Keynote: “Child labour” and Children’s Lives

Professor Michael Bourdillon - University of Zimbabwe - There is tension between two aspects of children’s work: work is a fundamental human and social activity, and therefore has a place in children’s lives and development; on the other hand, work demanded of children can be abusive, damaging their physical, social and cognitive development. When the concept of “child labour” dominant in discourse in the global North is applied to situations of children in the global South, the concept obstructs a good understanding of the place of work in children’s lives and the analysis of benefits and harm. When this discourse drives intervention intended to protect children, a frequent result is unintended consequences damaging to children. To overcome such problems, research into children’s work must focus on outcomes in their lives rather than being driven by values encapsulated in an ideal childhood. Research into children’s rights needs to go beyond the gaps between international conventions and practice, and instead be driven by empirical and theoretical understanding of outcomes in children’s lives. There are, however, considerable challenges for academics who are critical of the dominant discourse, which assumes for itself the superiority of being progressive and morally superior.

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