Human Rights

Should we let children work? Reflections from the field

While preparing for my fieldwork on climate change-induced child labour in Malawi, my preliminary research participants revealed that there is no literal translation of the phrase “child labour” in Chichewa, Tumbuka, or Sena. These are the vernacular languages common in the particular areas of the three regions of Malawi where I was planning to conduct the field research. This revelation drove me to develop other research tools that would help me engage in an in-depth discussion with communities to achieve an understanding and meaning of the phrase in this particular context and setting. From the initial conversation with community development workers, Child Protection Workers (CPW), religious and traditional leaders, and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) working on child rights projects, several prominent themes emerged. Among others, such themes include children and childhood; the position of work in the lives of children in Malawi; and the possible suggestions for the involvement of children in work. This piece reflects these themes and how they challenged my initial understanding.

Children and Childhood

The international community agrees that a child is any person under the age of 18.[1] This is reflected in different international legal instruments and has further been recognised in Section 23 (6) of the Malawi Constitution and other domestic legislation. On the other hand, childhood is so broad and complex but is sometimes also understood in reference to age. Allison and James contend that childhood is a developmental stage for all children regardless of their context.[2] However, this universality of childhood has been challenged and needs to be deconstructed to encompass the diversities that children have.[3] This proposed deconstruction might look at the social, economic, political, and cultural factors that inform and differentiates the childhood of equally developed children in different contexts.

Just as Pasura contends above, discussions with children and parents during the field research revealed different experiences. While childhood for some children in the northern region of Malawi is characterised by school work, play, and occasionally helping out their parents with household chores, their counterparts’ from southern Malawi is characterised by work in small gardens along the river bank, herding livestock and helping out their parents with household chores. This then means “childhood” cannot be generalised for the children in the two regions; the research demonstrated the diversity of childhood and how the same is understood in different contexts. This also justifies the provision that countries have the liberty to determine what constitutes the worst forms of child labour in accordance with the context of their countries as provided in Article 4 of ILO Convention 182.

Children and work in Malawi

Child labour is generally frowned upon throughout the world as its negative effects are far-reaching and disrupt the livelihoods of children apart from robbing them of their childhood.[4] It is rare therefore to find a community that openly discloses that child labour is practiced in their communities. They will either deny the presence of the practice because they are benefitting from it either as perpetrators or beneficiaries of its proceeds. On the other hand, communities’ perceptions of what constitutes child labour is somehow different from what the international and domestic legislations have termed as child labour.[5] My fieldwork experience confirmed that some children help out their families in maize fields before school; herd livestock; and work in shallow swamps to catch fish. Such revelations have been validated by some parents who reported that they involve their children in selling farm produce at the market, send their children to do piece work in exchange for money or food, and even leave them at home to look after their younger siblings. Nevertheless, they deny the existence of child labour in their communities. Ironically, when presented with the understanding of child labour according to the different international and domestic legislations, a majority of the people join the international community in condemning the practice but were usually quick to mention that their situation is different by reasoning that the work that their children do is not child labour. Others were of the view that their impoverished situation leaves them with limited choices other than involving their children in work.

The parents submitted that in their context, where floods disrupted their economic livelihood, children work to supplement the family income. They further opined that if children are not allowed to work, they will not attain the skills that will be useful for them to sustain their livelihood in the present time as well as the future. Furthermore, they reasoned that the work that the children do, is not hard but corresponds with their age and capacities, and can therefore not be regarded as child labour. This begs the question of whether children should be allowed to work.

Involvement of children in work

Civil society organizations (CSOs) that I engaged with argued that while commendable work has been done in curbing child labour, a complete ban will not be one of the working solutions. One CSO representative reflected upon her childhood background where she was working in tea estates and used the pay to support her education. She claims that had if it not been for the work that she was doing on these tea estates, she could not have been educated, let alone manage to support two boys who are currently working for her in a mini shop and selling farm produce.

It is undeniable that the poverty situation, which is the usual culprit in child labour discourse,[6] is far from ending in a majority of African countries. Sadly, this reality means that children will continue being pushed to work for their livelihood or support their families. It is submitted here that while working on alternatives to address the poverty situation, the existing frameworks that provide for the application of minimum standards for the engagement of children in work under supervision and caution, need to be strictly applied and monitored. This will not only provide children with the skills they need for adulthood but also ease the poverty pressure that forces parents to engage their children in child labour practices.

Surely communities and individuals employing children need to keep in mind that these children need to be in school. Just as on the other side of the world where children are allowed to work for a regulated period under specific conditions when they are in and out of school,[7] children in Malawi can be allowed to earn an income by working under strict adherence to the regulations that not only enhance their skills but also give them time to rest and recover for school the next day as well as let them enjoy some free time. This work of course should not be exploitative and detrimental to the overall development of the child as provided for in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.[8]

It will also be ideal to let children spend a lot of their time at school other than at home as their presence at home increases their time to work or be exposed to child labour practices, while enrolment in school decreases their likelihood of involvement in such work.[9] Additionally, keeping them at school will have to go hand in hand with school feeding programmes, which have been found to increase the attendance and retention of children in schools.[10] Consistent with these observations, children that I talked to in Northern Malawi disclosed that even though it was past their knocking-off time, there were still lingering around the school premises waiting for porridge. Better still, some were seen in groups comparing the grades they have in their working books.

Of course, while it is being proposed that children be accorded a right to earn an income, strategies for this cause should not be implemented in isolation and potentially overshadow strategies that are long-term and increase the social and economic capital of children. Additionally, understanding the complexity and the intersectionality implicated as causes of child labour, interventions aimed at addressing harmful cultural practices, awareness, and enforcement of child labour laws as well as mainstreaming of child labour in other sector project interventions among other strategies, are commendable.[11]

All in all, frank and earnest discussions with a cross-section of stakeholder need to be had. This will help clear out the nebulous space between child labour and child work lest we fall into the trap of engaging children in child labour practices while naming it as child work. Such discussions will also unveil the understanding and meaning of terms and concepts such as child, child labour, and childhood not to mention the perceptions of communities on the position of work in childhood.

Gift Mauluka is a PhD candidate at the Chair for African Legal Studies at the University of Bayreuth.

[1] Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art. 1.

[2] James, Allison, and Adrian L. James, ‘Childhood: Toward a theory of continuity and change,’ (2001) 575 (1) The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 25,26.

[3] Pasura, Dominic, et al. ‘Competing meanings of childhood and the social construction of child sexual abuse in the Caribbean’, (2013) 20 (2) Childhood 200,202.

[4] ILO and UNICEF, Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, Trends and the Road Forward, ILO and UNICEF, New York, 2021 <–en/index.htm> accessed 10 January 2023, p 8.

[5] Admassie, Assefa, ‘Explaining the high incidence of child labour in Sub–Saharan Africa,’ (2002) 12 (2) African development review 251, 256.

[6] Ibid, 253.

[7] NCDOL, ‘Work Hour Limitations for Youth’ < >accessed 12 January 2023

[8] Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art. 32.

[9] Mudzongo, Courage C., and Christopher M. Whitsel. ‘Determinants of child labor in Malawi and Tanzania,’ (2013) 3 Journal of Community Positive Practices 3, 17.

[10] Zenebe, M., Gebremedhin, S., Henry, C.J. et al., ‘School feeding program has resulted in improved dietary diversity, nutritional status and class attendance of school children,’ Ital J Pediatr (2018) 44 (16).

[11] Masabo, J., ‘Harmonisation of Labour Laws in the East African Community: An Assessment of Progress and Prospects’ in Döveling, Johannes, et al (eds), Harmonisation of Laws in the East African Community: The State of Affairs with Comparative Insights from the European Union and other Regional Economic Communities (Law Africa 2018) 187, 205.


By Gift Gawanani Mauluka

Gift Gawanani Mauluka is a PhD candidate at the Chair for African Legal Studies at the University of Bayreuth.

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