Raphael's fight against Child Labour
Disclaimer: *this photoshoot depicts children staging child labour. These particular children are NOT victims of child labour.
Walking to work, I passed by the building site. 9-year-old Fofovi caught my eye as he struggled to lift a 50-kilogram bag of cement. My heart broke; my eyes welled with tears. I stared, feeling powerless. Fofovi stepped back, preparing to gather his strength to lift the cement packet. Suddenly, he made a 180 degree turn and began running in the opposite direction. A smile crossed my lips. Run, Fofovi! Yes, run away! That is your solution. In that moment, I promised myself I would work for a better and sustainable solution to the plight of child labour in my community.
My name is Raphael. I love children, and I hate seeing them in any oppressive situation. I teach Sunday school at my church, and have formed relationships with many of the children who attend. These children trust me, and tell me their fears, joys, and whatever else is on their mind. Quickly, I discovered the world from a child’s perspective and their need to be protected.
In 2019, I became the director of the Compassion centre in Kpoguede, a community on the outskirts of Togo’s capital city in West Africa. During a child protection training session, I discovered how children's entire lives could be impacted either positively or negatively depending how they are treated. Since then, I decided to fight for children's wellbeing and protection. For me, it is an obligation of my Christian faith to protect children.
Child labour is real in my community. My daily journey to work reminds me of how important child protection is. From the mere age of 7 and above, children are sent into mechanic, dressmaking, hairdressing, and welding workshops as apprentices. They also work on building sites or gravel extraction sites, compelled to fulfil the same working hours as adults.
Some families even rely on their children’s labour income to survive. Here in Kpoguede, it is heart breaking to watch the freedom of childhood being taken away. Children involved in child labour cannot finish their schooling, they are exposed to dangers in the workplace due to demanding work, and they suffer physically and mentally. The COVID-19 pandemic worsened this situation and saw child labour cases rise.
The cost of living increased due to lockdowns, and children were compelled to become labourers to ease the financial burden on their families. For example, some children were obliged to work alongside their parents on gravel extraction sites, as the more gravel extracted, the more income was gained.
When I first began campaigning for child protection, 18 percent of children in the community were involved in child labour. After holding awareness seminars, having discussions with parents and caregivers, and even talking on the radio about child labour, we have helped reduce child labour cases to 15 percent. Sadly, COVID-19 meant we couldn't gather for awareness workshops. We tried sharing posters, but this method proved inefficient as only a few people can read. The percentage of children labouring increased from 15 percent to 25 percent.
Thankfully, no child from the Compassion centre that is sponsored has been involved in child labour. Instead, at the centre, we fight for child protection and children's rights, because we exist to deliver children from poverty in Jesus's name. Jesus is freedom, He brought us freedom, and I want children to grow up in total freedom.
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UNICEF, in partnership with Togo’s National Office for Child Protection, set up a committee in Kpoguede for children’s wellbeing. I was chosen to be a member of this committee, which works against early child marriage, child abuse, child withdrawal from school, child trafficking, and child labour. I oversee the child trafficking and child labour branch in the community.
This committee represents an opportunity for me. Now I have the freedom and the permission of local authorities and government to touch the entire community and expand my actions against child labour. Children are extremely happy and joyful with this initiative. They talk within themselves and say, "Now, we are free." Children can express themselves and defend their rights because of what they learn at the centre.
Some parents of the children at the Compassion centre understand and support our fight and embrace the various initiatives. They say, “We understand, and we want this freedom to reach all the children”. But some parents are still reluctant, fearing that their children will no longer respect them. We always clarify that the intention is not for children to disobey their parents, but parents should play their role and let their children live out their childhood.
For example, Cephas, a child who is part of our Compassion centre is a good illustration of the awareness and education of child labour. As a child, Cephas was always taken to the gravel extraction site by his father, and he couldn't go to school. During a child labour awareness session at the centre, the father came to participate. As he listened, he realised it was wrong for his child to be working. He said, “I was not aware that child labour was harmful to my child. I will stop it.” And he stopped. Cephas is currently 13 years old and is back at school.
I am happy we can educate parents and caregivers about child labour, to allow children to be free. My dream for the children of my community is that they grow up normally. I want them to go to school to study and be open to the world. I want them to have opportunities and role models they can refer to. I want them to become leaders of their communities.
By helping, encouraging and educating these children and their families about the dangers of child labour, I believe these children will know they are not forsaken, and believe in themselves and their future.
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