FinDev Blog

Child Labor: An Unintended Consequence of Women’s Entrepreneurship?

How women’s economic empowerment programs can help improve business safety and health for mothers and their children
Child selling on beach. Photo from Pixabay.

The names of the women in the stories in this blog post have been changed.

Rita was 7 years old when she was trapped into slavery. With the promise of an education, her parents placed her with another family in San Salvador, El Salvador, where Rita would help take care of the host family’s home and their little girl in exchange for her own schooling. Unfortunately, this offer was too good to be true, and Rita was trapped in slave labor until her teenage years, with hardly any access to education or income. Now, as a successful entrepreneur, she strives to ensure that her daughter will have the childhood she never had. 

As a young girl, Maria sold cheese to cover her own school fees. One day, as she was walking home with her sales, she was physically assaulted and the apron where she safeguarded her money was stolen. The assault represented more than lost cash and an injury, but a threat to her ability to stay in school and achieve a life that her parents could not afford.

As a mother, Christine struggles to run a business while her husband migrates to the city for work. “I have a lot on my plate, not only am I managing a business, but my house,” she said. “I work long hours. The only solution is to have my kids at my business.” For many, this has been a reality for decades. As another woman shared, “I worked when I was a child, so did my mom, and everyone has learned how to work. It’s good for kids.”

The prevalence of child labor

In 2020, the ILO estimated that 1 in 10 children worldwide were in situations of child labor and 72 percent of those children were working alongside their parents in microenterprises and on family farms. Research by Grameen Foundation and its partner the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative, with funding from the US Department of Labor, found that as women entrepreneurs struggle to manage the labor burdens of their businesses, along with household tasks and childcare, many are turning for help to those closest in reach—their children. Child labor and other risks to children’s safety and well-being are thus becoming an unfortunate and unintended consequence in the process of women’s economic empowerment. 

At Grameen Foundation, we believe strongly in supporting women's dreams of a better life for themselves and their families and have been doing so for 25 years. But we also must recognize that running a business comes with certain risks and tradeoffs, especially for women and children. In addition to increased labor burdens and child labor, women also face threats of overindebtedness, financial stress and gender-based violence.

Through launching the Reducing Incidences of Child Labor and Harmful Conditions of Work in Economic Strengthening Initiatives (RICHES) project, we heard many stories like those highlighted above about the tradeoffs busy mothers often face. While not all children working alongside their mothers are in situations of child labor—particularly when mothers keep their children at their businesses to protect them from harm—they can be exposed to unsafe working environments. 

Protecting women and children

The RICHES project was founded to better protect women and their children by helping strengthen our partners’ consumer protection practices as well as the skills women need for identifying their businesses’ safety and health risks. Based on extensive research on the connection between women’s entrepreneurship promotion and child labor, we developed the RICHES Toolkit.

This set of 13 guides and trainings and 46 tools is designed to enable those who support women’s economic empowerment to take practical steps for improving policies, practices, products and services that mitigate the harm of child labor. Included in the toolkit are trainings to raise awareness of the risks of child labor among management, staff and their clients; guides for developing and improving different financial services as well as linkages to child protection organizations; country-level risk assessments and business safety and health diagnostics; and intra-household dialogue guides to promote household discussions about child labor risks, among others.

The Toolkit is divided into three phases:

  1. Setting the foundation. The tools in this phase aim to help women’s economic empowerment actors raise management-level awareness and understanding of the risks of child labor.
  2. Build the structure. These tools are designed to put in place the staff-level structure needed to integrate and assess child protection and safe business practices, focusing on staff awareness of the issue and design of new or improved products and services.
  3. Engage participants. Once management and staff are on board and ready, they can work to build awareness among clients and support their needs. An important starting point involves engaging families in an uncommon dialogue about children’s work and helping women identify business safety and health risks for themselves and their children.

Interrelated global challenges

No one denies the love a mother has for her children and the lengths she will go to keep them safe and build a better life for them. But sometimes, the harsh reality of poverty gets in the way, and mothers and children are put at risk to put food on the table. This is why we developed the RICHES Toolkit. Poverty and child labor are huge, interrelated global challenges. We all have a role to play in alleviating both.  

Want to learn more about the RICHES Toolkit? Watch this short video (also in Spanish)!

Funding for the RICHES project was provided by the United States Department of Labor under cooperative agreement number IL-31469. 100 percent of the total costs of the project or program were financed with federal funds, for a total of $1,872,000 dollars. This material does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the United States Department of Labor, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the United States Government.

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