How to work with children justly?

Videography and exploitation: Working with children in Sierra Leone

by Allen Kiconco

Children have a right to voice their views on their involvement in exploitation instead of being heard and understood through third parties’ perspectives. Listening to children is vital in addressing and comprehending child exploitation practices in African societies.

Allen Kiconco

One-fifth of African children are estimated to be involved in child labour, more than twice as many compared to any other region. Estimations show that about 72.1 million African children are in child labour and 31.5 million in hazardous work. For a long time, children’s labour has been critical to African economies, with children working on family subsistence farms, assisting in family businesses and working as petty vendors in urban areas. Often, children engage in hazardous work in harmful conditions or experience trafficking as an extension of child labour. In extreme cases, child labour exposes children to modern slavery, where they are held against their will, separated from their families and living under severe hazardous conditions.

However, allegations of child labour, trafficking and slavery in contexts of Africa continue to reflect a limited understanding of the lived realities, with research, policy and activism often treating children as invisible.

According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989), children have a right to voice their views on their involvement in exploitation instead of being heard and understood through third parties’ perspectives. Listening to children is vital in addressing and comprehending child exploitation practices in African societies.

In a podcast and Q&A session, Lansana Mansaray, the project leader and producer for the Seaside and Borderline communities film, offered reflections and insights on issues associated with the methods, ethics, and politics of storytelling. He explains that safeguarding was paramount before, during and after filming. Mansaray discusses the challenges and dilemmas of accessing film participants, negotiating informed consent, managing expectations and navigating layered effects of his positionality, privilege and power. He argues that storytelling via film needs to be adapted in culturally and experientially sensitive ways in order to keep the participants safe and the film on ethically solid ground. Storytellers must find an acceptable compromise between obtaining high-quality stories, limiting the inherent risks involved, and reconciling with research ethics and practical challenges.

The films: exploitation, migration and more exploitation

Two kids are at the centre of the Kid Miners film, namely Bondi, an early teenage boy, and Titi, a thirteen-year-old girl. They are both the eldest children in their families. They work closely with their parents, and mining has cut short their education prospectus. While Bondi’s father alleges that he lacks resources to keep his son in school, Titi’s father has pulled her out of school to reduce the mother’s burden of domestic work.  Automatically, she resumes mining, the family livelihood. Titi reports that ‘I was forced to do gold mining by my father and mother.’

Bondi and Titi’s experiences show that child labour is gendered and shaped by age. Sierra Leonean parents rely on elder children’s labour to sustain their families and generate income to support their younger siblings’ education. Besides age, gender roles determine the type and hours of work children carry, with girls expected to take on extra domestic work. The experience worsens girls’ situations, heightening their vulnerability and exclusion from mainstream society.

The above-described scenario is not limited to mining communities in the rural settings of Sierra Leone. Indeed, a similar pattern emerges in the Seaside and Borderline communities film, where children spend their days pottering on fishing boats as the primary livelihood for themselves and their families. More importantly, Seaside and Borderline communities, a film capturing experiences from different locations, creates a link between child labour and trafficking, driven by poverty, exploitation and domestic abuse. The film’s main character is Lilian Jusu, a young woman who, as a teenager, migrated from Liberia to find work and safety in Freetown, Sierra Leone.


"I never wanted to leave my home. I was doing petty trading for my elder sister. I lost the money, and my sister was furious. There was no way for me to get the money back, she sent me away. I went to stay with my mother. Life was very hard for my mother and me. One of my friends convinced me to come to the city [Freetown] with her. I followed her because life was difficult, my parents are poor. This is my story, I have never told anyone this story. Because I am in pain."

Lilian Jusu

Lilian’s story aligns with another participant in the film, a girl, possibly in her late teens: ‘A friend in our village told me about her aunt in Freetown. She persuaded me to save some money to pay my transportation. On our arrival, I realised that all she told me were all lies.’ Such experiences corroborate a common community belief that, ‘we have people here [community/city?] who go to the provinces and take children under a false pretext’ (a male activist lamented in a community discussion).

To escape family poverty, Lilian ventured into other means of earning a living to support herself and her mother. However, she encountered exploitation and sexual assault, forcing her to migrate to the city

"I was living in Liberia with a woman who sells food. I was working for her. Her son started making advances on me. To say the truth, I stole her money and ran away to Freetown. I had no choice, her son was maltreating me in the house, when she is not around, he will try to have sex with me. I took the money when she left home and fled to Freetown.."

Lilian Jusu

Lilian arrived in Freetown fleeing poverty, maltreatment and exploitation in Liberia.  However, she faced a more precarious life in Freetown, initiating her into the Sierra Leone sex work industry. She reported that ‘Since then, I have been living on the street, even though I am older now, I am still living on the street. We go out at night, whatever we are able to get, we use it to sustain our lives.’ Another interviewee in this film explains that navigating the sex work landscape exposes her to violence, exploitation, stigma and fear: ‘Some boys on the streets sometimes they use us with no pay and they beat us if we try to say anything. Personally, I do get more beatings because I am new on the street. They take advantage of me’.

These examples show that children become trapped in the desire to obtain a better life for themselves and their families. They are encouraged or deceived to migrate to escape a ‘hard life’ in rural areas, only to end up in riskier communities in cities and towns where there is demand for cheap labour, working in conditions that grossly violate their human rights.

Seaside and Borderline Communities and Kid Miners indicate that child exploitation does not occur in a vacuum but in a socio-economic framework. Children work alongside their parents/neighbours or strangers either at mining, fishing sites and streets, among other spaces. In this case, mining/fishing is a guaranteed avenue for subsistence, with children taught the livelihoods by their families or friends. The framework makes child work essentially a socialisation and livelihood strategy that families rely on to prepare children for adulthood.

Outsiders of such local systems might translate this fundamental set-up as forced labour or child slavery. For example, in the Kid Miners film, Bondi’s father seems to defend the acceptability and suitability of his son’s work. (He even boasts that without Bondi operating a machine (generator?), they cannot mine).  However, when he reveals that sometimes Bondi is reluctant to join him in the village mine and that ‘if funds were available, I would not have asked Bondi to accompany me to the mines,’ a contradiction and vulnerability among locals that needs careful unpacking starts to emerge. In sum, the films suggest that researching and addressing child labour and other forms of exploitation should place children within the broader context of economic, social and political processes and relationships. Separating them and their realities from conditions of the broader society is unhelpful and sometimes counterproductive.

Tensions between local and international frameworks and systems

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines a child as a human being below the age of eighteen, is a philosophy and framework that significantly influences child labour and trafficking intervention. However, uneasy tensions between the Convention and local norms, processes and systems emerge in the films.

The rigid ‘stages of development’ approach to childhood and adulthood have a fixed beginning/ending. However, stories in these films challenge childhood and adulthood demarcated processes and experiences. Lilian’s statement of ‘…even though I am older now, I am still living on the street’ clearly reveals this challenge and tension between Conventions/theory and the realities. Lilian’s childhood complexities have followed her to adulthood, exposing her to different kinds of exploitation as an adult.

Customarily, girls in Sierra Leone, particularly in rural areas, become adults after marriage, making the event an initiation from childhood to maturity. However, certain occurrences disrupt the process. A girl can be considered a woman after menarche, developing breasts or simply being sexually active, or circumcised even if this occurs at a younger age. A girl will begin self-identifying as a woman and not a minor/child. Thus, sex (and not age) are essential rites to womanhood and adulthood in Sierra Leone.  

"The Convention on the Rights of the Child philosophy of childhood does not overlap entirely with the understanding of children and childhood in Sierra Leone. ... Addressing child labour and exploitation in African communities must recognise and reconcile this complication and tension. The move will demonstrate that child labour in Africa is a serious and complex socio-economic issue that needs careful analysis rather than sensationalism and melodrama."

Allen kiconco

Like in many parts of Africa, sex work is defined in terms of sexual activity/morality and not a labour issue. Although the circumstances of Lilian’s migration from her village and initiation into sex work were to some extent beyond her control (survival or starvation), people nonetheless view Lilian as transgressing cultural norms of gender, womanhood, sexuality, morality and as a threat to the patriarchal order.

According to the CRC, children should be provided with developmental and educational opportunities, security and social welfare to prepare for adulthood. However, these films suggest that this is not the case for many children in Sierra Leone, with the standards set out within the CRC not being attained by families and society. Instead, children like those documented in these films attempt to provide these needs for themselves and their families. Because of their circumstances, they have no luxury of spending their days resting, playing or attending school. Instead, they assume adult, risky and sometimes acceptable roles, serving as their family’s primary breadwinners.

Child exploitation interferes with children’s ability to enjoy childhood and attend mainstream education. Yet, the work is also how they attempt to access livelihood for themselves and their families, making child labour a fundamental coping mechanism that helps them fight poverty. The CRC philosophy of childhood does not overlap entirely with the understanding of children and childhood in Sierra Leone. Narrow and ethnocentric, it conflicts with local perceptions, expectations and realities. Addressing child labour and exploitation in African communities must recognise and reconcile this complication and tension. The move will demonstrate that child labour in Africa is a serious and complex socio-economic issue that needs careful analysis rather than sensationalism and melodrama.

African children, intervention and the rescue industry

One of the most potent symbols of the ‘rescue industry’ is the rescue of African children from child exploitation. Because of the power embedded in the concept of childhood, there is an unquestionable mission to intervene and combat all forms of exploitation. Everyone is assumed or expected to understand childhood and embrace the interventions.

Organisations and activists typify themselves as saviours, protecting ‘innocent’ and ‘helpless’ children from backward and primitive societies. They are informed by and reassert policies and narratives of rescue, sensationalism and paternalism. Failing to mitigate social, cultural and economic institutions and processes that are often central to the children’s lives and realities, they stand inside the rescue politics in Africa. Moreover, they risk to damage the children they seek to save, including creating tension between the children and their parents and communities. Ultimately, interventions are implicated in the neo-colonial hierarchies of knowledge and power.

Any filmmaking on this issue runs the risk of falling into campaigns against child labour, trafficking and slavery that are still dominated by sensationalism, victimhood, extreme poverty and trauma, consequently endorsing the stereotypes of supposed primitiveness and backwardness of African societies.  However, such films also provide a valuable opportunity to contribute to a discussion associated with the politics of knowledge production in relation to children. The two films discussed here effectively invoke the debate on how researchers and intervention can complicate/address child labour and exploitation practices without re-inscribing the very stereotypes and harm they are working against. They pose questions such as: How do we justly work with children and their communities? How do we tread the blurred line between care and control/hindrance?

you might be interested in

The Question of Inclusion

Survivors rarely get the opportunity to...

What is epistemic justice?

Video diary: Allen Kiconco


AKN partners and team members explore how best to...