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“I am proud of my work, but I want to go back to school!” – Research on working children in Bukoba, Tanzania

“Every day I am working. In the morning I go to the bus station, I clean a bus, then I go to sell vegetables. I am proud of my work […] because I earn my own money. […] But I am young, and I want to go back to school.”

Meshak, a 14-year-old boy living at the street in Bukoba, Tanzania

According to UNICEF, there are 218 million working children between the ages of 5 and 17 worldwide. Of these, 152 million children are so-called child labourers.[1] This means, they are children who work under conditions that violate their rights and endanger their development. Child labour is a widespread issue, particularly in countries of the Global South. This is also the case in the East African country Tanzania. According to the ILO study Child Labour and the Youth Decent Work Deficit in Tanzania, 4.2 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 years, are affected by child labour.[2] The reasons for child labour in Tanzania are many and varied. Children work to support their families, to survive on the streets or because it is part of their culture, which already imposes a certain responsibility on them.

Looking at the legal perspective of child labour in Tanzania, one can see that there is a clear gap between theory and practice. Tanzania ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991. In addition, a national document, the Law of the Child Act, was adopted in 2009, which enshrines international child rights into national law. Regarding child labour, there are even specific instruments: the National Action Plan on the Elimination of Worst Forms of Child Labour of 2009 and a National Strategy on the Elimination of Child Labour for 2018-2022. Of central importance in these instruments is that the law disapproves of acts that exploit children and infringe on their rights to health education and well-being as provided for instance in paragraph 78 (1) of the Law of the Child Act: “A person shall not employ or engage a child in any kind of exploitative labour.”

Despite these efforts, the reality is still different. I have been in Bukoba, Tanzania for six weeks now, doing research for my master thesis. During this time, I could already recognize, that there is a gap between the approaches in theory and practice. Bukoba is a small town in the northwest of Tanzania, which is located directly at Lake Victoria. According to the local child rights organization HEKIMA there are about 200 street children in Bukoba. Instead of attending school or getting an education, the young people try to finance their livelihood by collecting plastic bottles or tin from garbage dumps. Some of these children are in exploitative working conditions and their physical and mental health is endangered by their work. Many of the young people see no perspective in general and have given up hope for a better life. They often slip into a cycle of drugs, crime, and alcohol. My research focuses in particular on these children who live and work on the streets in Bukoba and is carried out in cooperation with HEKIMA. HEKIMA was founded in 2014 and aims to create a safe environment for children by working with a child rights-based approach. Specifically, they focus on children living and working on the streets, as well as training children and young people in sexual education. The role of HEKIMA and non-governmental actors in general is very important when it comes to support working children in Tanzania. From the governmental side, there are some institutions that work against child labour, such as the National Anti-Trafficking Committee (ATC) or The National Education Task Force on Child Labour, but NGOs are often closer to the target group and can better support them.

The last six weeks have already been very interesting for me, and I could get first insights into the work of HEKIMA as well as into the life and work of the street children. I already conducted numerous interviews with working children, their parents as well as child rights experts. The aim of my work is to look at child labour from different perspectives, theoretical debates, and in particular to address cultural aspects and contradictions between the theoretical legal framework and practice. It is important for me to understand the perspective of working children and to analyse the significance of work in their lives. I would be pleased if this study can contribute to a better understanding of the situation of the children working in Bukoba and thus provide HEKIMA with a theoretical basis for their projects. Talking to the children in the streets of Bukoba, most of the children I have interviewed so far would like to have a chance to go back to school instead of working. For example, Meshak, a 14-year-old street boy who is working at the bus station sometimes until 2 am, mentioned during the interview, that he would like to go back to school so he can learn to speak English and get a prober vocational training. Meshak is living on the street for six months now, because his family can’t afford to send him to school any longer. Therefore, he came to Bukoba to earn some money and support his family.

Supporting children like Meshak requires a holistic approach. The legal framework for this is already in place; now the theory must be linked to practice. For this it is very important to focus on the elimination of poverty within families. Families must be supported so that they can offer their children a secure environment and no longer have to rely on sending their children to work. In addition to strengthening household income, it is also important to protect children who are in employment and to ensure that they can continue to go to school. Furthermore, exploitative child labour must be strictly prohibited. Not only in the already existing law, the subsequent enforcement must include further steps. Different institutions must work together to prevent the exploitation of children. Employers, police, but also customers as well as consumers of the final products must be sensitized.

Lisa Strube is a former student assistant at the Chair of African Legal Studies at the University of Bayreuth. At the moment she is carrying out field research for her master’s thesis about child labour in Bukoba, Tanzania.


[1] Cf UNICEF, ‘Kinderarbeit weltweit’ (n d) <https://www.unicef.de/informieren/aktuelles/blog/kinderarbeit-fragen-und-antworten/166982> accessed 19 January 2022

[2] International Labour Organization, Child labour and the youth decent work deficit in Tanzania, Labour Office, Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch, Geneva p 1

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