MAYUGE, UGANDA — Jacob Ocen, 13, stands in the midst of sugar cane stalks that tower over him, nearly three times his height. Clad in a T-shirt and shorts, he bends over, swinging a panga — a sharp, curved machete — that hacks through the sugar cane about 5 inches from the ground. He holds the fallen cane with his left hand and cuts its leaves off before dropping it to the ground in a grueling process that leaves him at risk of being bitten by snakes.
At the end of the day, 11 hours after starting work at 7 a.m., Jacob ties the sugar cane into bundles, counts them and awaits payment from his employer.
Months ago, Jacob, a pupil at Busuyi Primary School in primary three, the third level of elementary education in Uganda, would have been sitting in class, dressed in a uniform. Now, he’s toiling on a sugar cane plantation, working to make about 6,000 Ugandan shillings ($1.70) a day.
The firstborn child of seven, Jacob gives the money he earns to his mother. He has saved about 50,000 shillings ($14). “It will be for my school fees and uniform when I go back to school,” he says. “We have used the rest at home to buy food.”
Jacob is one of the 15 million Ugandan children whose education was disrupted when the country closed its schools in March 2020 because of the coronavirus. Schools introduced online and virtual education, but those alternatives were generally accessible only in urban areas. Connecting to virtual classes wasn’t an option for many rural schools and their students, like Jacob, who could not afford the internet, a radio or the necessary technology to participate in virtual learning.
Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda
This, coupled with the loss of jobs and income for families, has led many children to work in harsh, illegal conditions, says Damon Wamara, executive director of the Uganda Child Rights NGO Network, a coalition of child-focused nongovernmental organizations working for the welfare and rights of children in Uganda. Exploitative child labor has been particularly prevalent in areas with cash crops such as tea, cotton, sugar cane, coffee and cocoa. In the Mayuge district in eastern Uganda, where Jacob lives, the primary crops are coffee and sugar cane.
By law, children are permitted to do light work under constant adult supervision. Wamara says plantation owners employing children to work long hours under harsh conditions have violated this rule.
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More than 2 million Ugandan children ages 5 to 17 were engaged in child labor in recent years, according to the 2016-2017 Uganda National Household Survey.
That number has increased with the coronavirus-related school closures, though officials have not yet documented by how much. In a study conducted by Save the Children, an international NGO focused on improving children’s lives worldwide, 56% of Ugandans surveyed reported an increase in children working since the pandemic began.
Ismail Kalanda Buyeyo, principal labor officer and head of the child labor unit of the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, says officials are aware of ongoing child labor and have conducted investigations and visited plantations where children are working in illegal conditions.
Officials have issued ordinances in some areas to stop child labor and hold employers accountable, Buyeyo says. Penalties include three months of imprisonment or a fine.
The ministry sought to reopen schools as part of the solution, though many remain closed; officials also launched a mass media program detailing the dangers of child labor to increase awareness in affected communities.
“The situation is challenging,” Buyeyo says. “The reason why children are working is because of the high levels of poverty in families.”
The pandemic has devastated Uganda’s economy. The country’s Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development predicts the pandemic will increase the number of people living below the poverty line by 2.6 million. Uganda’s gross domestic product grew at a rate of just under 3% in 2020, compared with 6.8% the previous year.
Nelson Owere, 10, a primary two pupil at Bukoli Primary School, also located in the Mayuge district, is one of the children who have turned to hard labor to help with their families’ growing economic struggles. (All children interviewed for this article received permission from their parents to speak and be photographed.)
Nelson has been harvesting sugar cane on a plantation for the last three months.
“My parents are old, so they don’t work as much,” he says. “We use the money to buy clothes for my parents and brothers and sister, and to buy food.”
Nelson is unsure whether he will go back to school once classes resume. He feels a new sense of responsibility; he wants to support his family and is glad that he is contributing to their well-being, though it comes with a lot of hard work.
Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda
Plantation workers argue they’re helping families support themselves and only giving children assignments they can manage. “The children approached us one after the other asking for jobs to work on the plantation,” says Nathan Basoga, a supervisor on the plantation where Jacob and Nelson work. Children can only cut sugar cane, he says, and do not engage in more strenuous activities like loading it onto the truck.
“We allowed them opportunity to work,” Basoga says. “They needed the money.”
While boys mostly work on the plantations, some girls have begun working as cooks and street vendors, or in the commercial sex industry.
Justine Kimera, 12, has been working with her mother selling food in Mpererwe, a suburb of Kampala, the capital. It’s physically demanding work, and Justine says some customers have tried to molest her.
“I spend the whole day taking food to customers,” she says. “Some don’t want to pay. Others want to touch me.”
Wamara says the Uganda Child Rights NGO Network is planning to conduct a study to better estimate how many Ugandan children are involved in child labor.
He fears an entire generation will be affected; many children may never go back to school, and dropout rates will increase.
Meanwhile, Jacob continues to work in the sugar cane fields. He’s worried it’s taking too long to reopen schools. He continues to spend his time with a panga in hand instead of a pen.