Children’s work: experiences of street vending children and young people in Enugu, Nigeria
Okoli, Rosemary Chinyere Babylaw
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Concern for children’s safety and protection has become a global issue and has evoked considerable debate since the publication of the United Nations’ widely ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1989. A dominant theme within this charter and within the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990) is the recognition that children are individuals with rights that need to be respected and protected. More specifically, Article 32 of the UNCRC states that children should be protected from ‘economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development’. Nigeria has signed and ratified both the UNCRC and the African Charter and has committed itself to ensuring the welfare and protection of its children. This thesis examines children’s work experiences and their interpretations of these against the backdrop of the provisions of the UNCRC and the African charter. The study sets out to explore the meanings of work for itinerant street vending children and young people in Enugu, Nigeria and is based on a combined ethnographic methodology of participant observation and semi-structured interviews with 24 child vendors in marketplaces over a period of six months. It will be argued that contemporary ideas about children’s work are framed by Euro-centric, adult perceptions and definitions of what they think working children are doing, and that the imposition of Western constructions of childhood does not reflect the lived realities of children. Discussions with children revealed, among other things, a contradiction and ambivalence in their understandings of work in relation to vending and an interplay of complex environmental, cultural and poverty factors. In children’s views, taking responsibilities in activities that add positive values to their personal development and to the continued survival of their families was part of their childhood. Whilst street based observations of the markets revealed some fundamental dangers and problems with street vending, especially the reality of physical, social and emotional abuse, these young children have developed robust coping mechanisms and social networks which reflect a blend of definitional adjustments, rationalisation and social bonding and which reveal inadequacies in the enforcement of child protection policies. The tension between these risks and the importance of vending in the lives of the children is discussed. The role and type of work are further examined against dominant cultural values and socio economic realities in Nigeria in an attempt to fully explain the phenomenon of children’s work in this milieu. This study concludes that children’s participation in vending, while at times both ‘hazardous’ and ‘harmful’, is a fact of life and a way of life for children growing up in Nigeria, an integral part of their childhood activity, and a realistic preparation for their future lives and careers. It is argued that this raises important challenges not only to the children’s rights agenda, but also to social welfare agencies which seek to provide support to children and young people in developing countries such as Nigeria.
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