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Exploited Girls and Uneducated Girls

Child labour is a major hurdle for ensuring free, quality education for all children. Around the world, 246 million girls and boys are working instead of attending school and enjoying their childhood. Girls, in particular, are systematically deprived of their right to education by family expectation, society’s norms or the mere lack of attention given to their specified needs.


Child labour poses a great threat to education systems, as children are forced to work rather than attend school, or have to divide their time between work and school; thus greatly affecting their ability to learn. This affects boys as well as girls. However, the nature of girls’ work means that their labour problem is much more difficult to discern and remedy.

Unless gender disparities are eradicated in education there can be little hope that the situation for girls, and the type of work they carry out, will ever improve. However, gender disparities in education will not improve until societies take serious measures to tackle girls’ work. Education is fundamental to the empowerment of girls and women. A quality education provides the tools for self-sufficiency that will enable them to escape poverty and exploitation. This is particularly prescient for the situation of girls, many of whom are driven into work that can be hazardous and abusive at a premature age, without an accessible, free, and high standard education system.

The Invisibility of Girls’ Work

The ILO estimates that there are approximately 352 million economically active children (5-17) in the world, of which 168 million are girls. Although boys’ work is more likely to be hazardous, girls’ work is more often exploitative and abusive. Girls are contracted as bonded labourers, sold away as domestic servants and trafficked for prostitution. They are forced into such work often to repay a family debt or led away due to a lack of knowledge on how to protect themselves from the deceiving hands of exploiters. Domestic child labour is the largest employer of girls, making up to 90% of child domestic servants in some countries. Hidden, unseen and uncounted, the girls have limited opportunities to take advantage of education facilities.

Girls' work is low or unpaid, in conditions that are often intolerable, where they can be forced to work all hours of the day, where they may be required to satisfy the sexual desires of their “employers” and where they may not be free to leave. Their work is almost always of a submissive and passive nature, which has serious psychological implications for their self-perception and serves to perpetuate misogynistic views of the female sex.

Girls work harder and for longer hours than their brothers, while, ironically, girls’ income often contributes towards education of their brothers. Girls’ household responsibilities are often double or triple the work that they perform outside the home.

The Barriers to Girls’ Education

There is a myriad of social and cultural barriers that keep girls out of school. The low social and economic status of women ensures that they are often barely valued as human beings with rights. Born to be married into another family, or expected not work at the end of their schooling, girls are seen as an economic liability, either because of a parent’s personal beliefs or because the market provides little employment for women. An education for girls is often thought of as a waste of time and money, as girls are perceived as offering no prospect of reaping an economic benefit for the future of the family. Parents are also often reluctant to send their girls to school because the income substitution is not equal to the service the child provides at home, replacing her mother, who can then go out to work.

Girls also constitute the majority of the millions of children that drop out of school. The tendency of girls to be pulled out of school to be married or to take care of their family members when ill or infirm greatly affects girls’ school work and results in lower completion rates for girls. In many countries women get half as many years of schooling as men.

Schooling may also seem unattractive to parents because of the schools themselves. Girls are vulnerable to abuse in schools and while travelling to them each day. They may feel uncomfortable sending their child to a school with few female teachers. Curricula have a distinct gender bias, which can influence a parent's decision that their daughter will get a better education working at home, in another household, or in an industry that will equip them for later life.

In order to encourage parents to send their children to school, some countries have adopted schemes to reduce the cost of education by supplementing the income loss of a child’s labour and by subsidising the cost of schooling. However, they do not serve as a sufficient solution to the problem of lower attendance and completion rates of girls, in case where girls are not directly contributing to the household income. There are a number of gender specific factors that keep girls out of school: hence a number of different solutions are needed to address girl child labour and education.

Giving Girls’ a Fair Chance

Elimination of gender bias in educational planning and curricula

There are some small steps that keep girls out of school, which are often not addressed due to the gender bias in educational planning, infrastructure and curricula. For example, it has been identified that in many countries simple measures like a lack of separate latrines for girls makes an enormous difference to whether parents send their children to school or not. Measures must be taken to make schools girl friendly. In cases where girls’ chores at home are limiting them attending schools, they must be provided, for example, with schools within their communities to avoid long commuting time Facilities must be provided to ensure that girls’ needs are sufficiently looked after. A concerted effort must be made to remove gender bias from the curricula and to hire female teachers. Relevant curricula must be instigated providing girls with skills to contribute to their personal development and their family’s well-being. 

Improve school quality

As girls’ school enrolment and completion rates are so dependent on the quality of services, the quality, relevance and content of education systems must be improved. The school system should also be made more flexible and relevant especially with respect to girls. 

Educate adults

Changes must also be directed at the home. Education programmes must be aimed at parents to try to change cultural practices, emphasising the value of a child’s education and the problems caused by child labour. Adult literacy courses should be expanded, with particular attention to the improvement of literacy rates among women - an educated mother is far more likely to send their children to school and not into work. Further, teaching adults new skills may enable them to increase their income, reducing the need for child labour to supplement the household income. 

Provision of early childhood care

Services should be provided to ease a mother’s ability to find employment, such as provision for child care or facilities to look after the sick or elderly. Attempts should be made to reduce the amount of time that household chores take, so that both the mother can find work and girls have time for schooling. 

Eradication of child labour with special attention to girls' circumstances

Effective pressure, both internationally and nationally, for the eradication of all forms of girl child labour and for the eradication of work-based discrimination against women should be applied. This will emphasise the harmful nature of excessive or inappropriate work for children and young people and will serve to highlight that employment after schooling can be profitable for women as well as men. 

Without a true effort to eradicate existing labour practices of girls we can never hope to see every girl in education.