By Mattia Cabitza, The Guardian, July 16, 2012
Manuel is a young boy from Huancavelica, a poor rural area of central Peru. "I get up at four in the morning," he says. "I help my mum to harvest barley. And then I walk for 40 minutes, sometimes an hour, to go to school."
He is one of 215 million children worldwide who face this harsh reality, having to learn to share their responsibilities between a job and an education. Sometimes they don't go to school at all.
In Latin America, one in 10, or 14 million, children and adolescents work like Manuel, mostly in agriculture. The majority live in poverty. And according to the International Labour Organisation, the problem is more serious in Peru.
Almost a third – 28% – of all children and adolescents in the Andean country have a job. They are aged between six and 17, are poor, and often do dangerous work in mining and construction. The government wants to get these boys and girls off work and into full-time education.
At an event last week in the Peruvian capital, Lima, the ministry of employment unveiled the first step in its long-term strategy to reduce child labour and eradicate the worst forms of employment for those under the age of 18.
With $13m from the US government, Peru's labour minister, José Villena, launched a four-year pilot programme aimed at benefiting 6,000 children, 3,000 families and 500 adolescents in Junín, Pasco and Huancavelica, which are among Peru's poorest regions.
"This is the first time that a strategy for the eradication of child labour has been planned with specific objectives, strategic plans and a methodology that will yield results," Villena said. "We must begin to eliminate the habit of sending children to work, because they will be faced with many problems in the future."
Boys and girls who work and don't regularly attend school "put at risk their own development", says Carmen Moreno, the ILO director for the Andean region. "This is human capital that we either lose or don't develop in its full potential," she says. "I think that what helps children to fit in our society and be responsible adults is not work, but education."
The newly launched programme is trying to achieve that. With five core components, it's being executed by the Centre for development and self-management (DyA). This NGO, based in Ecuador, has 30 years of experience in health, education and poverty reduction in its home country, as well as in Bolivia.
Its pilot project in Peru, Semilla (which means "seed" in Spanish), will aim to create and strengthen public policies designed to prevent the exploitation of children. Farmers will be helped to boost their income by improving their crop yields, so that they will no longer need their children to work in the fields. Access to education will also be a priority, so that boys like Manuel, for example, won't have to walk for up to two hours each day to attend school.
Some children and adolescents, however, oppose any plan that aims to fully take away what they say is their right to work. Children have helped out in the fields since Inca times, and Manthoc, a Peruvian organisation representing around 2,500 child workers, believes this tradition should continue as part of the normal development of people growing up in rural areas.
"We demand not to confuse what is a crime with child employment," reads a Manthoc press release. "What is wrong is not the work in itself, but the jobs that are done in exploitative conditions, with abuse, and which violate our dignity as human beings."
DyA thinks that Manthoc has a point in drawing a distinction between what is exploitation and what is a necessity. One million adolescents work in Peru because of poverty and the need to contribute to their families' income. "But if they have to work," says Maró Guerrero, the director of Semilla, "they must do so in fair conditions. So we need to make sure that they do so with proper training, without exceeding working hours, and never in dangerous activities."
Through support and education, the government hopes to persuade rural families not to send their kids to work. But it also knows that eradicating child labour won't be easy unless it can improve the income and employment opportunities for the millions of Peruvians who live in poverty.