JOHANNESBURG – A young child sits on the side of the road in Madagascar crushing rocks with a hammer almost too heavy for him to hold.
Another accidentally slices his hand open with a machete while opening cocoa pods on a plantation in Ghana.
A young teenage girl, trafficked for the sex industry, walks the beaches of Kenya looking for business.
A young boy squats naked in a mineshaft in Burkina Faso, chipping ore and loading it into buckets all day long.
A child soldier in the DR Congo carries an automatic weapon he was forced to use to kill villagers he knew.
The words of a young child in South Africa, originally written as a poem in the Xhosa language, read:
In sub-Saharan Africa, 40 percent of all children ages 5-14, about 48 million children, work for survival.
“How can I live in this world?
“Oh, what can I do?
“It is so dark ahead of me.
“Mother and father do not want us.
“They sell us to thugs.”
Every day millions of children in Africa are at risk of being exploited, resulting in slave-like working conditions. Their childhood is forever lost.
“Forced labor robs children of a childhood, which in turn negatively affects their ability to be constructive members of their communities for the rest of their lives,” said Mark Hatfield, Africa director of Baptist Global Response, a Southern Baptist humanitarian aid and relief organization.
“Forced child labor deals a mental blow to the individual child, taking away his ability to dream about a future outside of his present status,” Hatfield said.
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), an agency of the United Nations, Africa has the world’s largest child labor population, with the agriculture and mining sectors among the worst offenders.
Poverty is cited as the primary reason for forced child labor in Africa.
The problem is severe in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 40 percent of all children ages 5-14, about 48 million children, work for survival, according to the ILO. Child trafficking for the purpose of labor is common throughout the continent. Family members often exchange children for money, goods or gifts.
“Children forced to work before they reach a reasonable age limits their future capabilities by taking away their right to a basic education, which can be the springboard out of poverty,” Hatfield said. “Child labor perpetuates the poverty cycle by keeping the child in a low income, subsistence-only status all their lives.”
According to the UN, in expanding economies the demand for labor increases. Unable to cope with high production quotas, industries turn to exploitative child labor. “Children and teenagers enter the risk of being used as cheap labor,” a UN report states. “Most of these children are vulnerable due to poverty. They are unaware of their rights, overworked, can’t resist.”
The report said the children are employed with low or no wages, poor living conditions, hazardous work environments, no healthcare and little to no education opportunities.
Tim Cearley, head strategist for the International Mission Board’s (IMB) work in sub-Saharan Africa, raised the questions, “Why should people care about children in Africa? Does it matter?”
He responded, “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to Me.’ I believe we must find ways to share Jesus’ love with the ‘least of these’ – helping them know the safety and security they can find in Jesus and in Christian community.”
Cearley and his wife Charlotte reach out to young street boys in the neighborhood where they live.
“They hang out one block from our house with their begging cans and seem to be starving under the control of their ‘master’ who lives on our street,” Cearley said. “We try to show them love by giving them real attention in our limited [local language], providing some bread or food and trying to share the Good News.”
Cearley said IMB colleagues give lots of time in building relationships with children in sub-Saharan African cities.
“It takes lots of energy that is supplemented by good partnering U.S. teams,” he said. “Many see Jesus for the first time in acts of kindness and feel His touch in genuine love. In a few cases we see lives transformed as they come to know freedom in Christ.”
Cearley, as well as Hatfield, laments the fact that children are exploited by the very ones who should be providing for them and showing them love and care – the children’s family and friends.
“A reasonable amount of responsibility in the way of daily chores is healthy and expected in most rural and low income African families,” Hatfield said.
But children who must help their families by doing subsistence farming, carrying water, herding cattle, etc., never get the opportunity to go to school, Cearley added.
“A friend in Mozambique was in this category and only learned to read and write her name as an adult,” Cearley said. “Others are brought to larger cities as part of a religious custom to learn humility by begging. But they are often abused by those who are supposed to be teaching them.”
Recently Cearley was impacted by a quote from the book “Not for Sale” by David Batstone: “There are more slaves today than at any other point in human history. Our mission is to create a world where no one is for sale.”
“This horrible business affects children and teens all over Africa,” Cearley said. “I have heard horror stories from central Mozambique. A South African friend was part of a sting operation that found a house of kids while looking for her missing house worker’s child in 2012. That child had been drawn away from her home by men from her own tribe, who were in league with a Nigerian Mafia gang operating in a nearby city that was selling these kids and shipping them off.”
A call for action now resounds around the globe from government and non-government organizations to nonprofit, charity and Christian groups.
“The Bible teaches us to speak up for the oppressed, help the captive, love the children,” Hatfield said. “The question is, what are we going to do about it?”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Charles Braddix is an IMB writer based in Europe.)