Child Labour and Education: Towards Participative Agency of Working Children in Paraguay


“Children should be making sandcastles, not bricks”, UNICEF #notochildlabour Campaign, 2013

“Bricks or Books? You decide”, Hunehar Stop Child Labour Campaign, 2015

“Children should have pens in their hands not tools” Iqbal Masih, 2009


The quotes above are typical slogans used in campaigns to stop child labour. They immediately make people think about a deplorable phenomenon that prevents children from playing and studying, robbing them of their childhood. The reality of child labour has always existed but it has intensified in the last decades due to globalization and to the affirmation of a capitalist economic system (ILO, 2002; Lieten, 2003; Liebel, 2004). As a consequence, child labour has increasingly become an object of major concern for international organisations, States and NGOs, prompting heated social and political debates. These actors have made children a priority concern and they are strongly committed to ensuring children’s rights. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) of 1989 is emblematic in this sense. It is the most widely ratified international human rights treaty in history and, for the first time, it acknowledges children as active subjects of rights. Among others, the CRC includes provisions on the prohibition of economic exploitation of children. In light of these considerations, a great deal of effort has been made to provide a multilevel legal framework to cope with this deeply-rooted child labour issue.

Starting from the premise that there is no universal agreement upon the concept of child labour, the above-mentioned campaign slogans clearly show that the main purpose pursued by global actors is the total eradication of child labour. In this sense, education is believed to be the best means to disengage children from this ‘plague’. The international community’s emphasis, however, has been so focused on pursuing the prohibition and the abolition of child labour that it appears to have lost sight of children and their rights. What is suggested, then, is to move away from the strategy employed so far, and instead adopt a child-centred approach that acknowledges the active and participative role of working children as social, political and economic subjects.

This post discusses whether and how it is possible to reach a more comprehensive view on child work and education, and the way they relate to each other. In particular, this relationship will be analysed through the lens of working children’s movements in Latin America, particularly in Paraguay.


An encounter with a Colombian educador popular (popular educator) at “NATs…Per”, a local NGO in Treviso (Italy), has been essential in my decision to study the issue of child labour. This educator works with Latin American child and adolescent workers ‒ Niños/as Adolescentes Trabajadores (NATs) ‒ and his words seemed to me to open up a new perspective on the debate. In particular, he described the reality of many Latin American countries, where child work is both the only source of income for children and their families and the means for children to access education and face its costs. Many of these working children gather into partly self-managed organisations and they actively demand the fulfilment of their right to education and their right to work in dignity, firmly condemning exploitative working conditions. Working children want to be acknowledged as active subjects of their own development and participative agents of their lives.

The interest in discovering such a different reality and the will to know the views of these working children led me to a field visit in Paraguay, carried out between 20 July and 29 August 2016 at the NGO Callescuela. This NGO works in contact with child and adolescent workers, developing projects in the local communities. The decision to choose Paraguay as a case study is mainly due to the presence of a well-structured working children’s organisation ‒ Coordinación Nacional de Niños/as Adolescentes Trabajadores (CONNATs) ‒ that embodies a new approach both to working children and to the relationship between child work and education. Callescuela and CONNATs are two interdependent entities. Their goal is to show that a positive and concrete transformation of Paraguay is possible only if it starts from children, and by including them in the design of a new national and international order. The stories told by working children and educators through the interviews, alongside their insights and proposals, have been an essential opportunity of mutual exchange of knowledge and experiences that reinforced my understanding of the practical relevance of international standards.

Children’s View on their Work

The point of departure is the respect for the NATs as both individuals and workers, along with the acknowledgement of “their right and capacity to shape their own lives” (Myers, Boyden, 1998: 7). According to the NATs, work is the source of several benefits ‒ material, social, developmental and emotional. First of all, work is an income-generating activity that allows working children to guarantee the maintenance of their families, and that also grants them more economic independence. Furthermore, beyond strictly economic considerations, they acquire a new reference role within the family (Bourdillon, Levison, White, Myers, 2011: 11). “Work has been the means to ensure my family’s survival and basic well-being” (Interview with Walter Bogado, 17 years old, shoeshine-boy in the Central Station, Asunción). Through working activities, the NATs feel autonomous and free, along with the chance of expanding their social relationships and strengthening mutual solidarity. “When I work, I feel good, I feel helpful to my family and myself, contributing to create the basis for a better future” (Interview with Daniel Cardoso, 12 years old, greengrocer in the Abasto Market, Asunción).

Frequently, working children perform their tasks in difficult circumstances and this leads them to develop a better self-consciousness, self-confidence and the capacity to find their own practical solutions to cope with such difficulties. Because of its contribution to manage their lives, work is perceived as a source of dignity, a critical form of learning and empowerment and a strategic vehicle to acquire awareness of the reality. “Work has been the best way to learn how to live, to relate with the other people and to find solutions for my family’s questions” (Interview with Gladys, an ex NAT, greengrocer in the Abasto Market, Asunción). These testimonies show that child work and learning, including playing, are not necessarily in contrast and may be interdependent.

Campamento MOLACNATsMoreover, the NATs’ reading of child work is the outcome of the consciousness of the social and cultural environment in which they have grown up. Indeed, the majority of organised working children come from rural areas where indigenous traditions influence the concept of work (Liebel, 2004: 31). “Our parents teach us to work in the field from a very early age, transmitting values and practical knowledge” (Interview with Pura Zayas, an ex NAT, now educator in Callescuela, Asunción). As a matter of fact, the chronological division of life into stages that use age as a criterion is alien to Paraguayan and several non-Western cultures. Differently, the determination of ‘maturity’ and the assignment of working activities rely on the capacities of children to perform certain tasks (Spittler, Bourdillon, 2012: 2).

On the one hand, by taking this child-centred stance, the NATs seem to mirror the CRC: this Convention acknowledges both their status of children as active agents and their contribution to the society, and “not simply in terms of the adults they will become” (Myers, Boyden, 1998: 12). On the other hand, there seem to be an implicit critique to the patronising approach to child labour adopted by most international actors and legal instruments, which often underestimate children’s capacities. Therefore, the NATs support the idea that different childhoods and developmental patterns exist, according to distinct cultural circumstances.

Education and Child Work: Learning by Doing

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” (B. Franklin)

As mentioned, many international actors, including the International Labour Organization (ILO), tend to depict compulsory schooling and child work as mutually exclusive. This assumption is contradicted by the fact that the vast majority of children across countries combine school with work (Bourdillon, Levison, White, Myers, 2011: 16). As far as the NATs’ perspective is concerned, working children claim that their right to a free quality education is an essential condition for their self-realisation. In a way, they recognise the potentials of formal education. Nevertheless, the question is how formal education works in practice and whether it prioritises the NATs’ best interests and needs. A brief examination of this point is necessary to better understand the Paraguayan NATs’ view of the relationship between work and education.

In Paraguay, as in many other developing regions, schooling for poor children, in particular working children, proves to be a total failure as it hardly respects the minimum basic requirements of the right to education. More specifically, the concept of ‘minimum basic requirements’ refers to the 4As criteria ‒ Availability, Accessibility, Acceptability, and Adaptability – identified and extensively explained as “interrelated and essential features” of education by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights (CESCR) (General Comment No. 13, 1999: para. 6). Frequently, the quality of instruction is very poor, the facilities are inadequate together with the infrastructure, the teachers are often not properly trained, and working children experience discrimination. Moreover, the public formal educational system is seen to be generally grounded on western values and hierarchical patterns which are alien to most of the cultural and life experiences of children in the South (Unrecorded informal conversation with Carlos Flecha, coordinator of the MOLACNATs, 13 Aug. 2016, Ciudad del Este). From this, a prejudicial ‘standardisation’ of children that disregards their specificities may follow, including further discrimination and social exclusion. It seems apparent that, on the one hand, detrimental schooling experiences push working children to drop-out and work, especially if what they learn is not relevant to their future; on the other hand, work becomes the sole instrument for children to be able to access formal education and sustain its direct and indirect costs (learning materials, uniforms, fees, transportation, etc.).

At this stage, working children’s movements demand governments to arrange more flexible schedules in order to accommodate the NATs’ tasks, as well as the elaboration of curricula more relevant to their own reality. Additionally, working children claim a more effective inclusion into school’s decision-making process and in policy planning. All these aspects go hand in hand with the incorporation of children’s life experiences into the learning process (Myers, Boyden, 1998: 22). “Our natural right to education is often denied by those adults who should protect, support and respect us” (Interview with Daniel Cardoso).

In order to deeply understand the NATs’ perspective on the debate on child labour question, it is also worth remarking the importance of Paraguayan cultural traditions, including their educational aspects. Indeed, the NATs’ propose and embody the educación popular model (popular education), which bases the learning process on practice, experience, critical thinking and on the critical evaluation of the socio-cultural context. Basically, the child learns in and through what surrounds him or her. This peculiar model aspires to create a space for dialogue, reflection and mutual exchange, where educators and children are equals. Since the interest in learning of working children lies exactly in the fact that it should be useful to master their present and future lives, the NATs’ movements try to shape educational alternatives that are, as far as possible, consistent with educación popular model.

Callescuela, the CONNATs, and their projects are illustrative examples in this respect. They try to provide both a physical and a conceptual space to “listen to and to be listened to” (Interview with Walter Bogado) where children’s presence, awareness and participation are deeply fostered. “Our working activities and Callescuela become our source of education, learning and valorisation” (Interview with Daniel Cardoso). The NATs then suggest another interesting initiative mainly in the rural context: the inclusion of productive work into school curricula (Liebel, 2004: 240). This would operationalize the idea of ‘learning by doing’, thereby fostering a mutual interaction between intellectual learning and practical activity. In so doing, the benefits for working children are various: firstly, children learn to give value to their work; secondly, by placing schools in direct contact with working children’s reality, school education becomes more relevant to the NATs’ life; finally, working children’s intellectual, critical, creative and practical capacities are strengthened.

Refuerzo EscolarSimilarly, Callescuela sets up other socio-educational projects. One example is the Refuerzo Escolar (education reinforcement), a project that assists children in doing homework and involves them in practical workshops. Other examples are the ‘ethical fair enterprises’, such as Callescuela’s serigraphy in Ciudad del Este, settled to produce and commercialise a number of goods. All these initiatives aim to promote the economia solidaria (solidarity economy), creating a link between new forms of education and work, in perfect compliance with the paradigm of child protagonism and the main objectives of the CONNATs.

By questioning the conventional forms of education, working children’s movements provide some important suggestions. First, they point out the need to transform schools into “schools of subjects”(Cussianovich, María Márquez, 2002: 26) where children are acknowledged as participative subjects of rights. Second, they require a more child-centred and inclusive education which necessitates to be tailored to the specific capacities, needs and socio-cultural contexts of working children.

The Critical Evaluation of Child Work and the Right to Work in Dignity

This comprehensive analysis of child work in all its multiple expressions and meanings for children’s dignity, along with a holistic perspective on education, translates into the paradigm of the ‘critical evaluation of child work’. This approach does not condemn child work in itself but the structural conditions generated by both globalisation and capitalism, namely poverty, violence, inequality, corruption. Before moving forward, it is important to underline that this approach firmly rejects any condition of exploitation that violates human dignity, exemplified in the CONNATs’ motto “SÍ al trabajo digno, NO a la explotación” (YES to work with dignity, NO to exploitation). Therefore, the critical appraisal of child work aims to strengthen the NATs’ resilience, and empowers them to speak out for the defence of their own rights and to combat against intolerable, harmful and hazardous working conditions. “These conditions are the problem, not work in itself. Work is dignity; it is a way of thinking, living and looking at the reality from many different perspectives. We defend our work because it is our life” (Interview with Daniel Cardoso).

This new perspective recalls Articles 6-7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Article 32 of the CRC. However, it translates into a legal claim of ‘the right to work with dignity’, more inclusive of working children and their peculiarities, and also into the demand for its legal codification at the international and national levels. “We consider work to be a right and, with all due consideration, we would argue that work allows people to keep their dignity, that it is a form of learning through experience, a source of education and family income. We are aware of the contribution we are making to society in general” (the NATs movement in Latin America and the Caribbean (MOLACNAT), VI Meeting Latin American and Caribbean of NATs Declaration, 2001).

As it is formulated, ‘the right to work in dignity’ seems to attribute a negotiating and a decision-making power to child workers, thereby further supporting their claim to be heard and participate in the child labour debate and in the elaboration of related legal instruments. The main idea behind their claims is that they should be acknowledged as fully-fledged workers that their working conditions should be the object of appropriate regulation. This recognition is believed the strategic mechanism to effectively tackle exploitation rather than the imposition of blanket bans based just on a standard age criterion. In this sense, child workers’ insights become necessary to construct a fairer society (Ifejant, 2013: 5).


The analysis of an alternative approach to the debate on child labour and education leads to some final remarks. First, the dominant conceptions of childhood and adulthood need to undergo a process of ‘deconstruction’ in order to recognise children and adults as equals. In addition, a re-subjectification of children ‒ in particular of working children ‒  is required, acknowledging their needs and views. Second, it is necessary to apply a more child-oriented perspective to best address the complexity of working children’s lives. In particular, it is essential to understand how children themselves see their work, why it is so significant to them, when it is empowering, developmental and in their best interests, and how it can best interact with education in its most comprehensive significance. International and national labour rules should be rethought accordingly, filling the existing implementation gaps and involving children into the drafting process. An effective improvement of working children’s lives is actually viable only by providing alternative working and educational opportunities, which better fit the needs of child workers. Third, and more generally, while the CRC provides a comprehensive legal framework protecting children’s rights, its effective implementation in practice remains imperative.

The case of Paraguay demonstrates that working children’s insights, actions and experiences are vital to foster a bottom-up change. The voices of Paraguayan working children show an alternative perspective that acknowledges the child as the main actor of the discourse on child labour and education. This inspiring vision is real and feasible and it is hopefully projected towards the full recognition for every child of the right to work in dignity. The path towards an actual change is still long, yet working children have already begun to walk it courageously.


Angela Bertocco holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, International Relations and Human Rights. She has recently graduated from the Master’s Degree in Human Rights and Multi-level Governance at the University of Padua. Her research and advocacy interests mainly concern the protection of children’s rights.

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