Women as agents of change in combating forced labour


The need to intensify the implementation of effective and sustainable measures against the forced labour that persists in the cocoa and mining sectors is an urgent one. Key to this effort is to engage local communities and empower women fully to play their pivotal role in reducing poverty in general, and the specific risk and prevalence of forced and child labour.  In this way, women are increasingly seen not as victims, but as active agents of change from household and community to regional and national level.

This shift in perspective is vital for improved policy and practice. Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) and cocoa farming are generally seen as ‘male’ occupations; but in reality, there is strong female presence, reaching 50 percent of the ASM labour force in Africa – the highest proportion globally. Research has shown women and children to be more prone to severely exploitative labour conditions in both sub-sectors. These conditions reflect the socio-economic inequalities facing women, and the importance of eliminating them. The benefits will be clear: independent working women are reported to invest 90 percent of earnings back into their families compared with 35 percent for men.

The impact of this investment also becomes clear over time. The highest incidence of poverty (55 percent) and of child labour (34 percent) is in the rural savannah zone. At national level, around one-fifth of all children are involved in child labour. Many of them are out of school, which lowers their long-term prospects of decent work, and increases the likelihood that their children will in turn have to contribute to household income, often in hazardous conditions.

Breaking this cycle requires greater and more systematic investment in women’s economic empowerment and access to decision-making roles. The obstacles are significant. A recent study highlights gendered inequalities in household and workplace division of labour, access to land, and income. The relatively few women who own cocoa farms have less access to credit than male counterparts for farm inputs and hired labour, and there is unequal representation of women in farmers’ cooperatives. The Earth-Shattering research shows that when male cocoa farmers sell off their land to artisanal and small-scale miners, many women might end up losing their agricultural livelihood and engaging in mining.

Women in ASM are often seen as easily replaceable headpan carriers and receive lower pay than men in similar roles. A study on ASM highlighted issues such as gendered work patterns and poor working conditions, especially for women with children, along with low prosecution rates when exploitative labour conditions are exposed.

Leveraging women’s capacities

The recognised connection between women’s empowerment and poverty reduction has to be translated into reality. This means greater access to microcredit and other support – for example, to set up women’s cooperatives – to boost their productivity and incomes from farm and non-farm activities. Faster progress toward empowerment requires capacity-building and heightened awareness among women of their rights in general and rights under the labour laws. For example, women workers can form labour associations in their communities to negotiate better conditions of service. Some sustainability initiatives, such as that promoted by Mondelez/Cocoalife in Ghana, is spearheading such empowerment programmes for women in cocoa gorwing communities (https://www.cocoalige.org)  Higher incomes reduce the poverty levels that lead to child labour.

There are also cultural barriers to overcome. In many localities, the fact of children at work is not considered as ‘child labour’ but as fulfilling obligations to parents and household. Women engaged in cocoa farming and ASM could be educated on what constitutes child labour. They can be trained to identify, report and remediate child labour cases. Women traditional leaders, notably queenmothers, could act as champions of the drive against forced labour, supporting local women’s associations and raising general awareness of the adverse, long-term consequences. The concept and realities of child labour can also be introduced into educational curricula – this would increase awareness among pupils and students of the indicators of child labour and the harm it does.

The overarching issue is the conversion of policy into practice. For all the international conventions and national laws, much remains to be done to make widespread, consistent and sustained progress at local and household level. Once poverty has been recognised as a key factor in forced labour, and women’s empowerment acknowledged as directly beneficial to society in general, it is time to move into action. From national to local government, laws, regulations and support systems must be implemented to enable women to play their full role as key agents of change for curbing forced labour and accelerating socio-economic development.

With 7 years to go on the SDGs, it is critical to engage women more actively to expedite the implementation of effective measures toward eradicating forced labour, and end modern slavery and human trafficking. This is how the SDG on gender equality can be realised.

The writer is the Director, ABANTU for Development

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