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Children Share Painful Experiences at World Labor Conference - 2004-05-11

Children from all over the world are in Florence, Italy sharing their experiences of exploitation and abuse, and discussing what to do about it with other children, and some experts. They are all attending the first World Children's Congress on Child Labor. The children have come from all over the world to discuss how child labor can be ended, and how to ensure that the rights of children are not ignored.

Much of the conference involves victims of abuse from developing countries telling their peers from industrialized nations what they experienced, and discussing what can be done.

"It was the absolute perfect opportunity to be able to meet kids from every country all around the world, kids who are working all day," said 15-year-old Maura Welch, explaining why she came to the congress from Syracuse, New York.

The congress was organized to allow delegates to be able to discuss their views and proposals to combat child labor. Darlene Adkins, the coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition in the United States, says the congress has a dual purpose.

"The congress is focusing on the worst forms of child labor, we're talking about child soldiers, child prostitution, forced labor, slave labor, commercial sexual exploitation of children," she said. "These particular forms must be eliminated immediately. And then also the congress is focusing on the need for free basic quality education for all children globally."

One delegate at the conference, 18-years-old Maphefo Khoza from South Africa was only 10-years old when her mother died, and her father left her alone at home and she was forced to fend for herself.

"I had to get money to go to school and so I had to go the street and be a prostitute so that I can get money and get myself back to school, buy myself clothes and all that," she said.

Experts at this conference say the problems of child exploitation affect children all over the world. While countries like India and Pakistan are considered the most affected by the child labor problem, in Africa child trafficking is a major concern.

Sophie Agdibi, who works to help child laborers in Togo and Benin, says there is an organized system to force children to work, and she says the result is great suffering among children who should be at school. She says the children are being exploited to the benefit of adults.

The conference is being sponsored by an international organization called the Global March for Child Labor. Its regional coordinator for West Africa, Mally Cleophas, says a lack of statistics makes it difficult to describe the magnitude of the problem. But he says thousands of children are affected in the region.

"Either they take them for child domestic, either children in agriculture and sometimes in sexual exploitation for commercial purpose," said Mr. Cleophas. "But the two main activities are in agriculture and child domestic workers."

Children who are at the congress and are now able to tell their stories say they want governments to be held accountable for their commitments to provide education to all young people. They want all possible efforts to be made, and resources to be provided, so that children like themselves no longer have to work to survive.