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As young teenage girls, Soumaia and Samaa used to head off to the local market each morning to bring back supplies of vegetables and help prepare their family grocery store for the arrival of customers. “We used to have to get up very early and the loads we carried were heavy. Some people used to bother us on the way to the market as it was still dark and the traffic was always a worry.” But Soumaia and Samaa and their father Khaled were clients of a microfinance programme run by EACID (the Egyptian Association for Community Initiatives and Development) and they were about to negotiate a new loan. In a conversation with the EACID loan officer they realized that if they were able to increase their loan size from USD 1,000 US to USD 1,400 they would have enough cash on hand to negotiate with the wholesaler for home delivery of vegetables. Since Khaled had a good credit history with EACID, and the business was doing well, the loan officer agreed to increase the loan size. Now Soumaia and Samaa unload the donkey cart that arrives outside their shop each morning. Their work has become much easier, they are both able to spend more time on schoolwork and plan to become computer operators.
EACID along with its Canadian partners PTE (Partners in Technology Exchange) and MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates) have developed a series of intervention tools to improve working conditions within micro-enterprises that are part of EACID’s microfinance programme. This work has been supported by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and grew out of earlier CIDA support programmes that helped women and poor families in Upper Egypt start and sustain micro and small businesses. EACID had found that although it was able to successfully manage a loan fund, and its clients were expanding their businesses and improving family incomes, the quality of work within the businesses was not always safe or healthy. In addition, children often worked alongside adults as the family businesses grew and required additional labour. EACID was concerned about the social impact of its programmes and felt it needed to do more for its clients.
For over a century, the world has been preoccupied with children’s work and the risks to their health and well-being. Despite progress in enacting laws and developing programs, millions of children are exposed daily to hazardous work. According to the International Labor Office, out of an estimated 240 million children who work, 170 million are believed to be engaged in harmful activities. In Egypt, estimates of child workers range from 1.5 to 2.5 million. Many studies have focused on understanding the nature of child labor and its causes in Egypt and other countries. While these studies vary in approaches and focus, few identify the gender dimensions. Yet, in gendered societies such as Egypt, social perceptions and attitudes towards men and women operate at every level and sphere, whether at home, school or the workplace.
In the context of child labor, these gender attitudes and perceptions are also reflected not only in the nature of work that the children undertake but also in the gender-differentiated risks girls and boys face. Such analysis provides critical information that would allow policymakers to better target policies and programs to the specific conditions that affect girls and boys.
In an ideal world, these children should be enjoying a childhood of learning and development free of any form of risk. However, they continue to share the burden of poverty and of failures in social services and systems. Until such a time when all children can enjoy an education and a healthy childhood free of hardship, we continue to expand our knowledge of their conditions in the hope that if they must work, then at least their working conditions can be safer with minimal risk to their current and future well-being.