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This 14-Year-Old Family Breadwinner Is Part Of The Rise In Child Labor

Jun 17, 2021
Originally published on June 18, 2021 3:35 pm

Sahr Tarawaly is proud to be the breadwinner for his family. Each day the 14- year-old fetches water for several of his neighbors. He collects firewood to sell by the side of the road. He goes around to construction sites and asks for work sweeping and cleaning up debris. When fishing boats come in, he helps them draw in their nets.

"I used to like mathematics," the round-faced teenager says. But that was in the past. "Now I go down to the beach to fish, to have fish to eat."

Sahr dropped out of school two years when he was 12.

"My mother didn't have any money to support me," he says. "That's why I left school-- to find money for my mother."

Sahr lives with his mother and his two younger siblings in a two-room, corrugated tin structure just off the Peninsular Highway about 25 miles south of Freetown. He's wearing a knock-off jersey for Brazil's Corinthians soccer club but that's only because he can't afford one from his favorite team, Manchester United.

Bintu Tarawaly with sons Clifford, 9, and Sahr, 14. With his dad out of the picture, Sahr is working to support the family.
Jason Beaubien/NPR

In Sierra Leone basic education is officially free, but Sahr's mother, Bintu, says, she can only afford to send her 12-year-old daughter right now.

The school is always asking for "10,000, 15,000, 20,000 leones," she says which is $1 to $2.

Her 9-year-old didn't go back to school after classes were shut for part of 2020 due to the COVID lockdown. Standing with Sahr and his younger brother, Bintu says the extra fees for supplies, tests and uniforms is money she doesn't have.

Bintu's husband left more than a year ago, saying he was going to a funeral. He took all their savings, she says, and she hasn't seen him since. For a while she was selling "fast food," skewers of meat cooked by the side of the road. But she says she hasn't been able to lately because of poor health.

Now Sahr is in her words "father of the family" — their only source of income. On a good day the teenager can earn the equivalent of a few dollars and some fish.

Lilit Umroyan, the chief of child protection with UNICEF in Sierra Leone, says child labor is a significant problem in the country.

"It is a rather common and widespread issue," Umroyan says.

Across the country about 39% of children engage in what's deemed child labor by international standards, according to the latest statistics from a 2017 survey.

For kids under the age of 11 paid work of more than an hour a week is considered child labor by international standards. For children 12-14, work for pay in excess of 14 hours a week is classified as child labor. For teenagers 15 and older, working more than 43 hours a week is considered excessive.

"I think the concern in Sierra Leone is actually too many children are working in very unsafe conditions," Umroyan says. "Too many children are working in mining, in agriculture and even in domestic work that puts them at risk of abuse."

A report released earlier this month by UNICEF and the International Labour Organization found that after years of reductions in child labor globally, the number of kids working for wages now is on the rise.

In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the report found that an additional 16.6 million children in the labor force over the last 4 years.

And COVID is making matters worse. More kids are out of school and economic slowdowns from the pandemic have meant families already living in poverty have often had fewer opportunities to earn cash.

Umroyan says there isn't hard data in Sierra Leone on a link between COVID and child labor. But she says it's clear in Sierra Leone that pandemic has increased rates of poverty and food insecurity as the economy slowed and workers lost jobs. "COVID has caused the reduced income opportunities. And this is particularly true for informal workers in urban areas," she says. And when family incomes go down, as they have during the pandemic, more kids are forced to work.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The COVID pandemic has forced children around the world to work rather than study. The closures of schools and economic stress on families contributed to the first global rise in child labor rates in 20 years. That's according to a recent report co-authored by UNICEF. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from the West African nation of Sierra Leone.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Fourteen-year-old Sahr Tarawaly is proud of his role as the breadwinner for his family. Each day, he fetches water for several of his neighbors. He collects firewood to sell by the side of the road. He goes around to construction sites and asks for work sweeping and cleaning up debris. When fishing boats come in, he helps them draw in their nets up onto the beach.

SAHR TARAWALY: I go down to the beach to fishing - to have fish to eat.

BEAUBIEN: Sahr dropped out of school two years ago when he was 12 to earn money to give to his mother.

SAHR: That's why I leave school, to find money for my mother.

BEAUBIEN: Now he lives with his mother, his 9-year-old brother and his 12-year-old sister in a two-room, corrugated tin structure just off the Peninsular Highway, about 25 miles south of Freetown. Basic education is officially free here in Sierra Leone, but Sahr's mother, Bintu, says the reality is very different.

BINTU TARAWALY: Ten thousand, 15,000, 20,000...

BEAUBIEN: Speaking in Creole, she says the school is always demanding fees and money for supplies, tests, various things - demanding money she doesn't have. Sahr's younger brother didn't go back after schools were shut down in 2020 as part of the COVID lockdown. Her husband left more than a year ago, and Bintu hasn't seen him since. She now says her 14-year-old is, in her words, the father of the family, their only source of income. On a good day, he can earn some fish and the equivalent of a few dollars in cash.

Lilit Umroyan, the chief of child protection with UNICEF in Sierra Leone, says child labor is a significant problem in the country.

LILIT UMROYAN: It is a rather common and widespread issue.

BEAUBIEN: Across the country, about 39% of children engage in what's deemed child labor by international standards. For kids under the age of 11, that would be any paid work at all. For children 12 to 14, work for pay in excess of 14 hours a week is classified as child labor.

UMROYAN: I think the concern in Sierra Leone that is, actually, too many children are working in very unsafe conditions. And too many children are working in the mining, in the agriculture and even in domestic work that puts them at risk of abuse.

BEAUBIEN: A report released earlier this month by UNICEF and the International Labor Organization found that after years of reductions in child labor globally, the number of kids working for wages now is on the rise. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the report found that an additional 16.6 million children joined the labor force over the last four years, and COVID is making matters worse.

UMROYAN: Some of our own observations on poverty and socioeconomic impact of COVID indicate that there is really a very high level of food insecurity, and COVID has caused reduced income opportunities. And this is particularly true for informal workers in urban areas.

BEAUBIEN: Umroyan says there isn't hard data in Sierra Leone on a link between COVID and child labor. But she says more kids are out of school, and economic slowdowns from the pandemic have meant families already living in poverty have often had fewer and fewer options to earn cash, families like Sahr Tarawaly's. Sahr says he misses school. Mathematics used to be his favorite subject, and he dreams about being a diplomat one day.

SAHR: I like to be ambassador.

BEAUBIEN: Ambassador - you'd like to be an ambassador, yeah?

SAHR: Yeah, yeah.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. Do you still study? Do you continue to study at all? Or...

SAHR: No.

BEAUBIEN: And then he goes back to gathering green mangoes from a giant tree behind their house. He'll sell them to get a little bit more money for his mother. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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