How Can We Eliminate Child Labour in Cotton Production?

(FAO)* — Cotton is one of the most common fabrics in the world, from its origins in ancient India to the modern garments many of us wear today. This durable, versatile and naturally organic fabric is made from the white, fluffy fibres around the seeds of cotton plants.

Cotton is one of the most popular fabrics around the world, but, in some countries, child labour is common in its production. ©FAO/Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak

However, the backstory of cotton is more complicated. Its production is heavily dependent on natural resources and labour; and unfortunately, child labour is often a part of this.

Children are involved in a wide range of tasks in the cotton industry, including preparing the land, handling pesticides and handpicking the cotton balls at harvest time.

Mali is the second largest cotton producer in Africa and child labour in the cotton industry is prevalent there, perpetuating a cycle of poverty for their families and their communities. Moreover, many of the children who work in Mali’s cotton fields are not enrolled in school.

Amadou Fodé Diarra and his family of 12 from the Ségou region of Mali rely solely on their cotton harvest to make ends meet.

However, with very little income, Amadou cannot afford to hire help at harvest time, so he often relies on his children. One day he heard about the CLEAR Cotton Project on a local radio broadcast.

Co-funded by the European Union and implemented by FAO and the International Labour Organization (ILO), the CLEAR Cotton project offers rural families training and inputs for other income-generating activities, such as poultry or small ruminant breeding and market gardening, increasing their household income.

This in turn allows them  to hire adult day workers for fieldwork and pay school fees for their children.

The CLEAR Cotton project provides farmers in Mali with alternative income streams. Amadou (right) is now raising chickens, bringing in money to hire external labour and send his children to school. Top: ©FAO/Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak bottom: ©FAO

Alternative income streams

Amadou received one rooster and five hens through the project, allowing him to begin a poultry business. With just these six chickens, Amadou’s income is enough to hire workers  for the labour-intensive periods on his cotton farm and even to pay for clothing and school supplies for his children.

“These activities are promising,” he says. “Two of my chickens have 10 and 11 chicks so far, and I hope that in a few months I will be able to sell chickens to pay for certain expenses, such as health, as well as my children’s education. I have high hopes for this poultry farming. This can significantly reduce the work of my children so that they can go to school.”

As part of the project, FAO has trained nearly 400 women and men cotton farmers through Farmer Field Schools  on poultry rearing and sesame production, a cash crop that will reap a larger income, as well as the production of market garden crops like potatoes, onions, shallots and tomatoes.

The project has also created Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs), which are local structures for financing income-generating projects.

Through these alternative income streams, combined with increased access to finance, local farmers can afford to invest in external labour and send their children to school.

Raising awareness

The project also works with local FAO Dimitra Clubs in farming communities to raise awareness on issues related to child labour and youth empowerment and encourage dialogue and action.

Dimitra Clubs are groups of women, men and young people who get together to bring about changes in their communities. Four members of Amadou’s family attend their local club, meeting regularly to discuss community issues, including child labour in cotton production and what can be done about it.

“The discussions focus on child labour, which is a real issue in our communities. Awareness raising continues, but changing people’s behaviour is a daily task. It still takes a lot of time for populations to become aware of how challenging the situation is,” Amadou says.

Child labour harms both children and the agriculture sector. The UN has designated 2021 as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. ©FAO

International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour

“For several years, FAO has been engaged in a broad programme to support Member States in the work against child labour in agriculture and the promotion of decent work in rural areas,” says FAO Special Advisor in Mali, Modibo Touré.

“In Mali, FAO is supporting the Government in implementing a national roadmap through dedicated projects for the fisheries and cotton sectors.”

Child labour in agriculture is a global issue and a human rights violation that harms children, perpetuates rural poverty and damages the agricultural sector.

The United Nations has designated 2021 as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, and FAO is proud of the longstanding work it has undertaken with its partners to address the root causes of this issue.

Through the CLEAR Cotton project, Amadou’s children and many others, will be able to attend school and lead healthy lives Children, wherever they are from, should have the right to a childhood.

Learn more


2021 Human Wrongs Watch

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