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Feature for World Day Against Child Labour - From muddy fields to the classroom: a boy’s journey out of child labour

The international community has taken significant steps in the eradication of child labour and the International Labour Organization has recognized that the end of the worst forms of child labour is within reach. Still, it is an uphill struggle and much remains to be done. On this year’s World Day Against Child Labour, the ILO is highlighting the role of education as the right response to child labour. The story of Rafaelito shows how.

Article | 09 June 2008

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC (ILO Online) – Rafaelito was five when he started working in a farm in the south of the Dominican Republic planting and harvesting vegetables.

For more than 12 hours a day, he and his older brother would squat down in muddy fields under the relentless sun making holes in the ground, planting seeds and collecting tomatoes and other vegetables.

“We earned between five and nine dollars a week”, recalls Rafaelito. “But sometimes my brother earned nothing but a beating from the foreman, because he didn’t obey him.”

For four years, that was Rafaelito’s life. The foreman would pick him up at the crack of dawn and drop him back home after six in the afternoon. The cost of lunch at the farm was deducted from his weekly pay.

When he was nine, his family decided to move to the capital of the province of Azua, in southern Dominican Republic. New neighbours and other family members convinced Rafaelito’s father to send him to school.

But it wasn’t easy. Since he had never attended school and could neither read nor write, he began among students well below his age.

“Other children would tease me because I was much older. I was very shy and kept to myself. On top of that, I almost didn’t attend class, because I had to help my father go around selling the products he bought at the market. That’s how he made a living.”

Rafaelito struggled for three years, earning low grades and learning little. He wanted to go to class, but the reality of life pulled him away from it.

He was ready to give up school when he was approached by members of the Action Programme for the Prevention and Eradication of Child Work in Agriculture, a local programme funded by the US Department of Labour and supported by the ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) (Note 1).

“One of the ladies from the programme talked to my father and explained to him why my brothers and I should be studying instead of working”, says Rafaelito.

His father decided to go with the programme and Rafaelito and his brothers were given catch-up lessons to bring them up to the level of other students their age. “The teachers were really patient and helpful. Thanks to those special lessons, I was able to pass on to the next grade”.

“Quitting work for education is not simple, but it is the only way for a child to progress in life, even though work gives us money and education doesn’t”, says Rafaelito, reflecting the theme of this year’s World Day Against Child Labour aimed at raising awareness of the role of education in response to child labour.

However the challenge is not only to make sure children attend school, but also that they are not forced back into work. Rafaelito’s story provides a good example. In order to avoid being forced into the same situation, the programme offered Rafaelito’s father micro-credits under the condition that he kept his children in school.

“My father used the money from the micro-credits to buy a motorcycle. With it, he could purchase products at the market and sell them on the street without our help. That way we had time to study, practice sports and do other stuff that children are supposed to do”, says Rafaelito.

The ILO and other UN agencies have been at the forefront of the fight against child labour and have recognized the importance education plays in achieving this goal.

The elimination of child labour was not explicitly included in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set in 2000, but achieving universal primary education was.

Since 2002, an inter-agency group combining the ILO, UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank and the Global March Against Child Labour has met annually, leading to the establishment of a Global Task Force on Child Labour and Education in November 2005 (Note 2).

At 18, Rafaelito is still studying and has taken courses on hotel management so that some day he can have a decent job in the tourism industry – a long way for someone who otherwise would have spent his life squatting on muddy fields.

“Education contributes to building a protective environment for all children and is the mechanism for opening up choice, which lies at the heart of the definition of development,” says Patrick Quinn, Senior Technical Specialist of the ILO IPEC programme. “In turn, child labour is one of the main obstacles to full-time school attendance. This must be changed, and Rafaelito’s story is a prime example of how it can be done.”

Journalists interested in pursuing this and other stories related to this year’s World Day Against Child Labour should contact the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) on +412/.799-8181 or at

Note 1 - The End of Child Labour: Within reach. Global Report under the Follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, 2006, International Labour Office, Geneva.

Note 2 - Reaching the unreached: Our common challenge. Global Task Force on Child Labour and Education for All (GTF) - /ipecinfo/product/