Antananarivo — Poverty has increased dramatically in Madagascar since January, when a national protest movement to end the regime of former president Marc Ravalomanana plunged the country into a socio-economic crisis. Since then, the number of child labourers has risen by a whopping 25 percent.
Two million children under the age of 15 go to work every day instead of attending school, according to newly published research by the International Labour Office (ILO), United Nations children's fund UNICEF and the National Institute of Statistics (known by its French acronym, INSTAT).
In Ambalakely, a rural town in the south of the island, more than a hundred children pitch up for physically gruelling work in the local stone quarry. They crush stones alongside their parents to produce rubble for the building industry. Due to widespread poverty and unemployment, day labour under the harshest conditions is their only means of survival.
"We leave home early each morning to reach the place. We don't return until late in the evening," said Jeannine Raheriniaina, a mother of four. To justify the presence of her children at the quarry, she hastens to say: "We have no other means to ensure our livelihood. They are here on their own (free will) because they know what their parents endure."
Her seven-year-old son, Mamitiana complains about the hard and exhausting work he has to perform each day: "I have to crush two big bags of gravel per day to make my mother happy."
The ILO, UNICEF and INSTAT study found about 1.8 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 years have to work, and most are performing hazardous occupations, despite the fact that child labour is against international and Madagascan law. Many children are working as day labourers in the fishing industry, in stone quarries or as domestic servants, and most have to leave school and miss out on receiving even the most basic primary education.
The fate of one exploited teenager recently received national attention. 17-year-old Jeannine Razananirina from Behenjy, 60 kilometres south of the islands capital Antananarivo, was seriously injured when her employer deliberately burnt her with boiling water in June, and social workers helped her to lay charges.
"I could not bear the hardship any longer. I had no-one to rely on. After my experience, I will advise girls in my countryside not to go working in Antananarivo any more," the teenager said.
Razananirina's case is not an isolated one, but children's plight gets little attention on the island. Poverty forces parents to ignore laws prohibiting child labour.
"It's hard to educate parents who work in the stone quarries about the importance of sending their children to school," said Berthine Ralaivelo, director of Ilempona Primary School. She says many children come to school irregularly, depending on whether they have to work that day. As a result, enrolment figures fell this year from 50 percent to about 20 percent in the primary school, according to Ralaivelo.
Apart from denying children their right to education, child labour bears great health risks. According to the survey, 37 percent of child labourers said their activities have caused them harm. Many reported falling ill or being injured, with those performing physical tasks in the mining, manufacturing and agriculture sectors being the most vulnerable.
Ever increasing poverty has turned child labour into normality in Madagascar. According to 2005 figures from UNICEF, almost 70 percent of the population live on under $1.25 per day. Although there are no recent statistics available, experts reckon the number of extremely poor people has increased substantially since the beginning of the socio-economic crisis earlier this year.
"Poverty is the main cause for child labour. Parents don't have the means to feed their families, so they involve their children in work to increase the amount of money they make," explained Norotiana Jeannoda, president of the Association of Graduated Professionals in Social Work in Antananarivo.
"A day in a stone mine makes 1,900 Malagasy ariary ($1). The more family members work, the more money they make."
A countrywide campaign to fight child labour, launched four years ago by ILO, has shown only little success, despite the fact that it has found government support. "The campaign has helped to (rescue) thousands of children in the work field, but many need still help," said Francesco D'Ovidio, ILO coordinator in Madagascar.
Although Madagascar has signed and ratified the ILO International Convention on the Minimum Age for Labour in 2000 and passed a national law in 2007, which prohibits children under the age of 15 from performing any kind of work, no one has been arrested or prosecuted for child labour in the country. Experts believe the law is futile, since fighting for survival will continue to take precedence over sending children to school.
"There is no effective solution to hold families who are in need responsible," explained independent psychologist Victorine Rakotondranivo. Only if government provides the poor with grants to help them out of poverty and manages to drastically reduce unemployment will children be able to return to school, she says.