“We fight the worst forms of child labour and often end up finding indigenous children.”
Staff of the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC).
Using children for slavery and forced labour; subjecting them to child trafficking and forced recruitment for armed conflicts; using children in prostitution and pornography or in illicit activities like drugs trafficking; or simply making them do work that harms their health, safety or morals, is to expose them to the worst forms of child labour.
Invisible indigenous children
Until recently, child labour among indigenous peoples received little attention from governments and international institutions as well as from indigenous peoples themselves. It therefore remains largely an invisible issue and no comprehensive data exist on the magnitude of the problem or on the conditions and types of work in which indigenous children are engaged.
However, recent studies have shown that indigenous children are at particular risk for ending up in the worst forms of child labour. In Asia, children are caught in debt-bondage, and they are victims of trafficking and prostitution, while indigenous children in Latin America are found doing agricultural wage labour on plantations. The reason for indigenous children being at special risk, is the fact that they often belong to the poorest, less educated and most marginalised groups.
The ILO fighting against child labour
Based on ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, and Convention No. 138 on Minimum Age, the ILO has initiated the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). The priority target groups of IPEC include bonded labourers, trafficked children and children in hazardous working conditions and occupations. Indigenous children are often found in all these groups.
Although efforts to eliminate child labour in general have increased, indigenous children are not benefiting on an equitable basis. Combating child labour among indigenous children requires specific approaches, based on the special needs and rights of these peoples. For as long as indigenous peoples are found among the world’s poorest, as long as their land is taken and their traditional livelihoods destroyed, indigenous families have to rely on the work of their children to survive. Action against child labour must therefore be based on indigenous peoples’ rights, and – furthermore, solutions must be found in close co-operation with the communities concerned, thus acknowledging their right to define their own development path and priorities.
Education for all – even for indigenous children
One of the most effective means for combating child labour is education. Educated people do not need to send their children to work, and educated children have better chances of avoiding exploitation.
In many countries, indigenous people are lagging behind the educational level of the general population. The rates of enrolment and completion among indigenous children, especially girls, remain low. One main reason for this is poverty. To survive, many families have to send their children to work instead of school, and those lucky enough to go to school often turn up hungry and tired. Another reason is the fact that schools in indigenous areas often are under-funded, of low quality and poorly equipped. They are served by the least-educated teachers, who do not speak the language of the indigenous children, and often the curriculum is discriminatory against expressions of indigenous culture.
Most countries have developed national Education for All (EFA) strategies in order to achieve the objectives set out in the Millennium Development Goals. However, it is clear that these goals will not be achieved unless the specific rights and priorities of indigenous peoples are addressed in the education sector.
Creating new ways of teaching
In order to combat child labour among indigenous children, the development of better educational opportunities is crucial. Education services of good quality and relevant to the particular linguistic and cultural context of the indigenous children must be provided. Around the world, initiatives are taken to create education that is appropriate to the needs of indigenous children.
In the Philippines, a national consultation recommended that curriculum development should be done with the direct participation of indigenous leaders in order to create an education programme that is innovative and motivational for indigenous children while maintaining their self-respect, dignity and identity. In Guatemala the introduction of bilingual schools in indigenous communities increased school attendance, and in Namibia a Village Schools Project integrates traditional and culturally appropriate, mother-tongue education with formal education.