BY JOHN OKOT
On a Monday morning, as many children prepare to go to school, Amina (not real name), swallows some pain killers to relieve the pain she has felt since the night before due to a respiratory ailment. Amina, 14, who had worked for close to ten hours in a sugar cane plantation yesterday, had to work again today. Her plan is to raise more money to complete her school fees and support her aunt, with some basic needs. She has been her family’s breadwinner for the last six years. Resorting to pain killers therefore, is Amina’s way of keeping on track.
“I feel a lot of pain in the chest, pain and my back and this makes it hard for me to breathe,” Amina narrates her story with labored breathing as she wields a machete. “I also find it hard to concentrate in class and yet I have to cut sugar cane to support my aunt who is weak.”
Amina’s aunt, a single mother of two, is a frail woman with a sickly demeanor. Despite her condition, she has taken care of Amina since her mother abandoned her after the loss of her father to a liver complication. Amina was five years old. On a guided tour in one of the sugar cane plantations in Busakira village in Kityerera Sub County, Mayuge district, it is a normal routine to see a pack of kids heading to work in morning on school days.
Child Labor On The Sugarcane Plantations
Glimpses of lanky children, swallowed by tall sugar canes in the middle of the plantations can be caught as early as 7am in the morning, a sign that child labour is common here. Like Amina, most of the children earn between UGX1,000 – 2000 per day, from digging and cutting sugar cane. The amount of work they do is usually equal to what an adult does. Besides being exploited for their labour, there have been some alarming reports on the rising cases of sexual abuse among the girls.
“My friend who I used to work with was defiled. She is not fine and I am sacred that I will also be a victim next time,” Amina frowns as she expresses concern.
This is not just Amina’s story. There are many children in Mayuge whose narrative illustrates some of the worst cases of child labour in Busoga region. Many Civil Society Organizations have warned against the high rates of this unfortunate phenomenon. They argue for more appropriate strategies to combat employment of persons below the age of 18. Besides Mayuge, child labour also remains high in the neighboring districts like Kaliro, Iganga and Kamuli where sugar cane is grown on a large scale. Busoga region produces the bulk of Uganda’s granulated sugar for both home consumption and exportation to neighbouring East African countries. Some of the largest sugars processing factories are in Mayuge, Kakira, Kamuli and Lugazi.
Interventions on Child labour
African Protection and Prevention against Child Abuse and Neglect (APPCAN), a child rights NGO, says at least 1008 cases of child labour were recorded in Mayuge in the last two years, mainly from sugar cane plantations. A 2012- 2017 document titled ‘National Action Plan on Elimination of Worst Forms of Child Labour’ indicates that 96 percent of child labour in Uganda comes from the agricultural sectors. 1.4 million children are engaged in hazardous activities out of 2.75 million engaged in economic activities, nationally. Data from Mayuge Central Police Station show that at least 15 defilement cases were committed in Mayuge cane plantations, in the past three months. According to the International Labour Organization convention, such cases of child labour in Mayuge can be categorized as the worst form since these children are exposed to physical, psychological or sexual abuse and work for long hours. This makes the situation in Mayuge district grim and disturbing.
Why child labour remains high in Mayuge.
APPCAN Project Coordinator, Justine Namusubo says that due to high poverty levels, mostly in rural areas of Mayuge, most parents are forced to exploit their children by sending them to work in sugarcane plantations.
“Most of the families are extended, and they have to rely on their children who have to work in sugar cane chambers to support their families,” Namusubo says, adding that “Of recent, the number of girls engaged in working in sugar cane plantations is also on the increase, unlike in the past were the practice involved mainly the boy-child”
Out of the 1008 cases recorded since last year, there were 705 boys and 303 girls working in sugar cane plantations. In addition, most parents in rural areas also don’t value education since many of them prefer to send their children to work in shambas where they can earn immediate monetary gains for it.
“Most parents here look at their children as a form of commodity that can earn them fast money to serve their urgent needs, which affects their retention in school hard,” Namusubo says.
A 2016/ 2017 National Household survey by UBOS also indicates that Eastern region, where Busoga is located, has the highest incidences of poverty by 42 per cent (higher than the national average of 27 percent) as poverty remains the major cause of child labour. In addition, Mayuge is dominated by Muslims who have large families due to polygamous marriages. As a result, the large families find it hard to look after their children thus forcing them to work in thev plantations to cater for basic needs in a home.
APPCAN has also received worrying reports about some middlemen who have resorted to ferrying children from other districts to work for sugar cane out growers in Mayuge since their labour is cheap. Recently, a police also intercepted a truck with 23 children being ferried off from Mayuge to Kaliro district to work in Sugar cane plantations.
Such families tend to marry of their daughter at a young age who are forced by their spouses to work in plantation to support, says a district gender official who requested
Decline In Academic Performance.
For the past four years, Busoga region has been trailing in academic performance in Primary Leaving Education (PLE), nationally. Data from Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES) shows that districts in Busoga that performed poorly in PLE last year; Buyende (32.8), Mayuge(29.8) Iganga (27 ), Luuka (31.1) and Iganga (25.5). Mayuge District Education Officer (DEO) William Nadiope, attributes this decline in academic performance on school absenteeism since many children skip classes to work in sugar cane plantations.
“Children especially from upper (P5 – P7) primary will start skipping lesson to work in sugar shambas,” Nadiope says. “The number of children who sit the final exams is always smaller than those who register since many don’t turn up to sit for their final exams,”
For instance at Amina’s school, Buseera Primary school in Busakira sub county, a total of 137 pupils out of 415 pupils (upper primary- P5 to P7) had escaped by afternoon to work in sugar cane plantations on the day of our visit. As APPCAN’s Namusubo stated earlier, a labour committee, who work alongside the police, has now been put in place to track and monitor communities where child labour is reportedly high.
Challenges in Elimination of Child Labour
Quoting from 2012-17 document of eliminating child labour, enforcing legal and policy frame works to eliminate child labour ‘has been weak and this has led to limited awareness of the laws.’ The document adds that there has also been limited involvement of ministries, departments and agencies; and the budget for eliminating child labour and interventions appears to be the main responsibility of the Social Development Sector yet this strategy needs a multi-sectoral approach.
This scenario trickles down to Mayuge where local leaders are blaming poor implementation of laws to fight child labour. For instance, in 2013 Mayuge enacted a ‘natural resource ordinance’ to regulate sugar cane growing, where locals are required to preserve not less than two acres of land before growing sugar cane.
The move was to fight child labour and ensure food security in Mayuge, however, this has failed to yield any fruit over the years. Mayuge LCV Chairperson Omar Bongo says, their laws ‘look beautiful on paper’ but without adequate financial assistance, their effort won’t yiled much since they need Mayuge is large if they are to fight child labour.
Busoga Sugar cane out-growers association president, Isa Budhugo, says they are considering introducing contract workers who will cut sugar cane to fight child labour.
“The move will start as a pilot project, where 1,000 contract cutters will be registered, at the onset of the new season in July this year.
“]That is why we want to contract cutters just like Tanzania. We are going to advertise and later determine the amount of wages that we shall be paying them,” he adds.
In the long run, Mr Budhugo, notes that intend to introduced fast maturing sugar cane species hence requiring less labour to cultivate. If authorities in Mayuge don’t take swift measures to fight child labour, the tender muscles of children like Amina will continue to be exploited, let alone the risks of being defiled in sugar cane plantations. “I want to stay in school but I also have work to stay there and support my family,” a soft-spoken Amina speaks with a trembling voice.