Four Years of Fighting Child Labor in Uganda
When the IRC began the ORACLE project to end child labor in 2003, northern Uganda was at war. At the peak of the conflict between the government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, over 90 percent of the region’s population was packed into internally displaced peoples’ camps.
Those were difficult times for children; the LRA abducted as many as 38,000 children and forced them to serve as combatants, bush wives and porters. Many of those children who avoided capture faced similarly dire situations. The near-total disruption of livelihoods, education and family life caused by the war led more than ten percent of all children to engage in forms of child labor including domestic work, sex work, quarrying, or garbage picking.
“You saw child labor everywhere in those days,” said George Angolli, ORACLE’s manager. “It was common to see a child of eight carrying a load of rocks on her back.”
ORACLE helped change things. Launched in partnership with the non-profit AVSI Foundation and funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, it brought child laborers and children at risk of exploitation back into the school system or into vocational or alternative education programs. The program trained over 700 teachers, installed water and sanitation facilities at 46 schools and provided supplementary learning materials to some 5,500 students.
The program also helped change national policies, said Nina Papadopoulos, ORACLE’s education advisor.
“Last year the IRC and others worked in partnership with the government to enact a national child labor policy, the first such legislation passed in all of sub-Saharan Africa,” she said.
Meanwhile, five local government councils in northern Uganda enacted regulations prohibiting child labor as a result of the IRC’s advocacy.
“So much work made me crazy”
Geoffrey Olal and his five sisters were orphaned five years ago when their parents died of AIDS. At the age of 13, Geoffrey was forced to work laying bricks to feed himself and his sisters. In a good month he made 40,000 shillings, or about US $25.
“To make even this much I worked every day, all day long,” he said. “So much work made me crazy.”
A child protection committee in northern Uganda initiated by the IRC and sustained by community leaders and teachers, identified Geoffrey as someone doing work inappropriate for his age. The work he was doing was also hazardous to the boy’s health and kept him from going to school. With financial support from the IRC, Geoffrey enrolled in an intensive, three-month carpentry and joinery course, which he completed with flying colors. He soon joined a carpentry workshop in Pader town and has since established himself as a successful tradesman.
“What I like about carpentry is that people come to me and ask me to make them things,” Geoffrey said. “I don’t have to go around asking other people for brick work.”
In a good month as a carpenter, Geoffrey now makes 400,000 shillings, some US $250.
“I now pay the school fees for all five of my sisters,” he beamed.
As a result of the project, communities are creating by-laws to ensure children go to and stay in school.
“What we have seen over the past four years is a big change in how the community sees child labor,” said George Angolli. “Before, if somebody saw a child digging or quarrying rocks, they didn’t think twice. But now they say: ‘That child should be in school’”.New challenges
But new challenges await as people leave the camps to villages virtually without any working services, including schools. Nearly everyone must start from scratch; the LRA robbed the semi-pastoralist people here of almost all livestock. Compounding the difficulty of planting on long-abandoned plots, cultivation is done manually with hand-fashioned hoes, and even the smallest hands are required to yield even a subsistence level of production. And families can no longer rely on cows as a hedge against a bad harvest.
A visit to a primary school in the northern Ugandan village of Abonydyong highlights the difficulty of resuming education for children in these villages. The primary school was used by the army as a temporary garrison during the conflict and is in a state of total disrepair, lacking windows, doors and large sections of roof. There are no desks or textbooks, no paper to write on. The teacher’s lodgings that once surrounded the school have been destroyed and teachers now have to commute from a distant trading center in the morning and afternoon, severely shortening lesson schedules.
Against this challenging backdrop, local committees charged with the responsibility of protecting children have taken on increased responsibility to monitor child labor and hazardous work. Thanks to ORACLE, children are now more empowered to speak up for their rights to safe work and education.
And messages about the dangers of child labor will continue to be heard in northern Uganda as a new IRC program, LEAP (Livelihoods, Education and Protection to End Child Labor) is taking ORACLE’s place. It will help ensure that the children of northern Uganda are not returned to a life of backbreaking work.More stories
- Molly Adongo, an orphan, was forced to beg to feed her younger siblings. With the help of IRC workers, she became a tailor and now provides for her family.
- Aloyo, a young refugee who studied catering and hotel management with IRC's help, went on to establish a restaurant in her camp and now employs a small staff.
- Apollo, abducted by rebel soldiers when he was 16, lost friends and family in the fighting. The IRC helped him go back to school and pursue his dream of studying science.