Liberia: More Child Breadwinners Since COVID-19

Flashback: a child sells bread in Monrovia. Photo credit: New Narratives.


-- But where is the law that protects them? 

Eleven year-old Esther Kollie confidently weaves her way between cars on a hectic Saturday evening, from one end of the street to the next. At this point, nothing occupies her mind more than meeting her sales target for the day.

She has to help her aunt to meet her weekly objective—a meager L$1000.00, an equivalent of US$7.00.  “Tomorrow is Sunday and my Aunty is supposed to pay the susu money. So she sent me to sell to help her get the money,” Esther says.

The little trader says she makes between L$1000.00 to L$1500.00 selling black plastic bags — a carrier that buyers, especially those who go to purchase foodstuffs, use to handle their purchases.

The Saturday episode is a daily routine for thousands of kids who, like little Esther, have never been to school. The eleven year old girl is yet to enter a classroom since her aunty brought her from Bong County, though Yatta (the aunt) had given Esther’s parents the impression that she was coming to Monrovia to attend school.

“I was not going to school in Bong County because my Ma and Pa did not have money.  So aunty Yatta said she was bringing me to go to school but she says she does not get money so I should sell,” the kid says. It has been two academic years since Esther’s arrival but her dream of acquiring education remains elusive.

Esther is one of the thousands of kids who have been brought from the interior parts of the country under the pretext of coming to the urban areas to acquire quality education. Many of these kids end up being breadwinners for their guardians or adopted families.

They are often seen on major streets in Monrovia and its immediate environs, between cars in the thick of traffic, in full view of state security officers who are clothed with the authority to enforce the law against child labor, but most times ignore the presence of those minors.

The government in 2011 enacted legislation to protect kids like Esther against being trafficked, child labor forced labor, and other negative vices that might impede their growth and development.

Known as the Children Rights Law (CRL), the legislation mandates the Ministries of Gender, Labor, and Justice to ensure the safety of Liberian children. Speaking on the significance of the law when she signed it into law, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, said it would ensure the survival, development, participation, and protection of every child. This is yet to be the case.

Much is still desired exactly ten years after the enactment of the CRL, a legal instrument intended to ensure the protection and promotion of the rights of children. Many believe no progress has been made in that regard after a decade after what advocates praise as a milestone instrument came into being.

“There is not only an increase in child labor in different sectors of the society and kids being used as breadwinners for many families, the issue of internal trafficking is also in play here too,” a child rights advocate tells this reporter.

Session 2.3 B of the Decent work Act says, “without limiting the scope of the preceding provision, the following forms of work by children are absolutely prohibited: i) all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom, and forced or compulsory labor, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict.”

Defense for Children Liberia (DCI-Liberia) Executive Director, Foday M. Kawah, puts it more squarely, “the case involving little Esther is an act of internal trafficking under the element of deception and fraudulent act.”

Internal trafficking involves taking children from rural communities to urban areas occurs more because Kawah said. “This needs serious and urgent attention from the government,” he noted a few months ago. Kawah says the abuse against children is on the increase due to the lack of coordination among ministries that are responsible for children's well-being.

“The ministries are not protecting the children because they lack coordination. And this deficiency is exposing more children to danger,” he said.

For Champ Cole, age 13, a 4th grader who also sells plastic bags in the commercial district of Waterside, he stopped going to school during the COVID-19 outbreak. This, he says, is due to financial reasons.

Cole is a resident of Fante Town and wants to be a medical doctor. But he wakes up every morning to see himself selling plastic to provide food for his mother and two siblings, ages 17 and 10. He tells the Daily Observer that his family was neglected by his father and, after the COVID-19 outbreak, his mother could not afford to have him and his siblings in school.

“I am selling this plastic for my aunt because my mother does not have money to send me to school. I make L$1000 every day and we used L$500 for food and put L$500 for susu so that I will be able to go to school next academic year,” Cole said.

Kawah says using kids as a breadwinner is wrong and doing so during school hours is the worst one could do to a kid because education is a right.”

“Having children between the ages of six to fifteen selling in the streets is risky. They should rather be in school. I think this was the rationale behind the government's free and compulsory education program,” he said.

Liberia is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)—a legally binding international instrument for the guarantee and the protection of child’s rights. Adopted in 1989, the  Convention's objective is to protect the rights of all children in which include education and a stop to child labor.

The Director of the Child Justice Session at the Justice Ministry, Atty. Alben Greaves, says the country is heavily challenged in addressing the issue involving children at risk and children both in conflict and contact with the law.

It is the Justice Ministry's role to enforce the CRL but the government has nowhere to take the kids when they are taken off the streets. “This is the biggest challenge we are facing in that direction. The government lacks safe and transit homes, rehabilitation centers, hospitals, and feedings,” Greaves says. 

The government, back in 2013 tried taking the kids off the streets but was faced with logistical constraints and lack of facilities to care for the children.

“This is still a serious challenge that has stopped the government from being proactive in the process today,” Greaves explains, “So we have the deinstitutionalization plan. As much as we want to get the children off the streets we are sometimes against the institutionalization of children. Children growing up with their families is the best thing and I think this is the reason we failed the first time we tried to get children off the street.”

There is not much support from the government to maintain staff and keep programs involving the wellbeing of children.  “Even though UNCHF and other partners are trying, that is not enough,” he says.

“Most of our programs are tied to donors so it is difficult to continue implementation if those funds stop coming,” Atty. Greaves discloses.

The Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection did not respond to queries for comment on the matter. This reporter emailed the ministry’s communication specialist, Webster Cassell, but did not get a response. That was followed by text messages, phone calls, and two visits to the ministry’s headquarters on Capitol By-pass, which also did not materialize.