#IWD2019 #Education Voices: “A gender perspective is an integral part of education unions' child labour projects”, by Nora Wintour

As part of a research project on the most effective practices related to the implementation of activities against child labour by education unions commissioned by AOb and EI, I recently had the privilege to carry out field missions in Uganda, Morocco, Albania and Mali – at first glance not countries that have lots in common, you might think! However, one aspect which unites all the projects is an impressive and effectively mainstreamed focus on the girl child. Working with NGOs in the majority of cases, the aim of education unions' child labour projects is to get children out of work and into school. The projects are located in disadvantaged urban settlements where there are many recent rural migrants and in remote areas where tradition and patriarchy are firmly entrenched – so keeping young teenage girls in school is the really hard part.

In Uganda, the project in the coffee-growing area of Erussi sub-county, West Nile includes the education union and EI affiliate, UNATU, working with a local NGO, CEFORD and a coffee company Kyagalanyi. The project has benefitted from expert training on gender, human rights and inclusion from the national NGO ‘Equal Opportunities’. All of the stakeholders are working together to prevent girls from dropping out of school, which is a common occurrence in the area.  

The multi-faceted strategy includes ensuring there are senior female teachers in each school and providing equal opportunities training for both male and female teachers. Schools are also focusing on menstruation management, as a high proportion of primary school girls are teenagers. This includes union advocacy for a building programme for girls’ washrooms, not just latrines, and training women teachers so that their girl students can make re-usable sanitary pads. Notably, the programme also includes information sessions about understanding menstruation for both boys and girls.

There is now much wider recognition from community leaders about the need to take action against early marriage and teenage pregnancy.[1]   A Head teacher told me that the school had recently agreed to allow a pregnant girl to sit her school-leaving exam; another Head teacher explained that two pregnant teenage girls had been allowed to return to school after giving birth to their children.  These decisions represent a cultural sea-change to which the two Head teachers were proud to have contributed.  In approving these decisions, the Head teachers also knew that they could count on the support of the Local Council Child Labour Committee, set up as part of the project. The Chairperson of the Council has become a vocal supporter of girls’ education; and the local police officer, who committed to investigating cases of “defilement” or statutory rape of under-age girls[2], had begun filing police reports to the public prosecutor.

In Albania, the Alliance of Education Trade Unions, formed by the two EI affiliates, FSASH and SPASH, have been working in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the capital city, Tirana, and in remote towns with a high proportion of Roma and Egyptian communities. Teachers refer to the difficulties they have faced in convincing families from Roma and Egyptian communities of the value of girls’ education. 

“Here Roma and Egyptian girls are married at 14 years old in customary marriages, it is not legal but they still get married. So the  girls stop school at 13 or 14 years old due to the mentality of the family and even if they don’t get married they are considered grown up and should not be in school. We had frequent meetings with the parents to discuss with them. The social worker and the psychologist also met with them.  If the child was still at home and not married, we had some results.  In one case, a grandmother said she agreed to let the girl go back to school because I had come so many times to ask.”  Teacher, ‘Naum Veqilharxhi’ school, Korça.

In Morocco, the EI affiliate SNE has set up school-based committees to monitor children at risk of dropping out of school. They are composed of the School Director and teachers who are SNE members.  If a child is considered at risk of dropping out, or is absent for a prolonged period, a meeting between the student’s class teachers and the committee is organised to consider what action to take.

 “There was a girl who stopped coming to school. So her two class teachers and two members of the steering committee went to see the mother. The family was really very poor and the mother did not have money to buy her daughter the school books. We said we would see how to resolve the problem. We bought her the school books and materials. The other problem was that the mother left very early to go to work and could not bring her daughter to school.  We wanted the child to feel safe on her way to school. So we found a neighbour who could help by taking the girl to school with her own children. There was another girl who had a lot of learning difficulties and did not want to continue as she felt humiliated in front of the other students. So we agreed to give her extra lessons and it was really complicated but we managed. I even hear she is in the last year of her bac now.”  Naima Dekhissi, Provincial Project Steering Committee member and Regional Coordinator of the SNE’s women’s circle.

In Mali, the EI affiliate SNEC, is working in eight schools in two remote rural communes near artisanal gold mining sites in Bougouni region. Girls are generally expected to marry from the age of 14 and must also fund their own ‘trousseau’, including furniture and kitchen utensils. These expectations often mean girls will leave school and go to work in the mines or as domestic workers to raise funds for their marriage. Many girls are victims of gender-based violence and unwanted pregnancy leading to social stigma.[3]

In each village, SNEC, together with its partner NGO ENDA, has set up child labour monitoring committees, presided over by the customary village chiefs; they have also set up Associations of Mothers of Students (AMEs).  SNEC organised talks in the village on the risks facing boys and girls who go to work in the mines or go into domestic work, and on the value of education. The AMEs are tasked with encouraging girls to stay on in school. Their main strategy is face-to-face discussions with parents and with girls themselves, backed up by the support of the village chief. Teachers are also playing a key role. These initiatives appear to be leading to ground-breaking behavioural change concerning the importance of girls’ education and the acceptable age of marriage for girls.[4]

 “In my class, a girl became pregnant and she stopped coming to school. I went to see her parents at Syentoula who explained that because their daughter was pregnant and was not married, she was too ashamed to go to school. I asked to talk to the daughter and I explained that she should not be ashamed. I said that when I was pregnant, I continued to give my lessons at schools and that she should return. I said that after she had given birth, her parents could look after the child and she could continue her studies.  So she came back to school. That was in November 2017 and the girl was 14 years old.” Zainabou Sangouré, SNEC Child labour Focal Point, Mafelini School.

Unions have found that the projects to eradicate child labour have opened doors to dialogue with education authorities and local government, and there have been many unintended positive impacts, including increased union membership and participation. All of the projects are as much about promoting quality inclusive education as they are about child labour. However, there is no doubt that one of the key successes of the projects is that communities are reassessing the value of educating girls, and beginning to take action to tackle early marriage and teenage pregnancy.  

In 2018, the customary chief of Dossala in Mali personally decided to go and bring back to school a group of teenage girls who had left to find domestic work in the capital – as one respondent said to me:  “Quoi de mieux- really, what could be better than that!”

This blog is part of a series of blogs to commemorate International Women’s Day 2019, which highlight gender and education issues that are linked to the themes and sub-themes of the 8th EI World Congress, which will take place in Bangkok, Thailand July 19-26th 2019.

Read the previous blog in the series: It All Starts With Good Teachers: Women’s Leadership in Education & in Unions”, by Johanna Jaara Åstrand.


[1]Three in every 10 adolescent girls between the age of 15 -19 years have begun child-bearing according to the Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (2016) but the proportion in Erussi sub-county is probably considerably higher.

[2]In Ugandan legal defilement is defined as sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of 18 years though I did not determine its interpretation in Erussi.

[3]According to the WHO (2017), Mali has the second highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the world with 175 births per 100,000 teenage girls. 

[4]A new Family Code was adopted in 2011 It sets the age of marriage at 18 for boys and 16 for girls, although allowing for marriages in the case of the consent of both parents for children of 15 and above.


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Nora Wintour

Nora Wintour is an independent researcher, writer, and policy advisor on child labour, women in the informal economy, workers' rights, and gender equality. She was a trade union education officer with the agricultural and building and wood workers Global Union Federations and served as the Equality and Rights Officer and then as Deputy General Secretary for Public Services International from 2002 to 2009.

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