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Opinions of Thursday, 3 January 2008

Columnist: Agyepong, Benjamin Opoku

RE: Million Ghanaian children engaged in child labour

When I read the article captioned: “Million Ghanaian children engaged in child labour” Ghanaweb December 27, 2007. I was enraged and could not find words to describe people like Mr. Mathew Dally from international labor organization who for lack of deeper understanding of our culture, buy into the propaganda aimed at our cherished cocoa industry, for Mr. Mathew and his likes, who were brought up in different cultures and most certainly had very rich upbringing to impugn that the average Ghanaian way of organizing society is the wrong way is a big mistake to say the least. Honestly, I do not know whether such people are intellectually dishonest, culturally myopic, are culturally insensitive or outright stupid.

Looking at this picture above, there is no slightest indication that these children are providing child labor. This picture is reminiscent of poor parents who can not afford to send their children to day care or hire a nanny to care for them whilst they go to the farm to till the land in order to put food on the table for the children. It is quite obvious that the three children are enjoying the shadow cast by the tree under which they sit. Going to the farm with your children may not be the best way of bringing them up, but in situations of abject poverty, it may be the most safest and affordable way of ensuring that children of farmers do not end up becoming street children.

I am appalled by behavior of people who live in affluence and believe that children everywhere in this world must have the same privilege that their children have, without their willingness to share the world’s resources evenly. Such behavior is not only unbecoming of such policy advocates at the highest call but also an outright disregard for the plight of people who live in poverty. I have lived a life as depicted in this picture before, but when I cast my mind back to those days and reflect over how those periods helped in shaping my life and prepared me for many challenges I later faced in life, I have nothing but praise for my poor mother, who in spite of her poverty made sure that I did not become a drop out from school. I am familiar with so many children I grew up with, whose parents would leave them home whiles they, the parents went to farm in the mornings and came back in the evenings sometimes without leaving behind food or money for them. In the end, most of those children became very bad, started stealing, and did all sorts of things including smoking weed. Many became drop outs from school and later led miserable lives.

NOT EVERYTHING QUALIFIES AS CHILD LABOR: You may at this moment think that I am for child labor, No!! Not at all. The point I am stressing is that, such a blanket definition of child labor without regard to cultural differences is nonsense and must be challenged. I grew up in a town in Ghana (Name withheld) that faces perennial water shortage; my parents were poor in the normal sense of the word. My mother was a farmer and a petty trader and my father was not in good health, this poor woman toiled to educate five children including myself, she would go to farm everyday except Sunday to fetch firewood and dried plantain leaves to make Kenkey to sell in the market the next morning from 6:00 a.m. to about 10:00 a.m. and will go to farm again after the daily market sales. Because of that schedule of hers, fetching water from the river became the responsibility of me and my siblings. We would get up early in the morning and fill the big barrel with water after about 5 trips to the river before we ate and went to school. If you call this child labor, then I am sorry to tell you that you really do not understand what you are talking about. There was no way mother could have carried us through even elementary school without that help from us. I call this helping your parents to shape your future.

Go to all farming districts in Ghana and verify this, you will be told that without children taking up some responsibilities both at home and in the farm to help their parents, most children would end up dropping out of school and face a very break future. If the cocoa farmer with say five or more children is going to hire labor to help him break the cocoa pods after plucking them from the tree, and hire people to clear the underbrush of the cocoa farm, whiles the children stay in the village hut doing nothing, then in the end, he may not have enough net income to pay for their yearly feeding cost let alone their school expenses.

CULTURAL DIFFERENCES There are differences in world cultures and people in higher places must know that. The practice of one size fit all in international policy issues must yield place to cultural adaptation. Whilst in New York, parents will let their children sit on a bus seat when only one seat is available whilst the parent will be standing, in my part of the world, that would be frowned upon as teaching the child to be insolent and disrespectful to adults. In Ghana, children must get up for adults to sit when available seats can not accommodate all of them. Whiles they will call this child abuse in America, in Ghana, it is respect for adults and a cherished societal norm.

Washing dishes after the evening meals is the responsibility of children in the average Ghanaian home, in America; it is called child labor. In certain parts of the world, gently hitting your child after repeated warning to the child to stop what he/she is doing wrong is considered a disciplinary measure but in America and elsewhere, that is child abuse and parents go to prison for that whilst the children end up in foster homes and grow up to be worse elements in society.

Recently, my wife asked our 12-year old daughter to come to the kitchen to help her in preparing the family meal, my daughter asked her mother if she was going to be paid for that help. Such is how the American society has degenerated into and this is what they want to shove down everybody’s throat. Whiles they have the luxury of eating in restaurants 24/7, in Ghana, the family dinner is mostly cooked by the mother of the home and young girls must learn how to cook by understudying their mothers. I can not imagine a father pounding fufu whilst his 12- 15 year old child sits and watch because his participation would be considered child labor. Whiles in certain cultures, women must dress up in a special way, in other cultures, that way of dressing may be considered abuse of women’s right.

WHEN DOES CHILDREN’S HELP BECOME CHILD LABOR?

This is the million dollar question. It is very tough to provide a clear cut line of distinction. However, I am of the opinion that parental income and the child’s welfare must factor prominently into the equation as well as cultural differences.

In Ghana, whilst going to the farm with ones parents on Saturday is not child labor if the child’s parents are farmers, doing the same on school days at the expense of schooling is child labor and must be condemned because it puts the welfare of the child in jeopardy. Helping parents in the farm without sacrificing schooling and leisure is not child labor in the presence of poverty. It is a necessary help without which the child could be a drop out due to inadequate parental resources. However, sending children to work for money to supplement family income no matter how necessary it may be, is child labor and must be discouraged. Children selling ice water in lorry stations and etc. are all providing child labor for those adults who send them to do that.

Equally, parents who send their children to live with others solely as house-helps are equally guilty of encouraging those children to provide child labor for a reward that definitely come to the parents. Such children are often denied the chance of schooling and in the end, the future of the child is compromised whiles the parents are rewarded for the child’s labor.

TWO SUGGESTED SOLUTIONS TO CHILD LABOR 1. The government must pass a law making it a felony for anybody who engages the services of a child house-help but refuse to send that child to school. People who live with other people’s children and refuse to school them are not only harming that child but also increasing society’s burden by increasing illiteracy. 2. A law must be promulgated to ban all children from selling anything anywhere in the country during school hours. Whether the child is a drop out or still in school. A complete ban on children’s labor during school hours will help push parents to send the children to school. In the end I wish our government will stand up to defend what is our way of life and nip in the bud, the ongoing campaign to harm our cocoa industry by branding it as child labor industry. We are capable of knowing when children performs child labor and when they provide a helping hand to their parents to better their own welfare and need not be told by any expert who has no understanding of the Ghanaian culture and practices.

Your comments are welcome Benjamin Opuku Agyepong



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