The law does not necessarily make much difference when it comes to child labor: In Guinea and Mauritania the worst forms of child labor persist despite it being banned by law, leading child protection experts to call for a better understanding of the dynamics behind it.
West Africa adviser for child protection at the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Joachim Theis told IRIN: "Until now there has been very little discourse which makes the links between strategies taken by parents to find a solution for each child in the context of informal employment, and the application of international norms."
In Mauritania the law prohibits putting children under- to work, and penalizes those who are guilty of exploiting minors. But in reality, according to a late September report the International Trade Unions Federation (ITUC) under-14s continue to be sent to work, including some in "slave-like" conditions.
While most of the children are girls working as domestics for families, boys are often forced to beg; or are sent to work in the construction industry, on buses as money-collectors, or in criminal gangs. They are also forced to beg by Koranic teachers who are supposedly giving them a religious education - as is the case with hundreds of thousands of children across West Africa. In rural areas, boys work in the fields or herd animals.
Domestics work on average 10-hour days, according to a 2009 study by UNICEF and the Ministry of Welfare for Children and the Family; while those working as beggars or in agriculture may work as many as 16 hours. Of 265 children interviewed, just under half said they were beaten by their bosses.
A long tradition of slavery complicates the situation. A law was passed in 2007 forbidding slavery but it is not rigorously enforced, according to Mamadou Niang, head of external relations at the General Confederation of Workers in Mauritania."The authorities are usually lax in these cases, and the administration often ignores them - in some cases they may dissuade the families of enslaved children from bringing a case forward," he said.
One fifth of the Mauritanian population is affected by slavery in one form or another, according to a 2009 study by NGO SOS Slavery.
In Guinea, despite legislation banning work for under-16s, "children carry out dangerous work in farms, in mines and in fisheries." According to the ITUC, some children in artisanal mines work 15-hour-days, seven days a week, from age five.
Child trafficking is also a problem: Moving children across borders into forced begging and other activities is still prevalent, though it has declined in recent years.
ITUC calls on both governments to more rigorously impose child labor laws and penalize individuals and organizations that do not comply, while recognizing that capacity in ministries remains very low.
Grégoire Tonguino at the child protection and pre-school education department of Guinea's Ministry of Children and the Family, told IRIN: "Guinea is good at developing laws, but applying them still poses some problems." Few people other than child protection experts even know about child labor laws in Guinea, he added.
However, a gap in the law means that even with boosted capacity, it would be hard to crack down: the law does not cover children in the informal sector, where most domestics and agricultural helpers work.
Child labor is commonplace in poor rural societies in West Africa, as it is a way of training children and assuring them jobs in the future. In Guinea, for example, "fostering" or giving a child to a family as an apprentice, is considered beneficial to the child.
Sending a child into work is part of a family's risk-spreading strategy to combat poverty, said Theis.
As Olivier Feneyrol, regional adviser for NGO Terre des Hommes in West Africa once put it to IRIN: "Children have been moving around the region for centuries and working just as long. That is the cultural reality here."
"The debate on this issue is contentious," says Mariama Penda Diallo, head of international relations, solidarity and humanitarian action at the Trade Union of Workers of Guinea (USTG), "because people say that it's better to place the child from an early age so they can learn how to work," she said.
Most poor urban families have no choice but to send their children to work, added Niang in Mauritania. "With the rural exodus, many families have settled in slums with their children. In the absence of public strategies to look after them, poor parents have no alternative but to send their children to work."
To make a difference to children's lives, authorities need to better understand the context they are working in, said Theis: "It is important to understand the decision-making process that families go through because policies are not necessarily based on real situations that can have concrete results."
For the ITUC the priorities are clear: it recommends investigating instances of children being forced into work to pay for their religious education; more prosecutions of those individuals who force children to work; turning the Mauritania anti-slavery law from theory into practice; and expanding Guinea's child labor law to include children involved in unpaid, temporary, contract work.
But given the reality, just as important, said Diallo is to improve conditions for the thousands of children who will inevitably end up working, and to find a way to help them also attend school.
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