Promoting an integrated social protection system to protect the most vulnerable children

By Ruth Ansah Ayisi

Despite Bolivia’s classification as a lower middle-income country, an estimated 43 per cent of the country’s 10 million people live under the national poverty line.

Deyna Mamani, typical of hundreds of thousands of children caught in this poverty trap, feels the need to supplement the family income. She gives an interview about her views on child rights in a dimly lit office situated in the commercial centre of La Paz. The office belongs to the Child and Adolescent Workers’ Association (NATS), a non-governmental organization set up by working children with the aim of protecting themselves from exploitation. “All children should have time to go to school, to do their homework, and to play with their friends,” says Deyna.

Deyna also has strong views about child labour; she refers to a 13-year-old boy who has clearly made a lasting impression on her. “He works long hours from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. laying bricks. At first he was not even receiving payment and he isn’t attending school,” she says.

At a recent NATS conference in Cochabamba, five hours drive from La Paz, Deyna highlighted that children needed more support to attend school. “For example, some schools insist that children buy two school uniforms; we can’t afford this.”

Deyna seems older than her 12 years; maybe it is because she is so eloquent, or maybe she just had to mature fast as she has been working since she was 8 years old. She sells hot drinks and juices with her grandmother in a bustling market in the heart of La Paz. Her working day begins at 6 a.m. before she goes to school; she also works a few hours after school, sharing shifts with her cousin. Then during school holidays she works from 6 a.m. until noon. “These days I like to work,” says Deyna. “I’ve learnt how to sell, I meet people, I feel useful, and I can afford to dress well and buy school materials.”

Yet Deyna admits that she has sometimes found her working conditions challenging. “Some customers discriminate against me and say my hands are dirty.” Deyna has also burnt herself with tea on a number of occasions; she shows a deep burn scar on her foot. She also concedes that at the age of 8 she did not want to work. “It was a necessity. I needed money to help my family and also to buy school materials.”

Many children, like Deyna, have to endure long working hours, sometimes in harsh, hot and backbreaking conditions. “Child labour can cause permanent problems for children, preventing them from achieving their full potential and denying them the same opportunities as other children who don’t have to work,” says UNICEF social policy specialist, Liliana Chopitea. “It is also detrimental to the economy, undermining the development of a skilled labour force and the elimination of poverty.”

To help children like Deyna, a holistic approach is needed that includes strong advocacy to raise awareness on children’s rights and capacity building to strengthen state institutions.

UNICEF supports the government and the main state institutions, such as the Legislative Assembly, to develop sustainable and efficient evidence-based legislation and social policies in favour of children and adolescents, with appropriate budget allocation. Collecting up-to-date data is a priority. UNICEF head of Monitoring and Knowledge Management, Xavier Sire, points out that more accurate data is required to identify the most vulnerable families and their needs so that a sustainable and more efficient social protection system can be put in place. “Generating accurate evidence about the situation of children can be costly but it enables UNICEF to better advocate for childfriendly budgets and to bring about policy change, so that policies are more sustainable, child-friendly and effective,” says Sire.

UNICEF’s advocacy efforts are assisted by the Parliamentarian Network for Child and Adolescent Rights, which UNICEF helped establish in 2009. Importantly, its 70 members sit in both the Senate and Deputy Chambers as well as on key parliamentary commissions. Javier Zavaleta, the president of the network and a parliamentary deputy, meets regularly with UNICEF to discuss policies and their impact on child rights. Zavaleta points out, “We have been able to make our voices heard in parliamentary debates and raise awareness about the importance of always considering child rights in public policy at national and subnational level.”

Zavaleta also had the opportunity to participate in the commission drawing up the Code for Children and Adolescents (approved in July 2014) which, despite recognizing the minimum age of 14 in line with international treaties, includes two exceptions for children between 10 and 12 years old. Significantly, the code orders the state to eliminate child labour within five years by implementing a social protection programme.

Zavaleta concedes that as members of the Legislative Assembly the network members still have to address many challenges in order to uphold children’s rights. One of them is to advocate for increased resource allocation from the annual national budget to bring about the necessary changes. He adds that attitudes need to change as well. “We work at national level but more work is needed to sensitize sub-national governments, communities, schools and families on child rights, particularly about child labour.”

As for Deyna, she is aware of the arguments around child labour. In the current climate, she feels she has to continue to work to achieve her goals. “I want to be a doctor in the future so I can care for others,” she says. Reflecting again on her friend who works as a bricklayer, Deyna leans forward, maintaining eye contact as she says emphatically, “Like many, this boy only continues with that type of bad work out of necessity. There needs to be more help for poor families.” Deyna, who has worked since the age of 8, argues that more needs to be done to support poor families.