Vice versa. Many children in Masaka, instead of first attending school and joining the work world later in life, life situations are forcing them to act otherwise. As Malik Fahad Jjingo found out, attendance of some schools is significantly affected by this development.
James Mukasa, 12, is a quiet, soft spoken, small-bodied and short boy with big goals. He had a wish to become a secondary school teacher. Right now, however, he spends much of his time hawking food items on streets instead of studying and reading his books. He has been doing this for four years now.
Mukasa is a resident of Ssenyange village in Nyendo, Masaka District. Like him, many other children of school-going age in Masaka don’t attend school because they have to vend or hawk merchandise or help their parents with work in gardens, markets and other workplaces during school time and late in the night.
This affects their right to education, mental and physical growth and development, which has also greatly affected education service delivery in the district.
Mukasa wakes up most days at 5am to go to the market to buy tomatoes, green pepper, beans and onions which he vends on streets throughout the day. He dropped out of school in 2013 when he failed to do his primary three promotional exams, after his mother, who was providing his school fees, passed on.
“Since I spend much of my time hawking these items from one street to another, I leave town when I’m so tired since I don’t get time off to rest yet I have to wake up early in the morning to plan for the day,” he says.
International conventions on child labour bar children between the ages of 13 to 15 from doing work that threatens their health, safety and education or vocational orientation and training.
Paul Matovu, another victim of child labour and a resident of Kimaanya zone in Kimaanya/ Kyabakuza division in Masaka District, is the breadwinner of the household where he lives with his siblings.
He said that his parents fell ill when he was still in primary four (2014). He then began working, vending merchandise to look after his mother, before she died late last year, leaving him to take care of the home and his two siblings.
“We go to school during day and in the evening I go with one of my siblings to vend merchandise at night to get some money for buying school requirements and save some for our welfare. We usually leave our younger sister at home with our grandmother to help her with some house chores,” he says.
Like Matovu and Mukasa, a number of such children have lost their parents and therefore find that they have to fend for themselves.
, a resident of Ssenyange village and a guardian of children engaged in child labour, says he sends his grandsons to work because he can no longer manage to look after them due to ill health. He says his children in Kampala abandoned him yet he has four grandchildren he looks after.
“We get little money which we use to buy items that these children vend in the evening after school time. I know it’s illegal for children to work and it affects their growth but I have no option other than sending them to work since we need money to buy scholastic materials and food,” he says.
Within the Greater Masaka sub-region, children engage in various forms of child labour, which range from agriculture to providing domestic service. Some of these jobs expose them to sexual assault.
Several others work as housemaids and those that vend vegetables on streets receive little or no payments for their services but only work for food and a place to sleep.
All these children are meant to be in school since the government provides free education through programmes such as Universal Primary Education (UPE) and Universal Secondary Education (USE).
Ms Shifah Katerrega, the executive director of Masaka Human Rights Defenders, a civil society organisation in Masaka, says because of the high levels of poverty in the area many children have been driven into working at a very tender age instead of going to schools to attain formal education.
She says most of the poor households, especially the extended families in rural areas, depend on their working children in trading centres and urban areas. This, he says, prevents the children from attending the government-provided free primary and secondary education. A big number of schools in Masaka, she says, many times suffer from learner absenteeism because children are in the markets working.
Kiyimbwe Primary School, Kimaanya Noor Primary School, St Bruno Saaza Primary School and Kaako Junior School are some of the schools that seriously suffer from this problem.
“Childhood is a critical time for safe and human development because children are still growing and they need special attention from their parents and guardians; they don’t need to be exposed to risky work since it has an effect on a child’s future and they should not be denied their right to education,” Ms Kateregga says.
Mr Umar Sserunjogi, the head teacher of Kimaanya Noor Primary school, says the situation is dire.
“Some parents have a misconception that labour is the most productive use of children’s time,” Mr Sserunjogi says. “That is why many parents are insisting on ordering their children to follow them to their work place during the day and even late in the night.”
Mr Gerald Nsambu, the Masaka District inspector of schools, says child labour not only denies children their right to education but also puts their lives at a risk of kidnap for ritual sacrifice.
Mr Nsambu warns against employing school-going children, saying that whoever does it risks being arrested and prosecuted for violation of childrens’ rights. He says the education authorities, together with the police, the office of the Resident District Commissioner (RDC) and civil society organisations, have embarked on a campaign of pushing children out of workplaces and streets so that they can go back to schools.
He cites an example of an operation that was recently conducted by the district education authorities and other local leaders in zones such as Kitaka, Block A, Kacafu, and Market Cell, among other zones in Nyendo/Ssenyange Division in Masaka District, in which more than 100 children were rounded up.
“More than 3,944 candidates last year registered to sit for PLE in Masaka District but only 3,771 pupils turned up for Mock examinations, and there were more absentees during the PLE exams,” he says.
Ms Lillian Musisi, the Masaka District community development officer, says some families in the district have been greatly affected by the HIV/Aids pandemic, which has left several children orphaned. This phenomenon has created a number of households that are child-headed and these children have to work to take care of their younger sisters or brothers.
“We have discovered in several studies we have conducted in the district, especially in rural areas and fishing villages, that people prefer to employ children because they are cheaper compared to adults which has made the fight against child labour in these areas tricky,” Ms Musisi says. she stresses that they are conducting awareness campaigns against giving children work that is not appropriate to their age.
“We are not advocating for raising children that cannot do anything at home. Remember not all work done by children should be classified as child labour; children’s participation in work that does not affect their health, personal development and education is not bad so our call to parents and guardians is to be considerate when giving children work to do, either at home or at work places so that they can get some time to play, rest and revise books,” she adds.
Considering that most of the children are working because they have to make a living in order for their family to survive, in order for the government to curb the vice, they will have to look for ways to provide for the homes where there is no adult, or where the adults are too weak to work. Otherwise the children will continue to try and look for a means to survive even if it means doing heavy labour and skipping school.
What is child labour?
Child labour is defined in the Ugandan National Child Labour Policy as work that is hazardous or exploitative and threatens the health, safety, physical growth and mental development of children. Even where the hazards are not immediately obvious such as cuts/disease exposure, they could include increased exposure to sexual, physical, or emotional abuse.
Although it is illegal under both international and Ugandan laws to employ persons below the age of 18 in hazardous activities, there is little enforcement due to lack of government resources, and arguably a tolerant attitude towards child labour in many communities.
The southern Region police commander, Maxwell Ogwal, said that police working closely with education authorities in the regio, are going to continue conducting operations to pick up children engaged in child labour in the district.