Child Labor and Somalia

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Updated: Mar 14, 2023
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Imagine seeing children selling cigarettes or a narcotic plant which is used by adults and young people to get high. Even worse imagine young children leaving home every day to work as prostitutes. This is happening in Somalia, located on the horn of Africa. There are many countries located in Sub-Saharan Africa that allow child labor but Somalia is the worst of these countries (UNHCR, The UN Refuge Agency, 2009). The purpose of this paper is to look at a brief history of child labor in Somalia, where it stands today, and what is being done to help.

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When we put a historical perspective on child labor, we find that it was widespread in the 19th century but declined rapidly when the 20th century came around. In Italy, 80% of children, between the ages of 10 and 14, worked in 1881, and by 1961 it was down to 3.6%. In the United States the number of children working was 17% in 1890, and by 1930 moved down to 3.36%. More recently, in respect to global numbers the child labor rate was 23% in 2000 and in 2012 it had only decreased to 17% (Ortiz-Ospina & Roser, 2019).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved on December 10, 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly. Even though there were no votes against this declaration there were some countries that did not concur (Snarr & Snarr, 2016). One of these countries was Somalia as they have only ratified a few treaties in the Declaration (University of Minnesota).

According to the Save the Children Federation, “Somalia is one of the hardest places on earth to be a child. Decades of civil war have left the country mired in poverty and, in many places, without a functioning government. Children in Somalia are facing extreme hunger and a devastating food crisis. Conflict and the worst drought in 70 years have left parts of Somalia on the brink of famine.”

Back in 2008 child labor was just a daily occurrence in the country of Somalia where children helped to provide for themselves and for their families, and they still do today. Somalia is also “a source, destination, and transit country for child trafficking. Children are reportedly trafficked for forced labor and sexual exploitation by armed militias” (UNHCR, The UN Refuge Agency). This type of treatment needs to stop.

Those children deserve to have a happy childhood just like those of us in the United States do. Living in poverty doesn’t give adults the right to treat children in this manner. Human rights come into play here and Somalia needs to step up and end this. Children should have the right to decide if they want to work and in what conditions they want to work. In the United States, 13-year-olds babysit and this is a great job to develop responsibility. Children shouldn’t carry the weight of having to bring in to provide for their families.

Somalia had undergone two long decades of civil war and severe poverty. Children were used during this time for soldiering and were used on both sides of the civil war. There are two different governments that continued to commit serious abuses against children. One is al-Shabaab, an Islamist terrorist group, and the Transitional Federal Government which is Western-backed in Mogadishu. There is “no rule of law” and the breakdown of governance is apparent. Back in 2012, the Transitional Federal Government did sign an action plan, in July, against child recruitment for soldiering but by 2014 little progress had been made (Standish).

More recently, in 2017 Somalia still has not had much advancement in efforts to eliminate child labor even in its worst forms. Somalia created The National Development Plan in 2017 which was to aim at preventing child labor. Instead during this time frame children, as young as 8, were used in armed conflict, and some performed dangerous street work tasks. The plan did not identify things such as hazardous jobs or activities.

Worse yet trafficking was not criminally prohibited either. Labor inspectors are not employed in Somalia so no inspections were conducted and nothing can be enforced. Programs have been established to help children with counseling, education, protection from conflict, and to decrease trafficking (United States Department of Labor, 2017). Even though programs were implemented by Somalia’s government there is no evidence that any of these programs were carried because they really failed to “address the scope of children in armed conflict” (United States Department of Labor, 2017).

The number of displaced children in Somalia is heartbreaking and consists of an estimated 2 million. These children are extremely vulnerable to human trafficking for both labor exploitation and sexual exploitation. Goods from Kenya to Somalia are brought in on trucks and when the trucks return to Kenya they pick up a load of girls for sexual exploitation. Children have even been trafficked to Saudi Arabia and forced to go into the streets and beg (United States Department of Labor, 2017).

Statistics are shocking in Somalia, as 49% of children are out of school, 133 out of 1,000 children die before they are 5, and 49% are engaged in child labor (Save the Children Federation, 2019). One of the ways we can all take part in helping this situation is through the Save the Children Federation. The Federation collects donations to take water to the communities that are in the most need.

It provides for thousands of vulnerable families by providing cash transfers the federation fosters nutrition programs for children, pregnant women, and those who are nursing babies. There is also a cholera task force that helps fight the spread of cholera which is very prevalent in Somalia. This group has helped to support millions of children protecting them from harm and crisis and proving for children’s basic needs, giving them a healthy start to life, and supplying vital nourishment (Save the Children Federation, 2019).

There is also an organization called UNICEF in Bossaso, Somalia that is trying to make a difference (Pflanz, 2012). Any country can sign a declaration but can also interpret that declaration according to their norm and we can see what Somalia’s norm is. In December of 1946 UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) was established and in 1972 it moved into Somalia. In the absence of strong government, it is making efforts to educate and encourage the proper authorities to amend their legal systems and build child protection laws.

UNICEF is a place that children and parents can turn to if they are in danger. There is a camp for people who have been displaced which protects children from trafficking. It is tough for UNICEF because Somalia’s government does not back them so they must be persistent in trying to encourage Somalia’s government and in helping those children who are the most vulnerable. They are also working on the community level and making a difference in hopes the community will become its advocates. UNICEF is also working with religious leaders in hopes that they will also join forces. The more forces joined the more likely to make changes at the government level (Pflanz, Mike, 2012).

It is extremely difficult to change the norm that we talked about earlier. There are expectations put into place depending on local culture so certain customs that are thought to violate human rights may be considered legitimate and may be a long-standing practice of culture or religion in certain cultures. For example, in South Africa, the young women in the family are betrothed by their parents to marry at a very young age taking no consideration of what the child wants or if the child even loves the husband chosen for them (Snarr & Snarr, 2016).

Now that we have taken a look, back through time, at Somalia’s child labor history we can see this is a devastating problem that needs to change. Little has changed in the history of child labor laws in Somalia and this is where the focus needs to lie. Organizations like Save the Child Federation and UNICEF have made giant steps but more leaps need to be made in advocating for the children and educating their government in hopes that the government will change its view of child labor.

Other governments need to try reaching out to Somalia as well and set examples and advocate for children rights in Somalia. It is all about the child’s right to choose to work, to have the advantage of education, and to have a healthy development through childhood both physically and psychologically. Children’s rights don’t necessarily mean a child can do whatever they want. In Somalia, it is truly about protecting children so they don’t have to completely miss out on their precious childhoods.

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Child Labor and Somalia. (2020, Jan 19). Retrieved from