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This week's 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour aims to bolster action to end the practice by 2025, but fighting poverty and changing attitudes will take much longer
Emeline Wuilbercq is the Thomson Reuters Foundation's former child labour correspondent.
May 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When I met a 12-year-old girl at a village school in Ethiopia last year, I felt hopeful - buoyed by the singing, enthusiastic shouts and playful learning of her and two dozen fellow pupils at a second-chance classroom for former child labourers.
During my two years covering modern slavery and child labour for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, most of the stories I reported on were sad. The lives of the child labourers I met seemed hopeless, with almost no prospects for positive change.
But this time, the former babysitter realised how fortunate she was to be back at school while her brother was still herding cattle to help their mother make ends meet.
In her shy look, there was pride and happiness to be given another chance to learn thanks to an accelerated schooling programme that has already put 130,000 Ethiopian children back in school.
It might seem like a drop in the ocean in a country where 16 million children work, but this project run by U.S. charity the Luminos Fund led to concrete change - prompting a government push to develop the model, as well as pulling children out of work.
On May 15-20, thousands of delegates will gather in Durban, South Africa, for the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour, which aims to bolster action to end child labour by 2025 in line with a U.N. target.
"It's really our last chance to ... pick up the pace and the speed of child labour elimination," Benjamin Smith, a child labour specialist at the International Labour Organization (ILO), told me last month. "It won't be easy by any means."
As the ILO considers access to free quality education crucial in the fight against child labour, innovative models such as the Luminos Fund programme are encouraging, experts say, though the need for more funding and training for facilitators are challenges to their future expansion.
But much more work will be needed to achieve the U.N. goal given new statistics showing the number of child labourers has increased to 160 million and forecasts that nine million more children will become child labourers if no concrete action is taken.
Many of them are in Africa, where the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded their daily hardships.
In Bangui, in the Central African Republic, we spoke to 11-year-old Abdias, who was forced to work and trade goods on the city's streets.
I also talked to 9-year-old Tarekegn, who left his village in southern Ethiopia when all schools shut in March 2020. He became one of countless migrant boys working as minibus assistants in cities across Ethiopia and faced lousy working conditions and chronic shoulder pain.
Such stories should impel governments to make ending the practice a higher priority, said Jo Becker, children's rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, calling for them to invest in solutions that work, including universal child benefits, which can alleviate the financial pressures that force children into the workforce.
Child labour experts say social protection measures, from school-feeding programmes to cash transfers to families - can significantly contribute to eliminating child labour by providing a "buffer" against it, said the ILO's Smith.
They have proven efficient, he said, especially in Latin America and some African countries such as Ghana, where a programme that provides cash and health insurance to extremely poor households helped boost school enrolment and retention.
But such initiatives have limitations, said Tatek Abebe, professor of childhood studies at Norwegian University of Science and Technology, citing a lack of consistency in donor-driven social protection programmes in Ethiopia as an example.
"As a result they don't have lasting impact in terms of being a remedy for the problem of child labour," he said.
Household poverty is the main cause of child labour, said Raphael Godlove Ahenu, chief executive of the Global Media Foundation, a Ghana-based human rights and media advocacy organisation, so stopping children from working without improving life for their communities and families could be wishful thinking.
"If the U.N. really wants to eradicate child labour, they should tackle household poverty first. If they're able to tackle it, they'll be able to tackle 90% of child labour in Africa," he said.
Ahenu urged international charities to rethink their child labour-related interventions to ensure projects are tailored to a local community's specific needs and, above all, enduring.
"Most of the interventions will just look at: let's do sensitisation, let's raise awareness, let's have the policies in place. The government has a lot of policies in place but ... the situation in the country will not allow you to enforce those laws because the child needs to survive. We're talking about survival," he added.
Part of that requires laws to be enforced effectively, but it will also have to change attitudes to child labour.
Strict law enforcement alone runs the risk of driving the practice of using children as domestic workers underground, said Annabel Erulkar, Ethiopia country director of Population Council, a research organisation.
The group recently interviewed about 2,800 Ethiopian child domestic workers - all girls - and found that half of them worked more than 50 hours per week, and a large number were not getting paid.
"It would make the girl even more invisible, she'd be even more locked in her house, and more isolated. So I don't think law enforcement is the way to go," she said, calling for more awareness-raising campaigns.
Some experts think improving children's working conditions rather than banning them from working altogether is a more realistic approach, especially in countries like Ethiopia where child labour is often perceived as the lesser of two evils.
When I wrote about the minibus conductors, an employer who sometimes hired children considered they were being given an opportunity to escape the petty crime and addictions common among children living on the streets.
Changing such thinking will take time. While the most exploitative forms of child labour must be stamped out, the race to change hearts and minds - and tackle the root causes - is a marathon, not a sprint.
(Reporting by Emeline Wuilbercq; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)