Alioune began his involvement in child labour when he was just 8 years old, the age at which he dropped out of school.
“I am a fisherman, said Alioune. “That is all I have ever known how to do.”
Alioune learned the trade from his uncle and then started working with his father. When his father retired, he resolved to work hard to support his family.
“If we don’t catch enough fish, we can spend a week at sea,” he said. “We wait and work until we get the intended quantity. We try to take large canoes when possible because they can carry more fish and there’s less of a risk of capsizing.”
Fishing boats stored on the beach of Nouakchott.
Alioune has a special sense of the sea. He knows the maritime routes, where to stop, how to use GPS. He’s so good that his team elected him as their captain, even though Alioune is only 21 years old.
“These waves are dangerous,” he said. “You have to be wary of them. You need experience to be able to deal with them. The slightest hesitation can cost you your life.”
Alioune had to learn all these things as a child. He is now an adult, but his experience as a child labourer will stick in his memory and follow him well into his future.
What does child labour look like in Mauritania?
In Mauritania, the problem is acute. According to the latest available estimates, the percentage of children aged 5-17 who are involved in child labour is 37.6 %. That means too many Mauritanian children end up working instead of going to school, or are too tired from work to benefit from the schooling they do receive.
Children in rural areas are more likely to be in child labour than children in urban areas, 45% vs. 27%.
A group of children in Mauritania – Agron Dragaj, WFP
Most child labour in Africa – some 70 per cent - is in the agricultural sector, often in settings where children are working on family farms or in family microenterprises which are frequently hazardous despite perceptions they are a safer work environment.
In sub-Saharan Africa, population growth, recurrent crises, extreme poverty, and inadequate social protection measures have led to an additional 16.6 million children in child labour over the past four years.
What steps has Mauritania taken to solve the problem?
The country has ratified the main ILO conventions on child labour (Conventions 138 and 182). An important moment came in 2019, when Mauritania refocused its attention on the problem by becoming an Alliance 8.7 Pathfinder Country.
Mauritania set out the following priorities, among others:
Revise the policy framework against forced labour and child labour;
Establish a list of hazardous work;
Provide capacity building for child protection system actors;
Train labour inspectors and workers’ representatives on child labour;
Empower refugees and build the resilience of local populations.
Moustapha Djiby works in his office at Mauritania’s Ministry of Civil Service and Labour.
With support from the MAP16 project, Mauritania strengthened laws and policies to better address child labour.
Moustapha Djiby, Director of Regulations and Social Dialogue for the Ministry of Civil Service and Labour, is proud that his country is part of the global effort to address child labour.
“We have already drawn up a list of hazardous jobs for children, of which there are 44,” he said. “There is a decision by the ministry. This is really an achievement.”
Fishermen hold a boat, which is temporarily anchored to the shore, to remove fish at sunset off the coast of Mauritania.
He also expressed hope for the regional consultations with social partners and civil society, which aimed to identify child labour in each region. His ministry will then work to convert the results into administrative and regulatory action.
Based on the new hazardous work list adopted in January 2022, stakeholders reviewed the previous plan and launched a new National Plan of Action for the Elimination of Child Labour in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania (PANETE-RIM).
“The former PANETE-RIM did not take Alliance 8.7 into account because, at that time, Mauritania was not a Pathfinder Country,” said Moustapha. “But the new PANETE-RIM includes language on the international convention on the worst forms of child labour.”
Moustapha also expressed interest in a renewed focus on a sectoral approach to ending child labour.
Alioune, a former child labourer in Mauritania, takes a break from his job as a fisherman.
“The new PANETE-RIM is a sectoral one,” he said. “We are fighting child labour in fisheries, livestock farmers, the domestic sector, and so on.”
The new order on hazardous work aims to help labour inspectors identify and eventually refer the perpetrators of the abuse to the judicial authorities. Labour inspectors also receive training on the new law, to address the problem on the ground.
Mohamed Khatri, regional labour inspector, notes that Mauritania’s labour inspectorate plays an essential monitoring role around child labour. In fact, part of the inspectorate’s mission is to fight child labour.
“The new decree is truthful and objective,” said Mohamed. It restates the fact that a child is anyone under the age of 18 – any person who is not yet an adult – and thus it bans child labour in all types of business sectors.”
As a result, labour inspectors finally have a mechanism to identify those who allow hazardous child labour to occur in Mauritania – and put an end to the practice for good.
Mohamed Khatri works in his office as a labour inspector in Mauritania.
Mohamed also explains that the law on hazardous work for children resulted from consultations that took place as part of MAP16. The parents of child labourers were involved in the consultations, which had a significant positive impact on the drafting of the order.
In one practical example of Mauritania’s collaborative response to the problem of child labour, as part of MAP16, Mohamed Lemine trained former child labourers, as well as children who are at risk, on the SCREAM methodology. This art-based method aims to educate and inform communities on the issue of child labour: its causes, implications, and consequences.
“In Sélibaby, we trained young shepherds,” he said. “In SCREAM, it is children themselves who play the role of an exploited child, a child who does not go to school. And these same children will perform a play for other groups of children.”
So far, Mohamed’s team has trained 40 children and aims to reach more in the region of Guidimagha.
What opportunities and challenges are ahead?
The hazardous labour law is only the beginning of Mauritania’s journey towards becoming child labour-free. Next, stakeholders will focus on enforcing it and educating families and employers about its consequences.
As regional labour inspector Mohamed Khatri notes, the legal framework alone will not be enough.
“Continuing the consultations is necessary,” said Mohamed.” Carrying out awareness-raising campaigns about the dangers of this scourge, as well as the adverse impact in the future, is necessary.”
Mohamed Khatri, a labour inspector in Mauritania, speaks with a colleague before going inside for work.
He also points out that it would be good to set up income-generating activities to further encourage the parents of vulnerable children.
Mohamed Lemine, the SCREAM instructor, agrees.
“The government must use funds to fight child labour through awareness-raising campaigns, the use of national media, and in particular social protection,” he said. “If the government does not protect poor families, they will continue to send their children to work.”
Moustapha Djiby, of the Ministry of Labour, says that success will depend on the government’s ability to mobilize resources at the national and international levels.
“Lots of things are necessary to fight child labour,” he said. “It really depends on financing, so we can raise awareness in society and get through this.”
“I would still be at school if I had the choice. Children must study, and study well. Because a person who is educated can have anything they want.”
However, Alioune still has hope for his future.
“Nothing is ever lost. I can resume my studies later.”