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The ugly cases of child labour



THABA-TSEKA – THE case of a 15-year-old boy who was murdered by cattle raiders in Mokhotlong where he was a herdboy last month has reopened debate about child labour in a country where children as young as eight years old often abandon school to look after livestock.

His lifeless body was found dumped in a ditch in Tlaeeng, not far from his cattle post. The boy had been employed as a shepherd in what the police called another crime against children.

Deprived of education and the joys of childhood, the boy has become the face of the country’s many victims of child labour, a practice rampant in Lesotho for decades.

Many children in mountainous areas drop out of school at primary level to herd animals either for their families or for pay.

Some say their parents impose the decision on them, while others seek work of their own accord due to economic reasons.

“Culturally, in Lesotho, herding takes the first priority and as such prohibits Basotho males’ access to and retention in education,” noted academic, Selloane Pitikoe.

In her doctoral thesis titled Male Herders in Lesotho: Life History, Identities and Educational Ambitions in Lesotho, Pitikoe stated that “the boy in the family becomes the first resort to support the family’s financial needs” when the family becomes economically vulnerable.

“In the end, he will have to withdraw from his educational activities to look for employment,” noted Pitikoe.

Another academic, Ramaele Moshoeshoe found that between 10 and 14 percent of boys of school going age are herders and 18 percent of these are not employed by their own families.

“Herding is the most common form of child labour in Lesotho but it is also the most dangerous,” stated Moshoeshoe in his doctoral thesis on education.

Lesotho’s Labour Code prohibits the employment of children, while the Child Welfare and Protection Act emphasizes the need for children to grow up in a family set up.

“A child (a person under 18) has a right to live with their parents and grow up in a caring and peaceful environment,” reads provisions of the Child Welfare and Protection Act.

It states that a child shall not be subjected to any … practices that are likely to negatively affect the child’s life, health, wealth, dignity or physical, emotional, psychological, mental and intellectual development.

It mandates the government to provide “special protection for a child deprived of family environment”. The law requires parents to provide for their children who are below 18 years.

The Education Act says education is free and compulsory for children below 13 years.

The same law further shows that a child has a right to access education, adequate diet, clothing, shelter, medical attention, social services, protection from exploitative labour or any other service required for the child’s development.

But, as the 15-year-old boy’s case shows, these provisions largely remain on paper. In practice, eradicating child labour, particularly as entrenched as livestock herding, could be a bigger battle.

The boy was looking after 150 sheep and goats, about 70 of which were stolen when he was murdered.

The Director of the Department of Prevention and Combating of Animal Theft in Mokhtlong district, Police Senior Inspector Rakhosi Tšalong, told thepost that the local police are working on the case.

“Investigations have progressed and we hope the suspects of theft and the murder of the shepherd will be found soon,” said Senior Inspector Tšalong.

Senior Inspector Haleeo Leluma of the Mokhotlong police has condemned people who hire children to herd their livestock.

“This is a lesson for the public to report where they know about children being hired so that the police can take legal action,” S/Insp Leluma said.

S/Insp Leluma said police will “ensure that the community stops this crime of exposing minors to dangers such as this”.

“Stock theft has become so common recently because the thieves have realised that the animals are under the watch of young children in cattle posts,” he said.

One of the boys, whom this paper shall call Pitso to protect his identity, said he started working as a herdboy when he was just eight-years-old while he was still a primary school pupil.

Pitso, who is a herdboy in one of Thaba-Tseka’s rangelands, said he had to drop out of school at 11-years to go into herding full-time in 2020. He said his father told him to stop going to school and focus fully on livestock.

“I did but I was devastated because I loved school and I even envisioned myself as a teacher in future,” Pitso said.

He talked about the dire conditions that young herdboys are forced to endure.

“Life at the cattle post is very difficult. I did everything by myself. I neither swept nor did laundry because there was no soap. I only left home with four blankets, a bag of maize flour and salt,” he said. “I ate papa (corn porridge) only or with salt except when one of the animals in the flock was breastfeeding. It is something that I got used to.”

Another herdboy from Thaba-Tseka, 14-year-old Sello, dropped out of school in Grade Six because “the beating was too much and sometimes I got beaten for the things I didn’t do”.

“I woke up every day pretending to go to school only to hide myself,” he said, adding that went on for a week until his seven-year-old brother informed their parents that he had bunked school.

“My parents beat me up as well,” he said.

“I ran to my grandmother’s place and stayed with her and that’s when I started herding her flock until I got employed two months ago.”

He gets paid M500 monthly. He said he gives his mother M300 of the money, leaving him with M200 to spend on crispy potato chips and sweets – because he is just a child.
Sello looks after 29 animals.

“It is my second month staying there alone and I don’t know when I will go back home,” he said, adding that his mother is in favour of him continuing to be a herdboy.

These cases are a few of many victims of child labour. A teacher at ’Makhotso Primary in Thaba-Tseka, Tšoloane Phatšoane, said enrolment is low “not because the village school is small but because we lose some students to cattle herding”.

“Just this year, we had 55 students but the number has declined to 45. We tried to engage with their parents and caregivers and our efforts were in vain as history keeps repeating itself,” Phatšoane said.

’Maletele Suhlane, the Setala Primary School principal in Thaba-Tseka, shared similar sentiments, adding that they have reported some cases to the police but “it was business as usual as they never acted”.

“They will say they will come but they never did until we stopped reporting,” Suhlane said.

She says nine to 11-year-olds drop out of school to do cattle herding. She said the school had 110 children but the number has dropped to 96, with some as young as nine-years old leaving to become herdboys.

She said the children’s parents and guardians claim to be broke so they encourage the practice.

“Quarterly, a child is expected to pay M36 to pay the school security guard and cover costs for sports. Their parents or guardians say that is too much and their children would rather herd animals,” she said.

“It pains us because all we want is to teach the children for them to reach their full potential.”

The Area Chief of Sekoainyaneng in Thaba-Tseka, Chief Mahlomola Moreki, said child labour is rampant as children’s rights to free primary education continues to be violated.

“We reported these cases all the time but nothing has been done to date and this has led to an unpleasant environment,” he said.

Pitikoe, the author of the doctoral thesis titled “Male Herders in Lesotho: Life History, Identities and Educational Ambitions in Lesotho,” observed that Basotho boys, more than girls, are often forced to abandon school in search of employment as herders or in the dangerous mines of South Africa.

In fulfillment of the herding role, she said, the boys are compelled to either look after animals belonging to their own families or are employed by wealthy livestock owners in exchange for money that they use to help their needy families.

Khanya Consultancy Counsellor, Mahlape Moremoholo, said education plays a vital role in a child’s development.

“It develops a child in four dimensions; physical, psychological, spiritual and environmental or social,” Moremoholo said.

She said children staying in cattle posts fail to improve all the four dimensions.

A UNESCO report says almost one in every three Basotho children aged between five and 14 years are forced by poverty to work for a living. The 2014 report, the latest to be published, states that another 25.3 percent of children in that age bracket are combining work and school in a bid to make ends meet.

It notes that lack of resources hampered the government’s ability to fund social and economic programmes for such children. Labour Inspector, Mpho Molise, defined child labour as any work that is done by children who are below the official minimum age of 15 years.

It is a criminal offence to give a child any work that interferes with their schooling by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school, obliging them to leave school prematurely or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long hours and heavy work, Molise said.

“Children are weak and have limited bargaining power. They are easily manipulated and exploited. The problem is compounded by weak enforcement of the relevant laws and regulations protecting children from hazardous work and exploitation,” Molise said.

She said labour laws are mainly applied to the formal sectors, but not in unregulated informal sectors that are major employers of children.

“However, the ministry is in the process of reviewing the Labour Code Order 1992 so as to cover inspections in informal sectors,” said Molise.

Molise said the ministry has conducted Rapid Assessment on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (pending report from the consultant) that would be used to inform the development of child labour policies and the law.

However, in the meantime, thousands of young boys remain in danger of meeting the same fate as the 15-year-old dead Mokhotlong boy.

’Mapule Motsopa

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