By Ines Kpakole
BANGUI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Abdias is not afraid of contracting coronavirus when he leaves home each day with a basket of hard-boiled eggs to sell on the busy streets of Bangui, the Central African Republic’s capital.
But the 11-year-old street vendor does fear the punishment he will endure if he fails to earn enough money for his family.
“My mother beats me and blames it on me,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation one afternoon while selling his wares under the scorching sun with little to eat or drink.
Abdias left school last year as his mother could not afford the fees, and joined the growing ranks of children sent or forced to work and trade goods on the streets amid the pandemic.
“I do hear about COVID-19. They say the virus is dangerous,” said Abdias, who was not wearing a mask or practicing social distancing while selling eggs. “But we are not afraid of it because we are told that it does not kill Africans.”
While the country of 5 million people has not been particularly hard hit by COVID-19 – having recorded about 7,000 cases and 100 deaths – the ensuing economic fallout has driven more children to sell goods on the streets, campaigners said.
Street children are a common sight in the nation which has seen repeated bouts of violence since a 2013 rebellion ousted former president Francois Bozize and where about four-fifths of the population live in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day.
Child labour on the streets is becoming more prevalent in Bangui and beyond, said Belvia Yvette Padoundji, director of Fondation Voix du Coeur, an NGO that helps vulnerable children.
“This health crisis has caused some children to take to the streets because there is no school,” Padoundji said, estimating that there were at least 40,000 street children nationwide.
“The children stayed at home, and were bored, which pushed them on to the streets, because they did not know what to do.”
BREAKING THE LAW
Prior to the pandemic, the number of child workers globally dropped to 152 million from 246 million in 2000, according to the U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO).
Yet the COVID-19 fallout has put millions more children at risk of underage labour – due to school closures, job losses and deepening poverty – and jeopardised a U.N. global goal of ending the practice by 2025, leading child rights experts have warned.
Central African Republic has long had one of the world’s highest child labour rates, according to advocates.
About 27% of children aged 5 to 17 are engaged in child labour in the country, a 2021 report by Save the Children found.
Despite years of awareness-raising activities for parents and projects by various charities, child labour is still a problem in the country – and a growing one, said Kevin Rodrigue Mborolo, acting head of mission of the local NGO Enfants Sans Frontieres.
It is illegal to employ a child under the age of 16 – unless the labour ministry grants an exemption – and is punishable by up to five years in prison under a recent child protection code.
The code, which was adopted last year, sets out penalties for child exploitation, prohibits forced labour and the recruitment and use of children by armed groups, and guarantees children aged between five and 18 the right to free education.
While the code was welcomed by child’s rights activists, they said that enforcement has been poor due to the pandemic and ongoing tensions between the army and militants in a country where one in four people are displaced.
Aline Gisèle Pana, minister for the promotion of women, family and child protection, said that children had been left to fend for themselves and urged parents to take more responsibility.
“If you find a child selling on the streets before the legal age (of 16), they are completely breaking the law. But unfortunately, parents do not know about the rights of the child. Children themselves do not know their rights,” she said.
“A child … should be at school, not trading on the streets,” Pana said in an interview.
On the streets of Bangui, children as young as seven can be seen selling food, water, and even face masks, to passersby.
Many are orphans or alone as a result of the insecurity; others are put to work by their parents to help make ends meet.
Benicia, 10, said she only sells donuts on the weekends when not at school while 14-year-old Karle explained how he managed to juggle his trade in second-hand clothes with an education.
Yet such cases are rare as most children on the streets are out-of-school and without any support, several activists said.
Nearly 1.4 million children from pre-school to secondary school level have been affected by school closures in the Central African Republic, United Nations data shows.
Justin Kaseke, head of child protection at charity Plan International in Bangui, said child labour locally was fuelled by poverty and a lack of accountability within communities – and that the COVID-19 pandemic had further exacerbated the problem.
“Because parents are now in a difficult situation … (they) are no longer able to meet a certain number of needs for their children,” Kaseke said. “So (the children) themselves are sometimes obliged to engage in these trading activities.”
One such child is 13-year-old Lumiere, who sells tissues at a market to eke out a living, having dropped out of school.
“Last year, I was a seventh grade student,” Lumiere said, adding that he now earned less than $0.40 a day working. “This year, I am not enrolled because I have no one to support me.”
(Reporting by Inès Kpakolé; Writing by Emeline Wuilbercq; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)