Working children in Senegal. Photo by author. All rights reserved.
From 18 February to 2 March 2017, a group from Germany travelled to Senegal to learn, among other things, about the African Movement of Working Children and Youth. It met with grassroots groups in Saint-Louis and Thiès and had the opportunity to talk extensively with delegates on the aims, activities, and experiences of the movement. The movement is active in 27 countries in Africa and has almost one million members. It has been officially recognised as representing the interests of working children and youth, and is accredited as an observer organisation by the African Union.
Saint-Louis, in the north of Senegal near the border of Mauritania, is a morbidly charming city that, in colonial times, was the capital of French West Africa. In the streets hundreds of very young boys, usually in groups, persistently approach pedestrians with cans and boxes painted white in their hands.
They are talibés, students of Islamic schools who collect money on behalf of their religious teachers, called marabouts. In these schools, called daaras, they are taught to read and recite the Quran. It seems that except for some occasional tourists no one is annoyed by the begging kids. In the Islamic society of Senegal, it is a common practice to offer something to someone in need a gift, especially if it is believed to be for charity.
One afternoon we have a meeting with the local section of the African Movement of Working Children and Youth (AMWCY). To our surprise, a group of young women, approximately 12 to 18 years old, await us in a courtyard in the city centre. They present themselves as the elected delegates of the 18 grassroots groups belonging to the movement in the Saint-Louis area. They have come especially to meet us from the suburbs where the movement, according to our hosts, includes no less than 1,800 members – that is, on average, a hundred in each group.
The delegates inform us that both men and women are organised in the movement. They are children and young people who earn money for themselves and their families through various jobs in third-party homes, markets, stores or workshops. Others take care of their younger siblings or take on household chores (what they call "real work" that deserves recognition).
They do not like to beg. They do, however, maintain contact with various Islamic schools, and in some cases where talibés expanded their activities they were allowed to associate with the groups of the movement. They do not understand their movement as in rivalry with the Islamic schools, but would prefer that system to better enable talibés to lead autonomous lives as well.
Organising to achieve self-growth
One of the main activities of the grassroots groups is learning to read and write in French. French is the official language of Senegal, which is mainly used in administration and formal education. Senegal contains many other languages – of which Wolof is the most widespread – but in general they are not used in schools. There are efforts to change this, but not much progress has yet been made. At the Saint-Louis meeting, the girls speak in Wolof and our guide translates. The girls emphasise that their own language is important to them, but to get ahead in life, it seems essential to them to be literate in French.
They believe their work experience should earn them respect within the school system.
Almost none of our interlocutors have been in school or, if they have, only for short periods of time. They feel that one of their tasks is to provide access to school for all working children, a goal they pursue by helping children to find spots in school as well as offering extracurricular classes guided by tutors.
They also believe their work experience should earn them respect within the school system, as they have already proven their ability to manage their life on their own. School, like work, is thus a place where they can learn things that are useful for life (explicitly including sex education, as well as encouraging girls in particular to trust in their capacities and put limits on others who want to take possession of them). When a group member finds the work difficult, others come together to give her extra support.
Another important task of the grassroots groups is to train themselves for activities that allow them to achieve a better life and a better future. This does not just include technical and professional skills, but skills that allow them to "work with dignity" and establish self-sustaining joint projects (called "income-generating activities"). They hold training workshops, for example, on sewing, embroidery, and computer use, as well as on creating small gardens to generate their own food.
And to take care of their own
As child domestic workers, they are frequently abused and exploited. Our interlocutors tell us that they often have to work seven days a week and earn the equivalent of only €22 to €38 a month. Even in Senegal such an amount is not enough to maintain a livelihood. With the creation of small cooperatives, where they produce for their own basic necessities and make all the decisions on their own, they hope to find better life prospects for themselves. Such systems already function elsewhere in Senegal, for example the women collectives that together ensure their livelihoods by producing soap, food, and various clothing items.
The tasks set by the movement go beyond learning and preparation for a dignified work life. The grassroots groups are understood as a kind of "older siblings" ("ainées"), which encourage children to defend themselves against all types of violence, including the forced marriage of children (still common today in Senegal).
Working children in Senegal. Photo by author. All rights reserved.
The movement also supports children who have lost their families or have migrated alone to Senegal and must now survive in the streets (many talibés are part of this group). These children are integrated into the grassroots groups and given "mentors", who explain their rights as children in Senegal and encourage them to actively remind neighbours and government authorities of their responsibility to children (called “sensitisation” by the movement).
In our discussions, we got the impression that the movement is not keen to advocate openly for public policies, but rather focuses on assisting each other to achieve a better life. They do not attribute much importance to state laws in practical matters, but they invite the local authorities to attend their meetings and see utility in concluding agreements with them where possible. The most important thing for the members of the movement is to strengthen their self-confidence and capacities through solidarity and to improve their positions as socially disadvantaged children in society.
The most important thing for the members of the movement is to strengthen their self-confidence and capacities through solidarity.
In Saint-Louis, our interlocutors stressed that it is by no means exceptional in Senegal for girls to be elected as delegates. In fact, we met shortly afterwards in Thiès, the second largest city in Senegal, another group of delegates with a single boy. All the others were girls. Indeed, girls were instrumental in the movement’s very foundation. In the 1990s there were young domestic workers, known in French as "petites bonnes", who carried banners through the streets of Dakar on 1 May to claim their dignity and their rights. This was the seed of a movement that has now grown to include over one million members across 27 African countries. One that has been officially recognised as representing the interests of working children and youth and is accredited as an observer organisation by the African Union.
The African Movement of Working Children and Youth is yet another example of working children organising to better the lives that they have been dealt. There are other such groups around the world, such as the national movement of working children in Peru. As Jessica Taft wrote regarding that group last year on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, such movements are living refutations of the stigmatisation of child labour by those most affected: the children themselves. They seek protection under the law for the work they do and demand respect as children, as workers, and as humans from the societies in which they live.