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Policy in child labour
  1. T Hesketh1,
  2. J Gamlin1,
  3. M Woodhead2
  1. 1Centre for International Child Health, Institute of Child Health, University College London, UK
  2. 2Centre for Childhood Development and Learning, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
    Dr T Hesketh
    Centre for International Child Health, Institute of Child Health, University College London, 30 Guilford St, London WC1 N1EH, UK; t.hesketh{at}

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The importance of health

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines child labour as “all economic activities carried out by persons less than 15, regardless of their occupational status, except household work in parents/carers homes”.1 By this definition over 200 million children, or a massive 20% of all children under the age of 15, are engaged in child labour. They are mostly concentrated in the poorest regions of the world: in Sub-Saharan Africa 29% of all children work, in Asia-Pacific 19%, and in Latin America and the Caribbean 16%.1 Children work across a range of employment sectors, including agriculture (which accounts for 70%), manufacturing, street trading, domestic work, and mining.2 Many children work because the benefits of working are perceived as greater than those of attending school. These benefits may include economic return, the opportunity to learn a skill, a sense of independence, and higher self-esteem.3 The family may also be unable to afford either the actual costs or the opportunity costs of education.4 This may be one of the most crucial dilemmas of poverty. Work and school are not mutually exclusive; table 2 shows that around half of all working children combine the two. Indeed, many children work precisely in order to be able to afford schooling.

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Table 1

 Economically active children in 26 countries, by industry and gender (averages)

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Table 2

 Global estimates of the activity status of children in 2000

Child work is a highly contentious issue. Debate has raged between abolitionists, who believe that a childhood of education and leisure is a basic human right, and those who believe that work is an intrinsic part of childhood and essential to survival in many poorer parts of the world.5 Economists are also divided between those who argue that child labour is a rational and necessary household …

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