Africa: Teacher unions continue to fight child labour despite Covid-pandemic

published 3 December 2020 updated 4 March 2021

As the Covid-19 crisis poses a threat to achievements made to get children into school and out of work, an online webinar has brought together unionists and experts to strengthen strategies and allow teachers to continue helping students.

Hosted by the Education International Regional Office for Africa (EIRAF), the online webinar was held on 26 November to give education unions the opportunity to learn more about the many good practices developed as part of the projects to create child labour free zones. Unions also explained how they had continued their work despite the closure of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“EI’s child labour projects in Africa have improved the quality of teaching and learning; made schools more attractive through extra-curricular activities, such as sports and drama; helped make schools safe and secure through a range of measures to protect girl children and end corporal punishment”, said Dennis Sinyolo, Senior Regional Coordinator for Africa, in opening the Education International Regional Office for Africa (EIRAF) online webinar. “Moreover, unions have enhanced their legitimacy and agency, which in turn has strengthened their capacity to lobby for better infrastructure and materials in schools”, he added.

Dennis Sinyolo recalled that a recent EI Africa study launched on the occasion of World Teachers’ Day showed that many children may not return to school after the health care crisis has abated. However, he noted that the impact of the child labour projects had been impressive. Next year is the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour and in 2022 the Global Conference on Child Labour is scheduled to be held in South Africa so EI members in Africa will have many opportunities to share good practices and strategies to mark these occasions.

Pilirani Kamaliza, from the Teachers’ Union of Malawi (TUM) explained that when the schools closed in March because of COVID-19, the incidence of child labour inevitably increased. His union, working with the Private School Employees Union of Malawi (PSEUM), held community based social dialogue sessions and set up a child labour monitoring system in the target districts. The unions also promoted the government schools lessons on the radio. When the schools reopened in October, the unions conducted back-to-school campaigns and toured the villages to broadcast message to encourage parents to send children back to school. They also held meetings with the village chiefs and parents and placed signs in strategic places with anti-child labour messages.  As a result, registration at schools in the target area was much higher than elsewhere.  Now teachers are following up on children to ensure they stay on at school.

Mme Marième Sakho, EI Executive Board member from the Teachers’ Union of Senegal (SYPROS), explained the different strategies adopted by the child labour projects to raise awareness about the value of girls’ education and the dangers of early marriage and pregnancy.  Gender issues have been integrated into the professional development programmes for teachers. The projects have placed emphasis on ensuring the safety and security of girls. In Mali, the communities have organised to escort the children on the way to school. In Uganda, the union has managed to ensure that there is at least one senior woman teacher in each school. The projects also lobbied for separate toilets for girls, carried out training on menstrual management, provided extra school uniforms and sanitary pads, and have organized sensitisation sessions for both boys and girls on menstruation.

Mme Diarra Traoré, President of the Women’s Network, National Union of Education and Culture (SNEC) from Mali explained how the child labour projects, which began in 2014, had sought to involve all education stakeholders and promoted a community-based social dialogue approach. The projects set up coordinating structures including the local education authorities, the Mayors, the school management committees, the women’s organisations, youth organisations, and the village chief and elders. Through dialogue it has been possible to change attitudes towards child labour and retain children, including girl children, in school.

Filbert Bates, General Secretary, Uganda National Teachers Union (UNATU) explained how one of the issues included in the professional training courses for teachers focused on alternative discipline measures.  Although corporal punishment had been prohibited in schools in 2016, many teachers had not benefitted from refresher courses and did not know about changing trends. There is a common saying in Uganda: ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’. Corporal punishment is one of the major reasons why children drop out of school. When it is no longer used enrolment and retention increases. The union has found that teachers have become more motivated, relations with children and parents have improved and academic performance has increased.  UNATU is proud to be part of this fight.

In the discussion, participants emphasised the importance of a community-based approach and the crucial role of the Association of Mothers of Students in helping to ensure girls stayed on in school. Others explained how the projects had increased the legitimacy and visibility of the unions with the education authorities and the local communities.  In Zimbabwe, the project had emphasised visual and performing arts. Through a social dialogue approach, the unions had worked to promote a form of social contract between the school and the community to govern the way that children were treated and to promote children’s education.  The project coordinators considered it had been a very useful initiative.

In her closing remarks, Haldis Holst, EI’s Deputy General Secretary, stated that child labour will continue to be an important focus for the organisation. She thanked the development partners, AOb, FNV Mondiaal, the Stop Child Labour Coalition in the Netherlands, and the Fair Childhood Foundation of the German Teachers’ Union (GEW). She added, that even if unions do not have externally funded projects, they can still carry out advocacy, share good experiences and help create change. The webinar had been very positive and showed how unions were dealing with a complex problem in very constructive ways.

For more information on EI’s child labour projects see here and consult EI Facebook page ‘Educators against Child Labour’.