Reaching Millions

The global child labor march continues on

Although the number of children exploited in the South Asian rug industry has dropped by about 80 percent since GoodWeave began, an estimated 200,000 still toil on the looms. / U. Roberto Romano, Courtesy of GoodWeave International

20 years. 116 million children. That’s how many more children in the world have a brighter future because of global commitments to end child labor.

It all started with the creative action of a few civil society activists.

In 1997, the International Labour Organization estimated there were 268 million children trapped in exploitative labor worldwide — labor that denied them the opportunity to education, and imperiled their health, safety, and physical and mental development.

At the time, I worked for a civil society organization that was exposing how child labor is used to make our clothes and consumer goods. We felt like our reports could expose these small pockets of abuse, but the global problem was just too big to address.

Kailash Satyarthi in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Global March Against Child Labor. / Global March Against Child Labor

That same year, I met Kailash Sathyarthi, an obscure human rights activist in India who dreamed up an ambitious Global March Against Child Labor. He pitched the idea of a march that would mobilize tens of thousands of activists in every country and on every continent to demand that governments and companies work with civil society advocates to end child labor.

His message was simple: get on the bus and join the movement for change.

And I listened. Though I didn’t yet realize that I would be part of this astonishing, long-term global effort. I also never imagined that I was meeting a future Nobel Peace Prize winner — an award he won along with Malala Yousafzai in 2014 for his 34-year career as a child labor activist, during which he has freed tens of thousands of young Indians.

Bama Athreya at a child labor rally in Washington DC in 2009. / Courtesy of Bama Athreya

My organization had worked with Kailash to expose the abuse of children in the production of carpets and soccer balls. We launched campaigns to clean up these industries.

However, Kailash had a bigger goal: reach millions.

Over six months, beginning in January 1998, the Global March traversed 103 countries on six continents and covered an estimated 80,000 miles. Ultimately over 7 million people were mobilized worldwide to participate in or help with the march in some way — a testament to the power of what civil society can achieve.

We formed a coalition of groups called the Child Labor Coalition and chartered a bus to take our marchers from coast to coast. We also engaged our government, just as our allies around the world engaged their governments — we had no way of knowing how great our collective impact ultimately would be.

A Global Impact

This year, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Global March’s successful conclusion in Geneva. Marchers from various countries joined forces to engage their government delegations to the annual International Labour Organization (ILO) Conference, which saw the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour.

But the convention was just the start.

Since then, governments, global institutions, development organizations, corporations, industry groups, trade unions and civil society organizations have worked together to make this commitment real.

Karim Sawadogo, 9, works with his uncle at a gold mine in Burkina Faso. “My dream,” he says, “is to make enough money so I don’t have to do this anymore.” / DOL, Larry Price

In 2017, the ILO estimated the number of child laborers in the world had dropped from 268 million to 152 million worldwide. That is still a lot of children in exploitative labor. But it is also a huge success story.

Collectively, we have removed over 100 million children from exploitation because so many of us worked together and remained committed to and focused on change.

USAID has contributed to this success story in important ways.

Beginning in 2000, we supported U.S. Government commitments to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, in particular Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education. USAID believes all children deserve a quality education, and our investments in education have helped to ensure that once children are removed from work they can attend and stay in school.

Our work in youth workforce training has assisted young people to receive the skills they need to seek meaningful, long-term employment and avoid exploitative work. And our partnerships with civil society and industry have supported broader efforts by industries to eliminate child labor from their supply chains.

Kiran, 10, stares through a carpet knife while weaving in Jaipur. Despite laws prohibiting it, child labor is rampant in India’s rug industry. “Carpet kids” suffer a tragic array of physical trauma, including respiratory illness from inhaling wool fibers, cuts and bruises from sharp tools, and spinal deformities from sitting in cramped positions. / U. Roberto Romano

In Ghana, we are reducing child labor and trafficking in the fisheries sector by directly engaging families in fishing communities, and helping keep children in school.

In India, our partner, Goodweave, certifies products to be “child labor-free” to incentivize businesses to be allies and partners.

And USAID’s Global Labor Program supports efforts by the Solidarity Center to work in sectors where child labor is still rife, such as domestic work, to ensure a minimum age and minimum working conditions, and end the exploitation of young girls.

Child worker in India. / Global March Against Child Labor

Today, we still need to keep up the fight. The children that remain trapped in exploitation are those that have been hardest to reach, because they may be trafficked and hidden in the shadow economy, or because they may be in conflict or crisis situations, or they may be in the hardest to reach corners of the globe.

With enhanced coordination and advocacy from leaders like Kailash and our partners, we can continue to tackle child labor and ensure that the future generation is better off than the generation that came before it. Investing in these children is one of the best decisions we can make.

Let’s all get back on the bus.


About the Author

Bama Athreya is a Labor and Employment Rights Specialist at the USAID Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance. Follow our work at @USAIDDRG.