Since 2014, the Syndicat National de l’Education et de la Culture (National Union of Education and Culture - SNEC) has been helping to set up child labour free zones in the Mali administrative regions of Bougouni, Niono, Macina, Dioila and Bla. The union has trained 840 teachers to help them in the struggle to eliminate child labour. 42 of them have since become focal points for this cause in their schools and communities. Noumoutieba Diarra, the focal point for the Ouroun village school in the Bougouni region, southern Mali, tells his story.
I went on several training courses run by the SNEC to become a focal point in their project to end child labour in Ouroun. This training made us aware of what child labour really is: we can distinguish between work in the community, by means of which the child learns the tasks of daily life, and child labour, which prevents the child from receiving a good education under the proper conditions. It was during these workshops that I first heard about the various conventions on the rights of the child, including those that have been ratified by Mali. We were given advice on how to integrate ourselves into the community: as a teacher, we had to avoid acting in a superior manner. It was important to behave like all the other members of the community and to participate in their meetings and ceremonies. This is how one becomes accepted, which then makes it easier to convince people of the desirability of sending their children to school.
When the SNEC starts a child labour free zone project in a village, a general assembly is organised by the traditional chief of the village. He gathers the entire community together to talk about the importance of education. Everyone has the right to speak but, at the end of the assembly, the chief proclaims that child labour will no longer be acceptable in the village. These decisions, made by local authority figures who are highly respected in the community, are a great help in convincing every parent to send all their children to school. A watch committee, made up of village leaders, and employer and school representatives, is set up to spread this message.
In the school we have started an anti-child labour club. It has twelve student members (six girls and six boys). They are responsible for identifying children who are dropping out of their studies, as well as those who have never been to school, and for trying to convince them to attend school. In some cases, I get involved with these children or their parents to help them explain what the club is trying to do. We also receive support from the members of the watch committee.
In rural areas it is very important to be in contact with all the social groups in the community if we really want to change attitudes. In Ouroun, we wanted to involve the students’ mothers in our project. As women, it is easier for them to approach other mothers whose children are not attending school. Their opinions carry a lot of weight with girls who have dropped out, or are at risk of dropping out. So, I set up the Association de mères d’élèves (Association of Mothers of Students - AME), which has twelve female members. They help identify children who are not attending school and work to overcome the resistance of the children or their families. Having noticed how much the AME in Ouroun had helped the project, the SNEC decided to create similar associations in all the other child labour free zones.
Early marriage is an important factor in girls dropping out of school. A girl often stops attending school because she is being forced to get married. The girl is physically not ready, nor is she mature enough to live in a household. This results in a high number of divorces. As part of the SNEC project, with the help of the AMEs, we are working at trying to prevent these situations occurring. Through example, and by offering concrete advice, it is possible to slowly change people’s attitudes. I remember the case of a very smart student who had passed her exams to move up from the 6th to the 7th grade when she was forced to drop out of school to get married. I lodged an appeal with the counsellor in charge of girls’ schooling in the local authority and she backed me up until the wedding was cancelled. The girl was then able to continue her studies.
The early days of the project in Ouroun were difficult. A lot of children worked on gold panning sites, where they would earn small amounts of money for their parents. Teachers had to spend a lot of time explaining that these sums were derisory when compared to the benefit the children would enjoy from a proper education. We invited the parents of children who were not attending school to a meeting at the school to make them aware of the problem. We also visited their homes and some gold panning sites. Sometimes we had to meet with parents or children two or three times before we could convince them of the importance of schooling, sometimes with the support of the AME and the watch committee.
Along with poverty, the lack of awareness of the value of education is one of the main reasons that child labour exists in this region. Sometimes children do not come to school because they have no pens or notebooks. In some cases, it is an excuse to skip lessons. In other cases poverty really is the reason. Using the limited school funds and the money from the income-generating activities of the AME, we can provide children in need with the basic necessities so that there is no longer a reason for them to drop out of school.
I have been able to persuade 44 children to attend school since 2014 (1). When a former child worker returns to school, we try to make sure that they are paired with a member of the anti-child labour club who comes from their neighbourhood, to support them and to make sure that they do not become discouraged. The teacher who welcomes them into their class will try to put them at ease and will avoid making them feel responsible for having dropped out of school. They also prepare the other students to welcome the ex-child worker to the class.
Participating in the development of such a project brings me a lot of joy and personal satisfaction. Helping children achieve their full potential and growth by preventing them from being exploited in the workforce is very rewarding for a teacher. When this project started, 8-year-olds were often to be found working at gold panning sites, sometimes in holes deep in the ground. It has become rare to find children on these sites these days. In 2017, one of the gold panning sites was hit by a meningitis epidemic. It would have been much worse if there had been children there.
My experience as a former child worker who became a teacher helps a lot in convincing children of the merits of education. I had to stop attending school in Grade 9 because my parents could no longer afford to buy my school supplies. Many children do not know how to cope but, as I have been through the same experience, I can encourage them and show them that when we really want something we can achieve it. I remind them all the time that they must have more ambition than just a miserable life with no future working on a gold panning site.
As well as carrying out my role as a focal point, I am also the SNEC’s union representative in Ouroun. The teachers at my school are affiliated with different unions but they are all involved in this project to stop child labour. We have put aside our union differences and share a common vision of education. A teachers' union must be concerned with all the problems in the field of education, so it is obliged to become involved when children are being made to work instead of going to school. This project has allowed the SNEC to become involved in the community, which now understands the beneficial role a union can play in society.
The creation of child labour free zones is essential work. Teachers can kick-start a change in attitude but we can only complete this transition with the help of the whole community and its leaders.
N.B.: There is more information on the SNEC project for child labour free zones available here.
(1) In total, since 2014, SNEC projects have made it possible for 900 children to start or go back to school in all the regions in which they are involved.