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Our impact, their voices

I escaped child labour and can now help others

On the eve of International Week of the Deaf we profile a deaf Zambian man who, with ILO help, escaped child labour and discrimination and built a successful career as a teacher in the US.

Feature | 21 September 2018
LUSAKA, Zambia (ILO News) – Francis Phiri was born in a very poor area of Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. Together with his two brothers and two sisters, his family’s expectations in life focused on making ends meet.

Aged 12, the boy contracted malaria. Treatment complications led to the gradual loss of his hearing, until he became totally deaf.

Then, when he was 15, both his parents died. The loss put him on a path that led him into child labour.

Francis Phiri
“I went to stay with my aunt who lived on a farm in Nyimba, in the Eastern Province of Zambia. Already at that time, I loved studying. However, my aunt also died when I was in grade 10 at school. Her husband sent me to work in a farm. Sometimes I was working all day, leaving home at 5am and back at around 4pm. I would not get any food while I was working all day long outside, despite the hot weather,” he recalled.

To add to his difficulties he faced discrimination because of his disability.

“No one believed that I was capable of learning and succeeding in life with hearing loss. I was treated differently than the other kids. I was given an unfair amount of labour at home while my cousins had the opportunity to attend school,” he said.

Having already lost his parents and his aunt, he then had to cope with the deaths of his older brother and sister.

“I had lost my family as well as my hearing and found my opportunities in life rapidly narrowing,” he recalls.

Going back to school

However, Phiri was determined to get an education and get ahead. In June 2006 he went to a “Stop Child Labour” campaign event with the Association of Sign Language Interpreters of Zambia (ASLIZ). There he met Maria Theresa Milila, from the ILO. He told her his story and asked if the ILO could sponsor him for the last two years of high school.

“I was unable to pay the fees necessary for attending school. Soon after, the ILO provided me with a full two-year scholarship and assisted me to go back to school at the Deaf School in Munali.”

A year later Phiri’s life took another positive turn when he met Frank Lester, a deaf American teacher working as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Lester decided to take him back to the United States and sponsor his education. First he went to Ohlone College in Fremont, California and studied for a degree in Deaf Education. He then took a second degree at Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technology for the Deaf in New York.

After graduating, Phiri returned to California to teach American Sign Language at high school. He is now a US permanent resident and lives in San Francisco with his wife Kaci.

Advocating for others

However, the 30-year-old has not forgotten his roots. He recently visited Zambia and spent time at the ILO country office in Lusaka. He recalls that the ILO helped him at a time when no-one else would.

“The ILO saved me from spending the rest of my life working on a farm. If I had not escaped from my situation, I would probably not be where I am in life today.”

“I really would like to help communities in Zambia stop child labour, especially children who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have any other disability and who are exposed every day to high vulnerability,” he said.

Phiri has set up his own NGO to help deaf children in Zambia, and works with several other organizations.

“I am always willing to share my experience if it can help others. I hope I can visit the ILO headquarters in Geneva one day to further share my story and contribute to the fight against child labour, as well as discrimination against people with disabilities,” concluded Phiri.

“Francis Phiri’s story is a good example showing that by providing the right support, it is possible to keep children at school and to help them access employment opportunities so that they can also build their own life, including those living with a disability,” said Alexio Musindo, Director of the ILO Country office for Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.

“His support in relaying our message is most welcome. We will certainly look at ways of further collaborating with him in the future.”