Freetown — Thousands of children in Sierra Leone are paying for their own education or helping their families make ends meet by working as rock-breakers for the country's construction industry.
Child labour is nothing new in Sierra Leone, but the brutal job of breaking stones with a hammer for hours on end in the baking heat has raised particular concern. Even for adults, the work is extremely tough, and injuries are common.
The rock-breakers are paid for finished gravel, or aggregate - sold at 5,000 leones (about US$1) per large plastic tub - but sales are sporadic and unpredictable.
Education and child labour are often closely entwined in Sierra Leone, where schooling can impose a severe financial strain. Although primary education is nominally free, parents must pay for uniforms, books, pens, transport and in some cases contributions to teachers' salaries. To send their children to school, therefore, many parents must also send them to work.
In 2007 Foday Mansaray, a former mobile-phone salesman, set up a completely free school in the village of Adonkia, a few kilometres outside the capital Freetown, in a bid to get children out of the quarries.
The severely under-funded Borbor Pain Charity School of Hope currently has 380 students, all of whom have worked as stone-breakers, but Mansaray estimates there are up to 3,000 more children engaged in the practice throughout the country.
However, such is the level of poverty among many local families that despite paying nothing for their education most of the school's children still have to work, and will often have to continue to do so once they move on to more senior schools.
Sierra Leone's economy grew by over 20 percent last year, fuelled by the resumption of iron-ore mining, but the mineral boom has yet to be felt by most Sierra Leoneans.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]