In the Middle East and North Africa region nearly one-in-ten children between the ages of 5 and 14 are involved in child labor. Child labor rates, however, may actually be higher due to underreporting in sectors like street vending and domestic service, where many children work.
The region is also experiencing some of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world, with some countries reporting youth unemployment rates as high as 25 to 30 percent. Both child labor and youth unemployment are linked to a lack of opportunities for decent work.
Urban children, predominantly boys, are exploited in small workshops, construction, manufacturing and street work. Rural children work in seasonal agriculture, often alongside their families. And there is growing evidence that children are serving as soldiers in armed conflicts and as smugglers of goods across borders. In addition, children in the region are victims of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.
The Labor Department is making a difference in countries like Egypt, Jordan and Yemen. For example, we are working with the World Food Program and International Labour Organization in Egypt to provide food rations in schools and help withdraw or prevent the exploitation of nearly 12,000 children. The program provides remedial classes, non-formal education in community schools, uniforms and textbooks for each child. The project launched an apprenticeship program to provide 1,800 youth with literacy classes and the opportunity to learn job skills in a safe work environment.
Eleven year-old Dina’s life was changed by the project. She had never been to school and spent her days tending livestock and working on a tomato farm. Now, thanks to our project, Dina receives rations of rice for her family and has near perfect school attendance. At the top of her class, she dreams of one day becoming a doctor.
In 2010, the Labor Department funded a new four-year program targeting 16,000 children working in the worst forms of child labor in agriculture. This project will use micro-savings groups and income-generation training to help adult members of households make up for the wages lost when children are withdrawn from child labor.
On a recent visit to a school in the city of El Fayoum, I learned first hand what our project can mean to a child. We hope to help many more children like Dina gain the skills they need to build a better future for themselves. And, that’s success worth repeating until we eradicate child labor around the world.
Editor’s Note: The authors, Karina Jackson and Wendy Blanpied are International Relations Officers in the Office of Child Labor Forced Labor and Human Trafficking of the Bureau of International Labor Affairs.