Child work in Ethiopia: A risk or an opportunity?


Universal rights of the child

Children all over the world are entitled to rights which are designed to secure and sustain their wellbeing. The UN Convention on the Child and others call for all children to be treated equally, without discrimination as well as ensuring their access to basic goods and services, to schooling, and protection from harmful child labour. Many countries ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including Ethiopia.

However, despite the convention’s promise of protecting children’s rights, children are not always enjoying these, or leading free and full lives, with poverty and related factors being particular stumbling blocks.

Many children lack access to basic goods, services and schooling. For those children who have their basic needs of sufficient and diverse food supply, adequate clothing and shelter met, their challenges lie in accessing education that is of appropriate quality and type, whereas, for other children, their lack of basic sustenance is a more pressing concerns. Education is one of the components which is given strong emphasis by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in part owing to the key role education plays in securing the future wellbeing of children as they grow up. Countries make huge efforts to provide universal access to education. In reality, education is often easily accessible for those children who can afford it, but a remote opportunity for the poorest individuals.


Whose responsibility is to safeguard those rights and secure schooling?

In Ethiopia, caregivers, states, non-governmental organizations and foundations are working hard to safeguard the rights of children in accessing basic needs and schooling, providing food, shelter, school materials etc. However, such efforts only go so far in reaching those children who are most disadvantaged from the outset. In such situations, children are frequently forced to make decisions or follow those of others for their own survival, and their choices are determined by what ends will best support survival in their lived reality. Such decisions orientate around whether to work, what type of work to be involved in and balancing of time on work and school, all determined by a complex range of factors with different priorities.

Children’s experiences of work have distinct consequences, experiences which have been captured by Young Lives over the course of 15 years. The study’s longitudinal research has followed two different cohorts of children over time, so tracking the changing expectations of children before they start working and reflect on understandings of work, transitions to the labour market and associated decision-making many years later.


Can children’s work be an opportunity to fulfil their rights?

Findings from Young Lives show that children can experience benefits from being engaged in work. Some children tell of the positive consequences of starting work, all heavily dependent on the circumstances of commencing and juggling work, its nature, and determinants of the child (age, household wealth, household location, number of siblings and more).

Some children told us that working actually enabled them to pursue education, by providing them with the economic means (from their earnings) to do so, in purchasing school materials. Earnings from paid employment also helped children to get food, clothing and shelter for themselves and for their family members.

For some children, working enabled them to develop skills and adaptive behaviours that are helpful in affording them the skills to best support themselves and future generations as they enter adulthood.


Can child work be a risk to child wellbeing?

Even though many Young Lives children in Ethiopia shared positive experiences of work, harmful or unwanted consequences of such work are also commonly reported. There are many issues raised in relation to the nature of work and working conditions and risk of accidents while working.

Some Young Lives children reported that the work in which they were engaged caused them injuries. They also reported some problems as a result of working for long hours. Children who combine school and work also described poorer school performance as a result of working. There are also children who reported that they dropped out of school to do paid work.


Ways forward

Attention should be paid to supporting children who work by providing safe and fair conditions that views them as individuals in the context of students, children, brothers, sisters and contributors to the wider society.

  • Supporting children where possible to continue with schooling through flexible schooling.
  • Supporting older children who have to work by ensuring safe and fair conditions
  • Working with communities and parents to avoid risks from excessive or unsafe work.


For related Young Lives research findings on children's work, please follow us on Twitter and use #YLChildWork