There are around 70 million children aged 5 to 11 forced into child labour in our world – pretty evenly divided between boys and girls, according to the International Labour Organisations.
But by 15, its figures show 39 million boys forced to do child labour – but only a fraction of that number of girls.
“Where do all the girls go?” asked guest speaker Stephen Lewis at UNISON’s national delegate conference this morning.
He knew the answer. And so did UNISON delegates. As Lisa Dempster of the union’s national women’s committee put it: “They swap child labour for child marriage. And the ILO stops counting them.”
And why does it do that?
The ILO’s reasoning, reported Stephen Lewis, is that “it deals with work”: if a child is working for a third party, that is child labour; but if a child is doing work – however dangerous and damaging, or abusive – in “their own household, that’s not child labour, because it’s not work, because it’s in their own household,” a notion which he called “insulting intellectual sophistry” and “a nonsensical dialectic”.
How can the ILO seriously argue, he asked, that a girl “taken into forced marriage, a criminal act, is suddenly not engaged in child labour because the house they’ve been taken to is their own household”?
Yet that is a fate that affects 15 million girls under 18 around the world every year.
“We have to persuade the ILO to change its definition,” said Mr Lewis.
There is a war being waged on children, he added. And the ILO is uniquely placed to address the issue as the only tripartite international body uniting governments, employers and trade unions.
And that is why it needs to accept the argument and change its definitions to count child marriage as child labour, and take action on it.
“We may save the lives of millions of young girls,” he told delegates.
Conference agreed and called on the union to work with the TUC, Mr Lewis’s organisation AIDS Free Word and others “to urge the ILO to take a principled stance, to treat child marriage as on of the worst forms of child labour under ILO core convention 182 and to take action.”
That call came after an intense and at times emotional debate in the conference hall.
“We need to be horrified, disgusted and sickened on behalf of these children,” urged Lisa Dempster as she moved the successful motion.
She was followed by a range of speakers calling on their own experiences to tell delegates:
- “I have had to go to court to stop my husband taking my daughter to Yemen to get her married;”
- “there were 500 cases of child marriage in the UK last year;”
- “the UN convention on the rights of the child is the most widely ratified human rights convention … child marriage violated every one of those rights;”
- “there is no such thing as child marriage – children can’t consent, it is legitimised child abuse;”
- “child marriage is happening here and it’s happening now;”
- “this is a crime in the worst form we can ever think of;”
- “every child matters.”
NEC speaker Angie Roberts summed up the mood of delegates from all over the union when she declared “This is a campaign we will win. Starting today.”