By ‘Majirata Latela
In almost every available space in Maseru CBD, from traffic lights to street corners to sidewalks, one is bound to encounter one or two children selling snacks, fruits or food. While some people regard this as child labour, others perceive it as a way of instilling entrepreneurial skills in those young minds.
The United Nations Children’s Rights Organisation’ statistics on children’s work and education working show that 30.1 percent of children in Lesotho between the ages of five and 14 are working. It further shows that 1.2 percent are in domestic work while 5.7 percent are doing street work, including vending, and trading.
Lesotho’s Children’s Protection and Welfare Act of 2011 states in no uncertain terms that no person shall employ a child in exploitative labour. The law describes labour as exploitative if it deprives or hinders a child access to health, education or development.
Section 228(1) of the same law continues to show that the minimum age for admission of a child to employment shall be 15 years.
However, theReporter took it upon itself find out the age of these kids and why they are selling on the streets.
Four out of five of those children are under the age of fifteen and three out of five say their parents have sent them to the streets to sell and make money to buy food and clothes for themselves and their younger siblings.
theReporter approached one of the kids selling dumplings and chicken feet at Maseru Mall and they said they are doing that so that their mother could buy food for them and their other two-year old sibling.
“Our mother has sent us here so we can make money to buy food and clothes for us and our little brother.
“We sell dumplings and chicken feet and take the money to our mother who will then decide what to do with the money. She does buy us clothes with the money we make here.
“My brother and I come here every morning to stand here and talk people into buying; sometimes we manage to sell all the food but at other times we sell just a small portion. However, our mother does not complain when we have made just a small amount of money,” said 13-year old Teboho Molibeli* who was in the company of his eight-year old brother.
The brothers say they only have time to play when they get home, and that is usually around 4:00pm.
Teboho says on a few unfortunate occasions they are battered by the pounding rain as they trek about a kilometre back home.
Looking weary from the blazing sun, they huddle under the umbrella as people looked at them with pity while they asked them to buy. Some people stop to buy something while others just pass by.
This publication went on to engage the adolescents’ mother who was still home with the other two-year old son and their father. Not hesitant to talk to us, she explained that she knows that her kids are selling at the Maseru Mall entrance and she is happy that they are there because they are at least not roaming the streets and getting involved in untoward activities.
“My kids were doing this kind of business for my neighbour here; she would bake bread and ask my kids to go and sell them for her and later when they came back she would give them money to buy themselves sweets or sometimes tell them to give it to me so that I could by food in the house.
“My husband and I are both unemployed, I have just received my identity document which I will use to apply for work at the Ha Thetsane factories; my husband on the other side usually goes out to look for piece jobs as he does not have a permanent job.
“As you can see, we are all living in this single room and we are really struggling a lot. The kids are the ones that volunteered to go and sell the food there so we can earn money, after the woman that they were selling for left the business,” said the 38-year old woman from her home at Qoaling in Maseru.
She says they are living in abject poverty and, since the lockdown, they have been struggling to put food on the table, reducing them to beggars who sometimes survive on hand- outs from the neighbours and people of goodwill.
She says the kids used to have two meals from school when the schools were opened; this reduced the burden of feeding them unlike now when they get all meals at home. She said she has to stay behind with the little one and do household chores.
She reiterated that selling on the streets instils a sense of independence in her sons, and it comforts her to know that they will be able to fend for themselves even when she is no longer around.
“Given the high unemployment rate in the country, I am confident that the skills they are acquiring from selling the food will come in handy and help them start their own businesses when they finish school. This means they won’t complain about lack of jobs.
“When the kids are too exhausted and do not have the energy to go out and sell, I do not have a problem and I allow them to rest. I always insist that they do not come home late; this gives them time to play with their peers before it get dark.
“I am aware of children’s rights but I do not know when it becomes a crime to encourage children to go into business; however, I am also aware that they are vulnerable to dangers like crime out there.”
Human rights lawyer, Lineo Tsikoane also emphasises that children should not be employed under any circumstances. She said children are not supposed to maintain themselves.
“There is a difference between children fending for themselves and teaching them entrepreneurial skills; some parents literally depend on their kids to make money, and that itself goes to that point where children are forced to work; that is exploitation.
“Some people argue that the kids do not work in the mines or factories, but what matters is that even out there on the streets they are still exposed to hazards like being kidnapped, trafficked or raped at some point.
“I have also realised that some people use children to sell for them because they know that many people will buy out of pity, but that is totally unacceptable because in that way they are using them to gain money for themselves while they will be giving them just a little to thank them,” Tsikoane said.
She added that when a parent engages a child in family business to teach them the ropes, it is a good thing because in that way they will be giving them skills without expecting anything from them, hence the need to educate people to know when it is exploitation and when it is just training them to be entrepreneurs.
She also added that, those parents should also remember that children have a right to play and that they should make sure that they enjoy that right because it helps them to develop physically and mentally.
In her 2006 document titled ‘Protecting the Rights of Working Children in Lesotho through Legislation’, Itumeleng Kimane noted that child labour is a growing and urgent problem in Lesotho as in other countries in the southern African region.
“Because of endemic poverty, rising unemployment, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic currently ravaging the country, child labour has been increasing at alarming rates in recent years. The impact of child labour on the general well-being and development of children in this country is profound. Children are denied access to education; their health is negatively affected; and they are exposed to numerous hazards and forms of exploitation.”
In 2019, Lesotho made a moderate advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. Lesotho ratified ILO Protocol 29 to the Forced Labor Convention of 1930.
Children in Lesotho engage in the worst forms of child labour, including commercial sexual exploitation, sometimes as a result of human trafficking. Children also perform dangerous tasks related to animal herding and domestic work.