Letter from Africa: Tough love or child abuse?

A boy working on a cocoa farm

In our series of letters from African journalists, Ghanaian Elizabeth Ohene recalls how she worked on a cocoa farm as a child without stoking any controversy.

I went to a furniture shop in Ghana's capital, Accra, recently; it stocks furniture and carpets imported from Pakistan.

Displayed casually on all the furniture sets and carpets was a card with a neatly printed legend: "Carefully made in Pakistan without child labour."

Obviously, this was meant to reassure would-be customers that they could buy and use the expensive furniture and carpets without feeling any guilt that poor Pakistani children had been exploited in the manufacture of the goods.

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If your mother sells cooked food on the roadside and you help to serve the customers at age 10, I wonder if your mother is guilty of child exploitation?”

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Since I do not know very much about the furniture or carpet industry in Pakistan, I told myself I would have to take the word of the nice gentleman in the shop.

The visit to the shop has led me to an issue that I have not been able to resolve successfully for myself.

Where is the line between child labour, which everybody is against, and children helping at home and learning the skills for survival in later life?

If your mother sells cooked food on the roadside and you help to serve the customers at age 10, I wonder if your mother is guilty of child exploitation?

I think of the campaign against the use of child labour on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana.

Indeed famous chocolate companies have been pressurized to stop using cocoa from these countries as punishment for using children on farms.


I have some experience of this. From age five to nine, I lived in the village with my grandmother.

Children carrying goods at a market in Ghana (archive shot) Some 25% of children in sub-Saharan African are said to be involved in child labour

She was a farmer and she used to take me to the farm on Saturdays when there was no school.

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If this law were to be enforced, half the population would probably end up in jail”

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I am not quite sure how much use I was but I certainly learnt to plant cocoa and I took part in harvesting cocoa pods and preparing the seeds for drying.

I carried loads on my head, back home from the farm.

I wonder if my time on the farm could be classified as child labour?

This was my grandmother who loved me to bits and my recollections of those times were idyllic.

Obviously, I cannot compare my time on the farm with those children who are not loved or who have been trafficked.

'Housekeeping training'

I just want to make the point that not every child who goes to the farm and helps is being abused.

Child labour in numbers

  • 13.6% of those aged 5-17 are in child labour worldwide
  • Sub-Saharan Africa (25.3%)
  • Asia and the Pacific (13.3%)
  • Latin America and the Caribbean (10%)
  • Other regions (6.7%)

Source: ILO (2008)

I recall a young Ghanaian friend of mine in London and her 12-year-old daughter.

She was doing her best to bring up her child in the way she had been brought up and that meant the child had to wash dishes, make beds, scrub the bathroom, cut up onions and learn to cook.

An English school friend of the child came to spend a weekend, saw what tasks her friend had to perform at home and before we knew it, my friend's daughter was threatening to call the social services to report her mother for child abuse.

I am afraid my friend's reaction was a bit extreme; she smacked her daughter and told her she was giving her a proper reason to call the social services.

She was not going to have a daughter who did not know how to cook or keep a house clean and she was going to send her daughter back to Ghana where mothers were free to make their daughters learn these things without interference from anybody.

The official position, as set out in Ghana's Children's Act, is that a child of 13 may do light work under supervision, while a child of 16 may be apprenticed but may not do any hazardous work until the age of majority at 18.

However, if this law were to be enforced, half the population would probably end up in jail.

But I can testify that things have changed somewhat, as I recently discovered that there are young Ghanaian girls who make it to university these days without knowing how to cook.

Indeed you can now safely have a stay in a middle class Ghanaian home and be assured that all the cooking and cleaning in the home is carefully done without child labour.

If you would like to comment on Elizabeth Ohene's column, please do so below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I carried sand and stones to help build my primary school and church. I was 8years old. It was a catholic school run by Dutch reverend fathers. Was this child labor? If so, how come they were not educated on this?
    I see kids here in the states begging and shop lifting, all because they have too much free time. Put them to work and pay them a standardized wage. It will cut back crime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I think this is a problem that could be reflected all over the world. Is, for example, work experience counted as child labour or a breach of employment rights in general. With many young people working very long hours for free just in the hope of adding to their CV so they can get into University or a job one wonders whether the word exploitation could actually be used...

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Children who help their parents at home and to some extent in their trade or profession gain invaluable knowledge and wisdom. It's easy for them to become future entrepreneurs and to start their own business. I owe a lot of my negotiation and business skills from helping home and parents.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Being brought up entirely in Accra, I have never been to the farm but I had to do some household chores like cooking, laundry, doing the washing up, cleaning etc from the age of 6. We had maids (as most Ghanaian homes do) but there really was no difference between the chores I had to do and what the maids had to. I am grateful for the upbringing I had and wish to give my kids the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    As a child, I had chores to do - no chores, no pocket money. So I grew up able to clean and cook and, thankfully, I grew up into a fully-independent man.
    School is important, but we should not forget that life skills are also important and those skills vary according to where you live.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Baby labour is also possible. Here in SA, women beggers always carry a baby or two: it is supposed to make givers more generous. If you don't have a baby of your own, you can hire one: either directly from the mother, or (a bit cheaper) from an unscrupulous professional child minder

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I worked on the farm (hoeing weeds and picking vegetables from age 6), learnt to drive the tractor at age 12, had a paper delivery route and started working "outside home" when I was 16. I got good grades in high school and college, all the while working part-time. It didn't hurt me. Seems to me that learning how to work was the part of childhood that prepared me for adult responsibilities.


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