Egypt child labour a sombre reality

Published Jun 12, 2008


Cairo - Thirteen-year-old Essam Hussein spends his days lugging exhaust pipes in a little repair workshop in central Cairo, one of hundreds of thousands of children forced into labour to secure a future.

"I hate school, I like it here," says Essam who dreams of owning his own repair shop with his brothers one day.

"I've been working here since 2007," he says, showing the mechanics' garage were he has been working for about a year.

In a nearby workshop, Mohammed Hassan, 15, says he works only during the summer holidays.

"At least if school doesn't work out, I'll have a job," says the teenager who makes around 40 Egyptian pounds (seven dollars, five euros) per week.

Whether sweating under the engine of a broken down car, roaming the streets for a few pennies in exchange for flowers or picking cotton in the Nile Delta, one in 10 Egyptian children are forced into work.

On every street corner, out in the open fields or in gritty workshops, children, some as young as ten, are required to put in a day's work.

The UN children's agency UNICEF estimates that 2,7 million children between the ages of six and 14 in Egypt work.

According to official statistics, a third of Egypt's 80 million population is below the age of 15. NGOs say that among those, 10 percent are forced to work, often in difficult conditions.

But the government, which has pledged to combat child labour, says just three percent of minors are working and only seasonally.

In the cotton industry - Egypt is the world's 10th biggest producer - about one million children are sent to take part in the arduous harvest that starts in May each year, working for some 11 hours a day, UNICEF says.

According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, the children's working hours far exceed the maximum six hours per day for which they may be employed under the law. A majority of the children are between the ages of seven and 12.

In a country where 20 percent live below the poverty line and another 20 percent just above it, the practice of making children work is a bleak necessity and a reality that hardly causes a blink for most.

"Many children complain of mistreatment by teachers, particularly at the lower levels of education. So the children prefer to learn a job and make some money," says Pierre Philippe, of Terre Des Hommes, a network of organisations working for the rights of children, and working in partnership with UNICEF.

Egypt is a signatory to the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child, but the convention has largely been ignored despite occasional government efforts to revive its fight against child labour.

Two years ago, First Lady Suzanne Mubarak launched the "Red Card to child labour" campaign in co-operation with the International Labour Organisation.

While the situation is difficult for the children who work while living at home, it is dire for those living on city streets who are vulnerable to protection rackets, prostitution and Aids.

"Their situation is worse. Reintegrating the children living at home into school is relatively easy. Those on the street are so traumatised that psychological help is the priority," says Nevine Osman, coordinator of the state-run National Council for Motherhood and Childhood.

Authorities, protective of the country's reputation for reform and modernity, are eager to keep the problem of street children as quiet as possible, with few officials willing to speak on the subject.

According to UNICEF, a few encouraging signs are emerging such as NGOs like the Hope Village Society, which takes in street children and teaches them to mentor others in tougher circumstances.

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