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ILO Says End of Child Labor Within Reach

A new report released by a United Nations agency that promotes social justice and labor rights says child labor is declining for the first time around the world. The report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) says its findings suggest an end to the global problem of children who are forced to work may be in sight.

The International Labour Organization has released a cautious but optimistic report that shows the number of child laborers around the world has fallen 11 percent, down from 246 million to 218 million over the last four years.

Lee Swepston, a human rights advisor and one of the authors of the report says the agency's goal is to eliminate the worst forms of child labor by 2016. "And the worst forms are things like slavery and prostitution and the very dangerous work by children -- that, we think, with a big effort, can be eliminated in the next ten years."

Sub-Saharan Africa currently has the worst problem with more than 50 million children being forced to work because of the HIV-AIDS epidemic, which the report says has decimated the adult population. Brazil, on the other hand, has seen its child labor numbers diminish by two-thirds in large part because of programs to reduce poverty.

Although much harder to verify, Swepston says the greatest progress has been in Asia. "If we're right, it's probably China because they've made the biggest steps toward eliminating poverty. But there are other countries, such as Thailand, which has put in a tremendous amount of effort over the last ten years and they are beginning to see some progress."

Progress on the plight of children who work in hazardous conditions has been even more dramatic, down 26 percent. Geir Myrstad, a project leader for the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labour, says increased political will has led to a worldwide movement against child labor, but he says more needs to be done.

"The fact that we have made gains does not mean that now is the time to relax. Now is the time to intensify the work and have much stronger and broader alliances."

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, who has worked to secure congressional funding to stop child labor, agrees. "It is not enough for governments just to ratify ILO conventions and hope that child labor will vanish on its own. It won't. We need to turn words into deeds, and it can be done."

The report will go before an ILO conference in June for ratification by member countries.