'. In The
Philippines and especially in Central America, few children favoured 'work only' but about 20%
favoured 'school only'. Despite these variations, two thirds or more of the children in each study site felt
combining 'work and school' was the only feasible option.
Children were asked what their reactions would be to a new law preventing work for children under
the age of fifteen. Only 28% of groups would accept or welcome new regulations. 65% of groups said they
would defy the law, evade regulations, or work 'underground'.
Children's working lives are strongly shaped by gender. More boys' groups report parental expectations that
they work to earn money. They more often work independently and have more control over their earnings.
Girls often face a triple burden, of work, school and chores, but they report less often of having control over
their earnings. Many girls' groups describe their vulnerability to harassment, physical and sexual abuse in
their work. Domestic workers, street traders and sex workers described many incidents.
Working children tend to attach higher status to their own work compared to other children's occupations -
an indication of positive self-esteem. The exceptions included some girls' groups that gave their own
occupation a lower ranking than others. In Bangladesh, brickchippers and domestic workers see garment
manufacturing as offering them better conditions and prospects. Ironically, this is one of the occupations that
international action has targeted for elimination of child labour.
Effective, context-appropriate interventions demand that children's perspectives are taken into account.
Children are the principal stakeholders in the 'child labour debate'. This study demonstrates that children are
active in their attempts to make sense of their circumstances. They are perceptive about the
roblems that face
them and constructive about potential solutions. They have a unique understanding of the ways work affects
their lives, and the ways their situation could be improved.
Chapter 1: Why listen to working children?
Ten year old Russell works as a porter in a Dhaka market. He's already looking for business by 8 am
each morning, and works through until 7 or 8 each evening, with just a short break to go home for
lunch. He grew up in rural Bangladesh until he was seven, but his family fell on hard times, and were
orced to look for work in the city. He got as far as Grade 3 in the village school. But now his father is
sick and unable to work much, so school is out o f the question for Russell:
'If I stop working today and go to school, who will feed my family? It would mean earning
and eating less because I would have to divide my time."
Since his family moved to the city, Russell has tried all kinds o f jobs - as assistant to a shopkeeper,
doing menial jobs in a garment factory, and washing dishes in a hotel. He thinks being a porter is
the best job for someone his age:
`A porter is safe even if people accuse me of stealing and beat me. There are days when I can also
earn a lot." ***
n a Guatemalan village, twelve year old Yarnilet spends 6 hours a day making firecrackers in a small
workshop near her house:
`I work because I want to... I want to help my parents. They work a lot but the money is not
enough. I've got six brothers and sisters and the money doesn't stretch for all o f us, so I have to help."
Making fireworks isn't the only kind o f work Yamilet has to do:
'1 also help my mother with housework. I help her go to the mill to grind corn. I help her prepare
meals, wash dishes and take care of my two little brothers who are still very small and can't fend for
When she's not making fireworks or doing domestic chores, Yamilet is working hard at school, for
our hours every morning. Earning money is essential to help pay for her schooling. -
'I get paid for the number of firecrackers I make... I give all the money to my mother and she buys me
the things I need for school.'
She's hoping one day she can give up making fireworks and get a better job. Meanwhile her greatest
concern is that one day there might be an accident:
`I haven't had any accidents but a schoolfriend had the fireworks explode on him - his clothing
caught fire and he was burnt all over... I got very scared. I don't want to be scarred for life.'
ourteen year old Armand is from The Philippines. He makes his living gathering Tahong shells
rom the sea bed. He often has to dive down five metres to get good shells:
"Sometimes my ears hurt because o f diving, and I get nosebleeds from all the water. Sometimes I
et cut by the shells or by other sharp things lying on the sea floor. It can be very cold especially
in winter."
espite these hardships, Armand doesn't mind the work. Although he makes money to help his
amily and pay for school, he also works for the fun o f it:
"I work to be with my friends - to be 'in' with the other kids. Working young means
developing your bones and body into becoming an adult."
When he's not diving, Armand helps out when the fishing boats come in, sorting and loading the
ish onto a truck. He doesn't work every day because he's still in full time school, trying to
complete Grade 6. He's already dropped-out o f school twice. The first time was because his family
couldn't cover the costs. The second time was because of the punishments from his teacher. He
hadn't submitted his class assignment so his teacher made him run round the classroom without
clothes on. Even so, Armand wants to go through to High School, hoping one day to become a
Child labour and working children
Russell, Yamilet and Armand are just three out of three hundred children who talked about their working lives during
the course of this study. In many ways their lives are very different - in where they live, in the work they do, in
their family circumstances, school attendance and future prospects. What they share in common is that their work puts
them at risk of physical injury, abuse or exploitation. Their work is `child labour'. Efforts to combat child labour
throughout the world have increased in intensity during the past decade, (e.g. Bequele and Boyden, 1988; Fyfe, 1989;
Myers, 1991; Marcus and Harper, 1996; Unicef, 1997). Article 32 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
(1989) offers the most powerful (near universally agreed) instrument to regulate child labour. During 1997, major
international meetings in Amsterdam and Oslo debated the most effective strategies, and during 1998 the ILO is expect
to propose a new Convention designed specifically to `Target the Intolerable' (ILO, 1996).
Russell, Yamilet and Armand are amongst millions of working children and young people throughout the world
whose lives will be profoundly affected by interventions and regulations that follow in the wake of the current debate
about how best to combat child labour. They are the subject of the debate and the targets of intervention. The question
is - should they also be part of the process?
What part should working children play in the child labour debate?
Do working children have a role to play in shaping interventions to combat child labour?
• What is the best way for working children to participate?
How can working children's voices be heard?
Children certainly have something to say, and some of the things they say may come as a surprise, as the
words of Russell, Yamilet and Armand above illustrate. One reaction is that they are too young to have
much to contribute, too immature and vulnerable to know what is in their best interests. In this study, we ex-
plore ways of listening to working children's perspectives, to ensure their voice does make an effective
contribution to shaping their future.
Child labour in context
The goal of eliminating grossly exploitative and hazardous situations is widely welcomed. But one limitation
of the debate so far has been a tendency to concentrate on particular situations either because of their visibility
(e.g. street children); the obvious dangers attached to the work (e.g. involving chemicals); the themes
that resonate with European social history (e.g. children in mines); the involvement of western
commercial interests (e.g. carpet weaving, garment manufacturing), or western tourism (e.g. child
prostitution). Until recently, less attention has been given to much larger but less visible groups, notably
domestic workers and agricultural workers (Nieuwenhuys, 1994), not forgetting the work that is done by
children within the confines of their own homes (Ennew, 1992). Another limitation of the debate has been the
failure always to clarify whose interests are being protected. In a few well-publicised cases, interventions
appear to have misjudged or ignored working children's interests, as in the case of Bangladesh garment
workers thrown out of factories in order to satisfy consumer pressures for childfree products (White, 1996). The
debate is distorted further when efforts to eliminate the most hazardous and exploitative forms of child labour
spill over into more general proposals to exclude children from working at all. For example, implementation of
a minimum working age, as envisaged in the UN Convention could be double-edged, eliminating harmful child
work situations but at the same time denying children the possibility to participate in developmentally positive
economic activities. In these ways, well-intentioned intervention on behalf of children can neglect the hazards
faced by some children, undermine the position of others, and arbitrarily limit the choices of many more.
These areas of confusion and controversy are frequently compounded by failure
to distinguish a range of levels of intervention (from local projects with individual children to international
conventions on children's rights) and failure to distinguish a range of time-frames for intervention (from the
immediacy of today's work with working children to the longer term provisions for future generations of
children). For instance, it is one thing for the international community to set a long term goal of freeing childhood
from child labour, through the UN Convention or the proposed ILO Convention. It is quite another thing to
translate that vision into actions that deny today's children access to work that is fundamental to their livelihood
and may be a core part of their identity. The same mismatch applies to the goal of displacing work for school in
the lives of the world's children.
The vision of universal primary education confirmed at the Jomtien conference in 1990 is seen by many as a
global challenge for The Millennium. But accepting the challenge does not mean that today's children will
necessarily be better off in school rather than work, especially while school is often mediocre, costly to families
and of uncertain benefit to children's future prospects (Little et al., 1994; Lockheed and Verspoor, 1996).
Cutting across these dilemmas is the fundamental issue of deciding what is in children's best interests. What
counts for quality in child development, for all the world's children? What standards should be set, and how can
those standards best be applied? And who is best able to answer these questions - international agencies; child
development experts; local communities? Most important, what part should children play in deciding what is in
their best interests? How far should we listen to what the children say? This study is based on the conviction that
children's participation is fundamental, and not just as a point of principle. Listening a little more to children is
the starting point for understanding the problem of children's work more fully and intervening more effectively.
The case for taking children's perspectives into account is part of a wider argument about the way policy-
makers think about child labour, and set standards that inform intervention. At risk of
oversimplification, two approaches can be contrasted:
One approach emphasises the universality of childhood as a distinctive phase of human life. It relies on
a combination of scientific knowledge about features of psychological development presumed to be shared
by all children, and international agreement about the importance of recognising and respecting their
fundamental needs and rights, for care and protection, learning and education. This approach also
emphasises principles of justice and equality.
A second approach emphasises the relativity of childhood, the diversity of children's lives, shaped by
geography, wealth and poverty, social organisation, family patterns, and economic opportunities. This
approach emphasises the way multiple stakeholders shape the experience of childhood according to cultural
beliefs and practices. Historical as well as cultural relativity is acknowledged, with expectations of
childhood subject to transformation as a result of modernisation, urbanisation and education. While children
have fundamental rights and needs, these can be expressed in diverse ways according to context.
International debate and policy-making about child labour is generally framed in terms of the first, universalist
approach. The emphasis is on reaching agreement on universal principles of children's rights, child
development and child welfare; and on applying these principles to children who work, whatever their circum-
stances. The problem is twofold. First, general principles are abstractions that do not translate directly into
everyday realities. Second, some so-called universal principles are often interpreted as specific cultural
prescriptions for a quality childhood. This is evident in The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).
Article 32 is framed in terms of protecting children's development:
"States Parties recognise 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"
(UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, Article 32)
Work is presented as an external hazard that is likely to harm a process of 'development' that is assumed to be
universal. The possibility of alternative goals of development is not acknowledged; nor is the possibility that
working might in some circumstances be a core part of developing. Note that school has a very different status.
Article 28 of the UN Convention asserts children's right to education, and assumes that schooling will be
beneficial. Education is so much a feature of children's rights that it is to be made compulsory.
Child development and children's lives
In Article 32, protecting children's development appears unproblematic. A close look at scientific knowledge
suggests it is not nearly so straightforward. Textbook accounts of child development are based mainly on studies
carried out by Western developmental psychologists working within the context of modem Western childhoods
(Woodhead, 1996; 1997; 1998). One indicator of the cultural partiality of 'scientific' knowledge about
children is the selectivity of textbook coverage. 'Play', 'learning' and 'schooling' are major topics. References
to 'work' or 'labour' are rare, and mainly ask about potential negative effects of part-time work by adolescents in
Europe and North America (McKechnie et al., 1995; Steinberg et al., 1993). Preoccupied as they are with
childhoods confined within families, nurseries and schools, child development experts neglect the significance
of work activities for children's initiation into skills, roles and personal identity, as contexts that can promote
development, as well as harm development.
Excluding work from textbook childhoods cannot be justified even within the context of European and North
American societies, where many more children work than are officially recognised (McKechnie et al., 1996),
and virtually all children are (at the very least) required to undertake some domestic chores (Morrow, 1994). In
global terms, excluding work from studies of child development is absurd, given that according to Unicef
estimates, at least 190,000,000 children aged ten to fourteen years are working; 75% of them are working the
equivalent of six days a week (Unicef, 1997). '
The consequence of expert myopia is profound, especially because of the status attached to scientific
knowledge that purports to describe children's universal nature. Particular cultural constructions of childhood
become 'naturalised', masquerading as scientific knowledge about children's 'normal' development and their
'universal' needs (Burman, 1996; Woodhead, 1990; 1998). These cultural images of development now regulate
childhoods throughout the world:
"As the twentieth century has progressed... highly selective, stereotyped perceptions
of childhood... have been exported from the industrial world to the South... It has been the explicit goal of
children's rights specialists to crystallize in international law a universal system of rights for the child based
on these norms of childhood" (Boyden, 1990, p 191).
While children in the most hazardous and exploitative circumstances are pathologised by terms like 'stolen
childhood', the majority of the world's working children are rendered invisible, as living outside the definition of
childhood, at least for this part of their lives. Rarely is explicit recognition given that the childhoods of which
working children are said to have been deprived is a relatively recent cultural arrangement for young humanity,
and in terms of the long term evolution of humanity, an exception to the rule. To confront this possibility does
not detract from efforts to make progress in protecting children from exploitative and hazardous work. What it
does invite is a more reflective awareness of the broader socio-historical contexts in which children work and
develop. Working childhoods may in one time and place be judged a normal and natural part of growing-up, but
in another time and place be judged as potentially harmful to development. Seeking working children's own
perspectives not only renders their experiences of childhood more visible. It draws attention to the way these
hidden assumptions shape public understanding of the subject.
Children as stakeholders in child development
To make progress on the issue of children and work, it is essential to reconcile universal principles and
aspirations with an appreciation of the realities of children's lives. A first step is to acknowledge that the multi-
dimensional concept of `child development' that Article 32 seeks to protect is neither preordained nor
unproblematic. It is as much culturally constructed as it is biologically prescribed. Part of the process of
implementing Article 32 requires elaborating how 'development' can be promoted in ways that are sustainable
and sensitive to local socioeconomic and cultural contexts. In some respects this can be seen as a technical issue,
about how to translate general principles to local situations. But at root it is also about the ideological stance taken
to working children - how far the task is seen as about rescue and rehabilitation to a preconceived model of
what childhood should be like, or as about supporting and empowering children and communities towards
locally meaningful futures. In a parallel Radda Barnen study, David Tolfree has elaborated the philosophical
approaches taken by projects for working children in Bangladesh, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Peru and Senegal
(Tolfree, 1998).
Planning context-appropriate, creative solutions to the problems that face today's working children requires
recognition of the competing pressures and priorities for child development, especially in contexts of rapid social
change which demand constant reappraisal of what is in children's best interests, for present and future
generations. It also acknowledges multiple stakeholders in the child work debate, each with distinctive beliefs and
goals for childhood. Finally, it recognises that children are themselves the principal stakeholders, contributing to
the process
of defining their own version of 'development' and taking what steps they can to improve their well-being and
prospects, in their everyday struggle to survive, learn, and develop a sense of self-respect. A first step in
ensuring their self-respect is for the adult world to respect their experiences, concerns, and aspirations.
Children as social actors
Just as the child-work debate is framed in terms of unstated assumptions about children's development, there
are also problems in the way 'hazard' or 'harm' are conceptualised, for example in Article 32 of the UN
Convention and most recently in the proposed new ILO Convention, designed to "Target the Intolerable" (ILO,
1996). Successful implementation of these Conventions demands establishing criteria for deciding what kinds
of work are exploitative, hazardous and harmful. One approach, based on distinguishing 'child work' from
'child labour' has been challenged as too vague, too general and ultimately circular. An alternative
approach places types of work on a continuum, with the most harmful and intolerable at one end, and the least
harmful and most tolerable (possibly even beneficial) at the other end (White, 1996). This approach has potential,
provided the continuum is recognised as multi-dimensional, with potential harm separately assessed for
each aspect of work (e.g. physical demands, potential hazards, environmental quality, relationship to the
employer, economic exploitation etc.).
The problem is that 'harm' suggests a very direct effect of work on children's wellbeing. For physical trauma
and injury this may be appropriate, but much of the debate is not about physical harm. It is about psychological
harm to the child's ...mental, spiritual, moral or social development'. For these psychological aspects of
development, a model of causality derived from the physical and biological sciences is much less appropriate.
Whether young people are affected positively or negatively by their work depends on their personal
vulnerability. It is mediated by the social and cultural context of their work, especially the value placed on their
economic activity and the expectations for their development and social adjustment. With the possible
exception of extreme cases of forced or bonded labour, children are not simply passive victims adversely
affected by their work. They are social actors, trying to make sense of their physical and social world,
negotiating with parents and peers, employers and customers, and making the best of the oppressive and
difficult circumstances in which they find themselves. They shape their working life as well as being shaped by
it. _Work does not simply affect young people. It is part of their activity and it becomes part of their identity
(Woodhead, 1998).
Children as participants in their present and their future
Taking account of children's perspectives is not an alternative to conventional evaluation research, which may
demonstrate long term effects that children do not recognise. For example, young people working with
hazardous chemicals may be oblivious to the harm that is being done to their health. But in other respects children
may be acutely aware of the effect their work is having upon them. Their
subjective experience of the benefits or hazards of work may not be the same as the perspectives of an outsider.
This is especially true for psycho-social aspects of development, where young people's perceptions are a key
indicator of their self-esteem. Their feelings about work, about school and about core social relationships that
support or undermine their dignity and sense of security are vital indicators of hazard and harm. While an
outside observer may focus on what seems to be the immediate impact of arduous or exploitative work,
children's perspectives are shaped by a history of past experiences, by the extent to which they identify with and
find personal meaning in what they do, and by their beliefs about the place of work in their lives - in the
present and in the future. Multiple approaches that acknowledge multiple perspectives, are required to
provide a complete picture of the process of child development, and the impact of specific situations and
experiences (Greenfield and Cocking, 1994). Ideally, a study of children's perspectives would be complemented
by studies of the perspectives of families, teachers, employers, non-working school children etc.
Sceptics about the usefulness of children participating in the formulation of policy and practice might argue that
working children, especially young, ill educated working children, are unlikely to be aware of the important
issues, less still to be able to articulate them. This image of children as immature thinkers, unable to articulate their
feelings and thoughts is another legacy of conventional beliefs about child development, notably Piaget's theory
of stages from egocentric thinking to mature understanding. Experience of involving children as participants in
research and social action suggest children are much more competent (e.g. Hart, 1997; Johnson et al., 1998). So
does recent socio-cultural research into children's capacities for understanding their social world (e.g. Dunn, 1988)
as well as studies into the ways children can be supported to think about issues and communicate effectively
(Rogoff, 1990; Mercer, 1994). Moreover, as the Radda Barnen study on projects for working children makes
clear, interventions that treat children as helpless victims are much less likely to be effective than interventions
that seek to support and empower children (Tolfree, 1998). Seeking children's perspectives may be an essential
starting-point for planning effective projects.
Listening to children's voices
There is, of course, an overriding reason for ensuring that children's voices are heard in the child labour debate.
Children-have the right to be protected from harmful work, but they also have the right to express their views on
issues that directly affect them. According to the UN Convention:
"States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express
those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in
accordance with the age and maturity of the child"
(UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, Article 12)
Increasingly, the voice of children and young people is being heard by delegates at major international meetings.
(For example, during 1997, eight representatives of movements of working children were invited by the Dutch
government to attended a meeting in Amsterdam). Researching children's perspectives is not a substitute for
such direct participation. This study aims to complement such initiatives, concentrating on groups of young
people in local settings, most of whom have no direct involvement with child workers' organisations, nor with
GOs providing support for working children.
These arguments for taking account of children's perspectives can be summarized as four main points:
Children have a right to be heard about matters that affect them. Listening to the experiences and
perspectives of children living in diverse circumstances is a valuable antidote to the sweeping
generalisations about childhood and child development that dominate discussion of the topic;
Children are capable of expressing their feelings, concerns and aspirations, within contexts that respect their
abilities and are adapted to their interests and preferred ways of communicating;
Children are an important source of evidence on how work may harm their development, in particular
economic, family, community and cultural contexts. They may not be aware of certain detrimental effects
(e.g. long term health hazards). But they may be acutely aware of others, and their concerns may be an
important indicator, especially of the psycho-social effects of work;
Children are not passively affected by their work - too young and too innocent to understand what is
going on. They are active contributors to their social world, trying to make sense of their present
circumstances, the constraints and the opportunities available to them. Seeking children's perspectives on
their present lives is a first step towards their participation in shaping their future lives.
Listening to children's perspectives does not undermine efforts to combat child labour that is hazardous and
exploitative. It provides a much more sound starting point for intervening in ways that are child-centred,
context-appropriate and in the best interests of working children.
Chapter 2: Planning a participatory study
This chapter summarises the design of the study and explains the use of a participatory group approach. It
explains the development of The Children's Perspectives Protocol, describes the sample and provides brief
background information about the participants. It also explains the approach to analysis that informed the
chapters of this report.
The study was designed to achieve four main aims:
to develop a research method that would collect systematic information on child work issues - from
children's point of view;
to adapt this research method for use with groups of girls and boys from diverse circumstances engaged in a
wide range of occupations, in rural and urban settings;
to provide an account of young people's experiences, beliefs and feelings about their working lives,
including their circumstances, family networks and expectations, work and school, and prospects for the
to contribute to the current debate about the most appropriate strategies for promoting the 'best interests' of
children engaged in work that is considered hazardous and/or exploitative.
A participatory group approach
Participatory research methods have become increasingly well established in recent years, notably in the field
of Development Studies (Chambers, 1995). By empowering children to construct a representation of
their social world, participatory research methods can inform the adult world about children's thoughts,
feelings and concerns. They can also be the starting point for children's participation in the process of resolving
issues that affect them (Redd Barna, 1994; Johnson, et al., 1995; PLA Notes, 1996; Johnson et al., 1998). The design
of this study was informed partly by these participatory methods, as well as by research methods used by
developmental and social psychologists, especially for studying children's social cognition and sense of
self (Durkin, 1995).
An initial exploratory study with 13/14 year old girls and boys engaged in part-time work in the UK was followed
by a pilot study with two groups in AddisAbaba, Ethiopia (shoeshine boys, and girls working as kollo snack
vendors). Following pilot work, the research protocol was finalised and the main study carried out by local
fieldworkers in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, The Philippines, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Each
fieldworker was asked to convene a series of groups of young people, of the same age, sex and occupation.
The decision to adopt a group approach was influenced by participatory methods,
as well as by focus-group methods. Morgan and Krueger (1993) identify a number of situations where focus-
group methods are especially appropriate, all of which apply very strongly to the circumstances of working
when a friendly research method is required, that is respectful and not condescending;
when participants in research do not have readily accessible ways of talking about a topic - the interaction
has a cueing effect, building confidence to contribute feelings that may otherwise not be expressed;
for working with groups that historically have had limited power and influence... "having the security of
being among others who share many of their feelings and experiences, the participants possess a basis for
sharing their views" (p15);
when there is a gap between professional decision-makers and their target audience... "focus groups provide
a clear view of how others think and talk, they are a powerful means of exposing professionals to the reality
of the... client" (p16).
(Morgan and Krueger, 1993; see also Stewart and Shamdasi, 1990)
Cultural considerations also shaped the decision to adopt a group approach. One-to-one interviews or written
questionnaires would have been wholly inappropriate in contexts where young people may be illiterate or
semi-literate or where they would find the one-to-one attention of an adult investigator (of perceived high
status) highly threatening. The consequence of this decision is that much of the data presented in this report
refers to the consensus of group opinion, or to the range of comments offered by members of a group.
The group approach described in this report required a minimum of two fieldworkers, one to facilitate the
group (the 'facilitator') and the other to record the information on audio and/or video, as well as in structured
note form (the 'recorder'). The fieldworkers were identified through local offices of Radda Barnen in
each country/region. All of the fieldworkers had research training and experience, and in some cases they
were already very experienced in the use of participatory methods with children. Their local knowledge and
ability to communicate informally with young people was essential to the success of the group work. Gender
issues were also carefully considered, with the female facilitators normally working with groups of girls.
Briefing of the fieldworkers in Ethiopia was carried out on-site, during the course of the pilot study.
Briefing of fieldworkers from Bangladesh, The Philippines and the countries of Central America was carried
out during a two day workshop in Stockholm.
The local fieldworkers carried out each focus group during a minimum of one half-day session, (although most
found shorter sessions conducted over several days much more satisfactory). Participants were recruited by a
variety of methods
according to circumstances. For example, vendors and shoeshine boys in Ethiopia were contacted via street
workers known to the local Radda Barnen office. In Guatemala, many of the groups were contacted via village
schools known to be attended by working young people. In the Philippines, young people in fishing work were
identified through the personal and professional contacts of the investigator. The general rule was that participants
should be included in the study who had little or no previous contact with agencies working for or on behalf of
working children.
Before participants agreed to take part in the study, the purposes were explained in simple terms. The
consent of parents, teachers or employers was also sought where local fieldworkers deemed this necessary
and in the children's interests. Participants were reimbursed for working-time lost through participating in the
Two objectives shaped the plan for group work. One was to provide in-depth case material on particular
groups of working children in the context of local situations and circumstances, and adapted to children's
preferred ways of expressing feelings and beliefs. A second objective was to provide systematic, comparable
data across diverse settings that could meaningfully inform debate, social policy and intervention at national,
regional and international level. These objectives were reconciled in construction of The Children's
erspectives Protocol. The protocol was flexibly applied in child-centred and context-appropriate ways,
but included a core set of activities that would yield comparable data across all settings, occupations and
The Children's Perspectives Protocol
The Children's Perspectives Protocol is summarised as Appendix II to this report. Briefly, it
comprises 8 activities:
Activity 1: `My Day' invites young people to describe their daily lives, orally and using drawings and
mapping techniques;
Activity 2: `My Work' explores the circumstances of children's work and the detail of the activities they
Activity 3: 'Who matters?' asks about young people's social networks, the quality of key-relationships, as
well as their own self-evaluation;
Activity 4: `Work and school' asks participants what they consider are the bad as well as the good things
about their work, and then repeats the activity for school, before establishing which is their
Activity 5: `Which work is best?' asks participants to rank children's occupations (including their own) in
terms of relative desirability/undesirability, and explores the criteria on which young people
base these judgements;
Activity 6: `What is a Child?' examines young people's own views on child development. They are asked to
chart a wide range of work activities in terms of age-appropriateness;
Activity 7: `What if?' presents young people with common dilemmas facing working children and
invites them to comment about what is likely to happen next and what could be done to
Activity 8: 'Life-stories' provides fieldworkers with an opportunity to explore the issues in Activity 1-7 with a
particular child, in order to enrich the level of detail provide from group work.
The protocol does not assume that participants are literate. Young people are encouraged to represent their
feelings and beliefs in the ways that are most meaningful to them, including drawings, mapping, role play as
well as group discussion. The semi-structured activities and games are at the heart of the protocol, focusing on
key themes in children's lives. Many are based around locally-produced picture-cards which participants are
asked to compare, sort and rank, yielding a combination of individual and group responses.
Each fieldworker prepared a data-summary for each group within their local study, including extensive
verbatim quotations from participants, following a standard form based on The Children's Perspectives
rotocol. These summaries are the starting point for this report. They comprise a combination of qualitative and
quantitative information. For several of the activities, children's comments were coded under thematic
headings, as described in subsequent chapters.
The sample
Groups were selected to include common child work situations, in four distinct regions of the world. Major
criteria for sample selection were:
Age group - the main target group was 10-14 year olds. In the Philippines several younger groups were also
included (of boys and of girls 7-10) who were involved in fishing;
Gender - this is a major factor affecting the experience of working children, and occupations are
frequently gender-specific. Fieldworkers were advised to seek an overall balance of girls' and boys' groups;
Project Support - A key decision was made at the outset that this study should concentrate on children who
have little or no current involvement with projects that provide support to working children in terms of
welfare services, education, advocacy etc.
Occupation - A particular effort was made to counterbalance the tendency to concentrate on urban street-
based workers. So the sample was planned to include groups in agriculture, fishing, mining, small
manufacturing, domestic
work, sex work, as well as a range of street based occupations (vending, shoeshine, porters etc).
Local fieldworkers sought to include occupational groups that were considered at risk of harm or exploitation.
But it is important to emphasise that the study makes no claims to be based on a representative sample of the
population of working children, always assuming it were possible to define the parameters of that population.
The issue of representativeness also applies within each country - some major occupations may not be
Practical considerations strongly influenced the occupations included in the study, including access, local
experience, costs as well as local priorities for study of hitherto neglected occupations. Local fieldworkers were
advised to include a minimum of two groups for each occupation selected. This report is based on a total of 49
groups, involving 318 participants, as shown in Table 2.1. Detailed accounts of the circumstances of
twenty of the occupations are given in Appendix 1.
In presenting the results of this investigation it is important to emphasise that this is a relatively small sample.
Generalisation, especially about particular occupations would be inappropriate. Nonetheless, in an area of
social policy where there is a shortage of systematic research into children's perspectives, the study indicates
the range of children's views and the key issues on which they appear to share a good deal in common.
Table 2.1. Summary of Groups and participants
Boys Girls All groups
groups children group children groups children
Fishing 3 20 3 18 6 38
Domestics 2 13 2 13
Farming 2 13 1 6 3 19
Plantation 1 5 1 . S 2 10
TOTAL 6 38 7 42 13 80
Boys Girls All groups
groups children groups children
groups children
Workshop 2 13
2 13
Porter 2 14 2 14
Brickchipper 2 16 2 16
Domestics 2 14 2 14
Agriculture 2 15 2 15
TOTAL 6 42 4 30
10 72
Boys Girls
ll groups
groups children groups children groups children
Shoeshine 2 14
2 14
Kollo seller 2 10 2 10
News vendor 2 13 2 13
Sex worker 2 12 2 12
TOTAL 4 27 4 22 8 49
Boys Girls
ll groups
groups children groups
children groups children
Fireworks 1 6 1 6 2 12
Lead mine 1 6 1 6
Agric. Brocolli 1 6 1 6
Agric.Cardamom 1 6 1 6 2 12
TOTAL 3 18 3 18 6 36
Boys Girls All groups
groups children group children groups childre
Market 1 8 1 8 2 16
Vendor 1 7 1 6 2 13
Farming 1 4 1 12 2 16
TOTAL 3 19 3 26 6 45
Boys Girls All groups
groups children groups children groups children
El Salvador
Market 1 7 1 7 2 14
Supermarket 1 6 1 6
Flower vendor 1 4 1 4
Farming 1 6 1 6 2 12
TOTAL 3 19 3 17 6 36
Basic information about participants
Each participant was asked for basic details about their home, family and schooling
experiences. This was supplemented by information available to local researchers to
roduce a profile of the group.
Gender: 51% participants were boys.
49% of participants were girls.
Age group: 21 % under 11 years;
OVERALL 25 163 24 155 49 318
36% 11-12 years old;
37% 13-14 years old;
6% 15 years old or of unknown age.
The age distribution was similar for each country except for The Philippines, which accounted
for almost half of the children under 11. This was due to two fishing groups being convened
specifically for younger children.
Origin: Overall 47% of participants were described by the fieldworkers as having grown up
in a rural or coastal area, 33% as urban, and 18% as having migrated to the city during their
childhood. However there were significant country differences. All the work in Ethiopia was
carried out in Addis Ababa, so none of these children were rural. Conversely, with few
exceptions the participants in The Philippines and Guatemala are from a rural context.
Home: This study chose to concentrate on working children who are based with (or accountable to)
their parents or other close family members. Many of these children were working 'on the streets', as
vendors, shoeshine etc., but they were not children 'of the streets' in the sense of being homeless or
abandoned (Glauser 1990). Altogether 87% of group participants were currently living with a
arent or parents (usually as well as siblings). A further 6% were living with another relative (e.g.
sibling or aunt). Just 6% were living with 'others', including some of the domestic workers in
Bangladesh and The Philippines who were living with their employer but were accountable to their
arents. The only children in the study who could be described as living independently of their
families were the sex workers in Ethiopia, several of whom lived with friends or on the street.
School: Another feature is that (at the time of the study) a majority of the children were combining
their work with attending school. Ensuring children's school attendance is frequently proposed as a
key strategy for combating child labour (e.g. Unicef, 1997). At the very least, children's
attendance will have an impact on their working lives, and it can be expected to be reflected in their
spectives on their work. Overall 61% of the participants were currently attending school either
full-time or part-time. A further 20% had dropped out of school by the time of the study. Only 19%
report that they have never attended school. However these overall figure disguise between-
country variations. The percentage of participants currently in school part- or full-time was:
Bangladesh 8 %
Ethiopia 57%
Nicaragua 58%
The Philippines 79%
El Salvador 86%
Guatemala 100%
As expected, these variations in children's experience of school were associated with variations in
their perspective on their working lives.
Involvement in projects for working children: As part of the protocol, all the
children were asked about their participation in projects to support working children. Only 6%
reported a current involvement.
Three main reasons shaped this decision to concentrate on children outside projects. Firstly, it reflects
reality; most of the world's working children do not have the benefit of projects and programmes
designed to support and protect them. Secondly, it is sometimes argued that the young people who
have attended at major national and international meetings in recent years, offer an unrepresentative
view on the situation of working children, by virtue of their involvement in an advocacy programme.
By concentrating on 'ordinary' working children, this study aimed to represent young voices that
would otherwise not be heard. Finally, this study is part of a larger Radda Barnen project. A
arallel study has focused specifically on the experiences of working children who are involved in
or supported by programmes in Bangladesh, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Peru and Senegal (Tolfree,
Design of the report
One approach to preparing this report would have been to summarise the perspectives of each
occupational group in turn. To do so would emphasise the uniqueness of each groups' experience, and
draw attention to the importance of making sure that interventions on behalf of working children are
appropriate to their particular context and circumstances. Appendix I goes some way towards
achieving this aim, providing a brief account of 20 occupational situations included in the study. The
main body of the report has taken a different, thematic approach, based on activities in The
Children's Perspectives Protocol. Chapters about the place of work in children's lives are followed
by chapters on what children think are the 'good things' and the 'bad things' about work, and about
school, as well as chapters on parental expectations and self-concept. The aim has been to draw out
major themes shared by large numbers of children participating in this study, at a sufficiently
generalised level to inform debate and policy planning at national and international level. At the same
time I aim to show where there are consistent patterns of variation, related to country context,
occupation, gender, access to schooling etc. Finally, inclusion of individual children's voices in the
report is a reminder that general principles, policies and laws about children's work will only
serve children's interests if they are framed in such a way that they can address many millions of
unique situations. In the final analysis, it is these variable and unique experiences of working
children that must be the starting point for interventions that are effective and in their best interests.
Chapter 3: The place of work in children's lives
We begin this account of working children's perspectives by asking three sets of questions:
How does 'work' fit into the daily lives of working children? In what ways is their experience of work
shaped by their gender, circumstances and school attendance?
How did they get started as working children? How far is their work controlled by their families? Did
they have any choice in the matter?
From what age do working children themselves believe girls and boys should work, and doing what
kinds of jobs? What reasons do they give for these judgements?
Answers to these questions are based mainly on Activities 1, 2 and 6 of The Children's Perspectives
Protocol (see Appendix II)
Work in daily lives
Figure 3.1 (see page 32) illustrates some of the contrasting daily lives of children in this study. At one
extreme are groups where daily life consists of little more than work. Daily Profile 1 summarises daily life
for a group of domestic workers in the Philippines. These girls live with their employers and are on call
day and night. They describe their day as a never-ending round of cleaning the house and yard, going to
the market, washing clothes, ironing them and putting them away, taking children to school and fetching
them back at the end of the day, preparing food, cooking and washing-up, cleaning toilets and bedrooms
and caring for plants. There is not even free time in the evenings, when they are expected to make snacks
for their employers, babysit small children etc.
Working lives are equally unremitting for the boys from the Bihari community working in the informal
sector in Dhaka, Bangladesh. One group hand-weave saries in gold, silver and silk threads. The other
group embroider satin, silk and cotton fabric:
"In this embroidery work our hands ache, our eyes ache, our knees ache, our legs become numb.
Many times the needle sticks into our fingers. It's like a hook. It's very painful when the needle
comes out because some of the flesh comes out with it."
Daily Profile 2 summarises the way the weavers described their lives, working six days a week
for anything up to 10 or 11 hours a day, with little free time for play, relaxation, or anything
The girls who break bricks in Bangladesh also described a long working day in
Daily Profile 3. But unlike the weavers, their working day is divided between work outside the home for an
employer and the domestic chores they have to do in and around the home. By the time they go to the
brickchipping fields at 7 or 8 am they've often already done several hours of chores. After they have
worked at brickchipping for 2 or 3 hours, they break-off to help prepare family meals, collect water, wash
clothes etc. Sometimes they do not finally rest until around 11 at night. If they hurt themselves breaking
bricks, they say they just get extra chores to do:
"If our fingers get smashed under the hammer, we still have to continue working. If I go home after hurting
myself, my mother will send me either to collect firewood or do the groceries or do other household work. I
can't get rest."
These three daily profiles are for groups of children who don't currently go to school. But 61% of children in the
study were attending school. For all these children, the challenge is to combine the demands that they work hard to
earn money with expectations that they work equally hard to do well at school. The daily lives of a group of
newspaper vendors in Ethiopia illustrates the pattern (Daily Profile 4). These boys start early by going to the
distributor to buy their newspapers, about 10-30 copies each. What they like to do' is get out onto the street
straightaway and sell during the morning, when the demand is greatest. But these boys have been put down
for the morning school shift, so they can't start selling until the afternoon. Making sure they sell all their
papers is a major worry; to make sure they at least recover their capital investment each day. A boy arriv-
ing back home still holding copies of that day's newspaper is not popular, so the boys often stay out late in the
evening, gradually reducing their price in the hope of getting a sale.
The girls who make fireworks in Guatemala also have to balance school in the morning with work in the
afternoon. But unlike their brothers, they also have to complete domestic chores, before they even set-off for
school, as summarised in Daily Profile 5. This example draws attention to the gender divisions that shape
children's working lives. Many occupations are gender segregated, with boys in the higher status occupations.
Girls may have fewer work choices and their prospects may be more constrained. And unlike their brothers
they may feel a 'triple burden' of responsibilities: to do chores, earn money and do well in school.
For many girls in the Philippines, daily lives are even more complicated by having to fit work and chores around
a full schoolday. Daily Profile 6 summarises two daily patterns. On school days this group of girls divide their
day between attending classes and doing domestic chores, spending little time working on the land,
except during busy harvest times, when they absent themselves from school for 3-4 days per week. On
work days, they still have to do their chores, but the time they would have spent at school is given over to planting,
hoeing, weeding and tending livestock. The split between work and schooldays applies equally to boys from the
same community. But on both days the boys describe having much more free time than girls, as illustrated in
Daily Profile 7
While all these children would wish that their hours were shorter, their pay and work conditions better, the
opportunities for play and relaxation greater etc., their attitudes to their work are shaped by many other
considerations, especially about the circumstances that make their work necessary.
Work in family lives
Contrary to popular images of working children acting autonomously in the street and market place, most
children in this study were working in order to support themselves and their family, and they felt strongly
accountable to their parents or other family members. We encouraged group participants to talk about the
reasons for working and about how they got started. We wanted to know how far they felt coerced by their
families into working, and how far they felt able to take some initiative and responsibility for what they do. As
a child, there is nothing remarkable about being required to do things against your will, as many reluctant school
children in affluent Western societies know only too well. So, how far do working children feel they are forced
to work?
One domestic worker in Bangladesh recalled a harrowing experience:
"a neighbour... took me away from the village to Dhaka... I didn't want to go... but mother forced me to.
The night before I was leaving I cried a lot."
Such comments were rare, because most of the children in this study lived with their families. Much more frequent
were comments like these from children in Guatemala. The first is from a girl farm worker. The second from a
boy lead miner:
"Yes, they do (make us work). They tell us that we must go picking, that's what we're here for... to help with
the work."
"We work to have food, if we stop working (in the mine) we will starve to death... We would go some
place else to look for work to have food."
Many children felt parents demanded that they work, but they also understood the reason why they didn't have
much choice in the matter. In contexts of poverty, work is about survival. A weaver in the informal sector in
Bangladesh put it very directly:
"... we work for our stomach. If we don't work there is no food, no clothes. If we don't work how will
we survive?"
In a farming community in Northern Philippines, a group of boys saw the necessity of work in a more positive
light. They recognised the pressure on their fathers to produce a high yield, and they do their best to help:
"We do whatever they teach us and expect us to do because we want to help. So if my father says 'we all go to
the field to harvest', we all go. Our main job is to help however we can."
This group recognised the importance of taking on their share of the work. A boy making fireworks in Guatemala
made the point even more directly:
"No one forced me. I learned myself, out of curiosity... I had some friends, they went to get the
material with their mother, I went with them and saw how they did the work. Since then, I've been
working in my house on my own. "
These children referred to their personal decision to work, because of their awareness of their families'
circumstances, and also because of the personal pride they feel as a result of their efforts. They didn't see
anything wrong about their working childhoods. On the contrary, asked whether he had a choice to work, one
boy in fishing replied:
"We do not understand your question. Choice of what?... It is not a choice. To work is a natural thing to do.
Our friends do it. My parents work. My brothers work so why shouldn't I work? Even schooling is not an
excuse not to work..."
Work may be tough, but it is not an unnatural thing for children to do, according to these children. It is a way
of life for their family and community. They are valued for it, and they were initiated at a very early age, as
this farm worker in The Philippines explained:
"As far as I can remember, I was working the moment I began to remember things. I think it is natural
for children to do these things. What else can we do in the village?"
Strong identification with her parents' work motivated a brickchipper in Bangladesh:
"When I was a child I used to cry for a hammer. So my mother bought me a hammer and I started
breaking bricks."
This theme (of early initiation into the importance of contributing to the family) runs through numerous of the
children's accounts, as by these boys working the lead mines of Guatemala:
"I'm 12, I started working when I was 5, so I've been working in the mines for 7 years... There are many holes.
You can fall into one and can't get out because they are very deep... There are very long tunnels of water...
The walls may cave-in, and you are buried once and for all, they don't find you... Yes, it's dangerous, very
A farm worker in El Salvador spoke out about her long apprenticeship and especially the tough treatment, if
she didn't meet her parents' expectations:
"When I was four, I already helped my mother to wash corn and wash dishes, and if I didn't wash them they
would hit me real hard... when I was eight they
would put me to grind and to make tortillas... now that I'm thirteen I help my father to do his work to carry
firewood and help him pull corn... I have to do all the housework, sweep, take care of the little ones, when my
mother leaves I am at home with all the work... I take care of my six brothers."
Repeatedly, these young people's complaints are balanced by an awareness that their families depend on their work,
and expect them to contribute their income. A porter in Bangladesh noted:
"If I don't bring home money for a few days, my parents say 'we have been working so hard for you children
but you haven't become a good human being' then I feel like crying for hurting them and try harder to earn."
Some work and earn money relatively independently, such as this fireworks maker in Guatemala:
"We keep some and the rest we give to our mothers to help with household expenses."
Others work without payment or even pocket money. This was especially common amongst girls' groups, even
amongst the domestic workers in Bangladesh whose mothers collected their wages for them:
"There are times when I feel like eating or buying something, I ask my mother to give me Tk 2 (which would
buy a few sweets or a fruit). But when she gives the money, I realise how difficult it is at times for her to run the
family and I return the money."
Whether earning or not, working for themselves or for an employer, most children in this study feel strongly
accountable to parents or other relatives. These accounts forcefully illustrate the theme that the potential harm and
benefit of work has to be understood in context. Work does not affect children in isolation. Their work is
embedded in the micro-economics of family and community, frequently endorsed by cultural traditions and by
parental beliefs and expectations; (see chapters 9 and 10). It isn't just parents that have expectations about work. Part
of children's initiation into their working lives includes assimilating values and beliefs about children's work. For
example, how old do children have to be to start working? ,
Work in children's development
While child development experts largely exclude work from their definitions of what childhood is about,
working children themselves hold a different view.
Activity 6 of The Children's Perspectives Protocol explored children's own views about the age-appropriateness
of different kinds of work. Using a timeline, groups were asked to sort picture-cards into 5 broad age-bands. Although
not always familiar with chronological ages, especially in contexts where birthdays are not celebrated, indirect use of
other indicators (e.g. school grades) enabled approximate
rankings to be completed. Despite the difficulties of carrying out this activity, there are sufficient consistencies
in the way children sorted occupations according to age to draw out some general lessons. To illustrate the kind
of information collected, Table 3.1 is a summary of the age-bands selected by four groups in Bangladesh.
Table 3.1 Children's views on the youngest age at which they can do various types of work -
examples from four groups in Bangladesh
informal sector -
Minimum ages
18 and over cart puller
cart puller
rickshaw puller
15 to 17 years old cart puller
12 to 14 years old rickshaw puller garment worker
rickshaw puller
cart puller
rickshaw puller
9 to 11 years old garment worker
tempo helper
tempo helper garment worker
tempo helper
flower seller
tempo helper
under 8 years old domestic helper
flower seller
domestic helper
flower seller
domestic helper
domestic helper
flower seller
A first lesson from this activity is that children are able to make judgements of this kind. They do have a view
about the age-appropriateness of their own occupation, by comparison with other tasks that children do. The
same kinds of work were judged by most groups in Bangladesh as appropriate for very young children,
(notably domestic helper, brickchipping, flower selling); other kinds of work tended to be placed in the
middle age bands (notably garment work, tempohelper and porter), while others were seen as more suitable for
adults (notably cart pulling). The groups in Ethiopia also showed some consistency in their judgements of when
children could start work, placing various kinds of street work into the youngest age bands (shoeshine, car
watcher, snack vendor, news vendor, lottery seller etc.); taxi-boy and maid in the middle bands; while driver,
guard and typist were reserved for over eighteens. Similarly in Nicaragua, shoeshine and street vending were
most often seen as appropriate for younger age bands (along with domestic chores, cutting and carrying
firewood, looking after siblings). These groups expected an older starting age for what they saw as the more
responsible, skilled or prestigious jobs (such as bus fare collecting, mechanic or guard).
A second lesson is that children's judgements about age of starting work are frequently inseparable from
their views on gender appropriateness (and in some
cases also social class appropriateness). For example in Ethiopia, shoeshine, car watching and newspaper selling
is seen as work for young boys, while girls are more likely to be engaged in snack selling ('kollo'), domestic work
as maids or cooking ('injera' cereal). In The Philippines, domestic work, baby-sitting and market work is for
girls, fishing and construction work is for boys, while fish vending, farming and factory work are viewed as
appropriate for both girls and boys. These divisions also apply to chores at home, as some Bangladesh
brickchippers' comments illustrate:
"Boys will do (domestic chores) only if their sisters are not around or if they don't have sisters and their
mothers are working somewhere else... If their sisters are around they will say, `Am I a girl that I must cook?
If my sister can't cook now what will she do when she goes to her husband's house'... If sisters are at home
mothers don't allow their sons to fetch water. The boys will say, `You are a girl, you will do it. Why should I do
it when you are here? You will have to do it in your husband's home."'
A third lesson is that in some cases, young people were making much more complex judgements than simply
about the earliest age for particular kinds of work. They were also thinking about the latest age either girls or boys
should be doing particular kind of work. In other words, their judgements were based on views about the life-phase
or stage-appropriateness of children's jobs. Comments from groups in Bangladesh well-illustrate some of the
participants' sophisticated reasoning. One of the girls in the group of brickchippers explained why she
thought flower selling should be started from the age of eight years:
"They can move around and customers will have pity seeing such young girls selling flowers. Out of
pity they will buy from them."
Like flower selling, being a domestic helper was consistently placed in the youngest category for starting work.
This might seem surprising in view of the long hours and ill-treatment described by this group. But
brickchippers believe domestic helpers stand a better chance if they start with their employer before they reach the
age of eight:
"It is good to start as this age because the employers like them better than older girls as they are still small. They
will be given regular meals and have good health and later the employers can also marry them off."
Domestic helpers agreed that domestic work was best started early. They also felt that there is an optimal
age to learn various skills:
"At seven or eight years old she learns the work at home. Then by the age of nine or ten she can start as a
domestic helper."
But these girls groups didn't always apply the 'early is best rule'. Some comments suggested a sense of what is
developmentally appropriate, as for example by this domestic worker:
"It's good to learn the work between eight and twelve years because (at that age) you can learn fast. Below
eight years it takes too much time to learn the work. After fourteen years it becomes too late."
A brickchipper thought in similar terms about some of the domestic chores girls are expected to do:
"Below ten years old it is very hard for a girl to fetch water in a big vessel. But if she uses a small vessel
she will have to fetch water several times a day... Below ten years old a girl can't wash clothes cleanly. She
can't wring bedsheets and blankets well. It is difficult for her."
The brickchippers weren't sure an early start was right for their occupation either. They weighed-up the
benefits of early initiation against young girls' vulnerability to the hazards of the job:
"It is good to learn brickchipping from eight years. But (at this age) it is too much when her finger is
smashed with a hammer or a brick chip gets into her eye. She won't be able to bear it. She will scream. So its
better to start from ten years old. It will be less painful for her."
But young peoples' thinking wasn't just influenced by beliefs about when children are best able to learn or
when they are most at risk of injury. These brickchippers were also aware of the value placed on early work
within their society, and that it might be at the expense of their health:
"If you learn (brickchipping) from a young age then no one can speak ill of you. And when you do the work
they praise you. But if you do too much work at a young age then your health becomes bad. Even
so... If you only learn (to do brickchipping) after growing older, then others will make you feel ashamed.
They will say bad things about you to your mother. That is why no matter how hard it may be it's good to
learn to work when young."
One of the reasons these girls seemed resigned to working from a young age is that they were looking
ahead to puberty, when gender issues override issues of maturity and social convention would restrict
work opportunities:
"When she is ten years old, a girl can carry a basket on her head and no one will talk ill of her. She can
work alongside other boys because she is still young. After a few more years she will no longer be able to
work as a porter. "
These beliefs were echoed by boys working as weavers in the informal sector:
"... after eleven years old, girls become jawan (reach puberty) and they should not be working
outside the house because soon they will be married... If they learn to work early then when they get married
and go to their husbands' house then they won't have problems doing it."
One of these boys was equally uncompromising in his belief that apprenticeship as a weaver should start from
the age of four years:
"This is a respectable job. By starting at an early age a boy brings honour to his family. Also he learns the
skill early. If he starts with Tk 10, by the time he is eleven years he will be earning Tk 200 to Tk 300 and might
soon become a weaver."
In prospect of making good money, they were willing to put up with a great deal:
"The worst work is weaving as there is a lot of verbal and physical abuse... But (since we have no choice
but to work) the best work is also weaving, because we are sitting in a room and learning a skill
which will give us more money than other occupations."
These boys thought very differently about rickshaw and cart pulling:
"If a boy starts pulling rickshaw when he is 14 years old he will die by the time he is 17 years old because it is
very hard work and needs a lot of strength which he doesn't have at that age. This work is harmful for one's
When a group of porters were asked about the age-appropriateness of different jobs, their replies were
strongly linked to a sense of career through a series of childhood occupations:
"Boys should start as a domestic helper by eight years because when they grow a little older they will be doing
better work than this. Domestic work can be done by a boy who has just come from the village and doesn't
know his way around and whose parents can't feed him well... If we start being a tempo helper from the age of
eleven years, then by the time we are fourteen years we can learn how to drive the tempo... Boys can start the
work of a porter between ten and eleven years because he will slowly get to know the market environment
and also learn to know his way around."
It seemed to be just as important that boys establish themselves in work from an early age, as it is for girls.
This brickchipper explained the reason why:
"A boy who knows how to work is valued in the eyes of parents who want to give their daughter in
marriage because then parents feel secured. It is good for boys to know all kinds of work when young because
then they can do any work and feed their parents."
Finally, note that in making these judgements, participants in the study sometimes wanted to draw a
distinction between how things might be in an ideal world, and their more realistic judgements about their
own circumstances. For example one of the porters reflected:
"The best work is to go to school, study and play around - not to be involved
in any occupation. But God has not given us the ability to enjoy such luxury." A Domestic worker put her
dilemma even more directly:
"It is good if all work can be started from 17 years of age but will we be able to hold onto our hungry
stomachs until then?!"
This chapter illustrates young people thinking actively about the work they do. For some, work takes up the
major part of daily life. For many more it is combined with going to school, either full-time or part-time, and
(especially for girls) it has to be combined with domestic chores. Very often, young people do not like the work
they have to do, nor the way they are treated, but equally often they appreciate their families' circumstances,
that make their work so necessary, and which for many is a source of pride.
They are often aware of the constraints that shape their experience of growing up: their relative poverty; their
family's traditions and expectations; the inequality of adult-child power relations; the significance of their age,
gender and position in their family; the importance attached to school and the problems of attending in practice
etc. Within these constraints, children negotiate ways to make the best of their situation, and they make choices
within the limited range of opportunities available to them.
Working children are also able to view their work in a long term perspective. They talk about how and why they
got started and they talk about how their present work links to future prospects and difficulties. In many cases
they are also able to make compl