Monrovia — In a country where more than half of the children are out of school earning extra cash to take home or because families cannot afford the fees, some 15,000 Liberian child labourers aged between five and 18 are to be sent back into classrooms. Instead of walking to school in the morning, 10-year-old Mamie Turay walks several kilometres from the eastern outskirts of Monrovia into downtown just to sell peanuts, bringing in a profit of about $25 Liberian, or the equivalent of US $0.50.
But average primary school fees range from $500 Liberian (US $8) to 1,500 (US $25) for every four-month academic semester. "It is not easy for our parents to pay our school fees, because they are very expensive in Monrovia," said Mamie, who dropped out of elementary school to help support her family by working. Like Mamie, Daniel Jackson quit his Grade 6 class due to financial constraints and hasn't been back to school in the three years since. "I want to be in school, but my mother and father do not have the means [to send me]," the 15-year-old said. "My parents are not working, so they tell me to sell things so that I can bring in food money."
When Daniel's father lost his job at the country's power corporation, Daniel left school to sell plastic bags of water along the busy, traffic-clogged roads of Monrovia's western suburbs. Child labour is a widespread and ongoing problem in Liberia and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf recently said half of Liberia's children were out of school. Although there are no exact figures, an official with the Ministry of Education said numbers could be even higher. "We can safely say that six out of 10 Liberian children are out of school at the moment and this is because of the war that took place in this country," said the official, who asked not to be named. "The government is trying to ensure that free compulsory primary education gets off the ground." The International Rescue Committee is helping the government with its efforts by launching a back-to-school project, entitled CYCLE (Countering Youth and Child Labour through Education), that aims to get 15, 000 children labourers off the streets and into classrooms.
"Walking down the streets of Monrovia and rural parts of the country, you see children engaged in all different types of labour. They are deprived of going to school by either selling things on the streets or engaging in physical labour, like working on farms," said Aitor Lacomba, the IRC's deputy director of programmes in Liberia, who added that it was this shocking reality that had prompted the IRC to undertake the project. Liberia's 14-year civil war has left the country's educational system in disarray. Most schools were heavily damaged or destroyed and ensuing high unemployment levels have made it impossible for most parents to pay tuition fees.
In many cases, families have withdrawn children from school for sheer survival. "My husband was killed by rebels during the war and my children are not in school now. They are the only ones that are my helpers," said Sienneh Kwekwe, 39, a mother of two boys aged seven and four. She said she needed their help daily to haul bundles of cooking wood from a neighbouring village that is more than a two-hour trek away through bush paths from their town of Borkeza.. "If my sons do not help me to bring wood for cooking, how will we be able to eat?" Child labour does not occur only on streets or in villages. Workers at Firestone, the country's largest rubber plantation, went on strike earlier this year over low wages and the use of child labour. Employees said their children often work tapping latex because there is a lack of educational services. "I have six children and they were all born here in the plantation. I want them to be educated, but there is no proper schooling for them, so right now they help me to tap latex every day," said Moses Diah, whose children range in ages from seven to 15.
Late last week, top management at Firestone announced that the company is planning to eliminate all forms of child labour on the plantation. According to the IRC, the CYCLE programme will first focus on six communities in northern Liberia, including some in Nimba and Lofa counties. "Those are the counties that were hardest hit by the civil war and whose children are being exploited the most," Lacomba said. Within these communities, the IRC ensure that children receive an education, including creating awareness about child labour, helping parents to pay tuition fees and find better jobs, improve teacher training and repair school buildings.