The agony of children forced into hawking in Kisumu town
It is about 6 pm in the evening and two young girls are frantically calling for customers as they attempt to hawk items at the crowded Kisumu bus park before the 7 pm curfew.
One of the girls with two boxes containing face masks rushes after a moving car as she hands the driver change after selling him a facemask.
A motorbike misses her by a whisker as she resumes her position at the sidewalk. Her sister Joyce Achieng (not her real name) was hawking bottles of liquid soap.
From a distant, one can easily praise them for their bravery but that perception disappears when you move closer to them. They are young, tired and hunger is written all over their faces.
But for the two girls, this is their new life as the effects of Covid-19 pandemic push young children to the streets to compete with adults in the hawking business.
They are part of the growing number of children forced into child labour by their parents and guardians in order to complement their family incomes as more families struggle with the effects of the pandemic.
In April 2020, Kenya Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) made a report that around 1.72 million people in Kenya lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic, which in return resulted in families sending their children to work.
“Every day after school we come to hawk the items at the bus park and around town,” says Achieng.
There are days she says they have been missing school because they have to sell the goods and give her parents the money.
Aged just 13 years old, the minor has already mastered the secrets of the trade and has been at the forefront in helping convince customers to buy liquid soaps. The prizes range from Sh20-Sh200.
“There are days I make about Sh250 or even more and I give them to my mother,” she says.
Despite their young age, they are now part of the growing number of children across the globe condemned to child labour to help their families.
According to a new report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNICEF, the number of children engaged in child labour has risen to 160 million worldwide, which is an increase of 8.4 million children in the last four years.
The Kenya Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), indicates that 8.5% of children, or 1.3 million, are engaged in child labour.
And this is the grim reality that several young girls have found themselves.
There is a greater chance some of them could drop out of school or become pregnant.
For Achieng however, her fear is being arrested by city askaris who have been cracking down on hawkers along the streets.
She says they have always been living in perpetual fear every time they step out of their house in Nyalenda slums to go and sell the goods at the bus park.
At times they are harassed by boda boda operators, other traders and rogue customers who view them as beggars, she says.
Along the bus park stretch and the market next to Moi Stadium, several young girls have been compelled to engage in child labour which denies some of them chances to attend school.
They hawk a variety of goods including food stuffs and meals. Only a handful of them operate with their parents.
Traders at the market claim that the situation is worse when schools are closed and all learners are at home.
The market is always a beehive of activity with some of the children selling ice-cream and water.
When People Daily visited Victoria Park, another young girl was hawking sweets to a few people who were passing time at the park.
The girl aged about 12 years old was too shy to speak but confirmed that she is in class five.
Rose Akinyi (not her real name), single mother who has also compelled her children to sell liquid soap and beverages along the streets claimed that hard economic times had forced her to include her children in business.
She claims she was fired from a hotel she was working in late last year and has been unable to find another job to fend for her family.
Up until now, the single mother of four has never been called back as the hotel where she was working was closed down indefinitely due to lack of tourists who were frequent visitors.
She was now forced to open a small stall in Nyalenda slums where she stays and she has been depending on that to pay for her children's school fees and also to survive.
Due to the hard economic times, she told People Daily that she was forced to give three of her children some stuff including liquid soap and tomatoes to hawk to make ends meet.
"Life has been hard for me as I struggle to fend for my children and that is why I was forced to give my children the items at least to help us put food on the table,” she said.
Although, authorities do not have the exact figure of the number of young girls engaged in child labour, they claim the numbers could be high.
The children’s department however downplays the issue but admits that several children have been hawking items along the streets.
According to the Kisumu County Coordinator for Children Services, Humphrey Wandeo, child labor is not a major issue within Kisumu County but small subjects of labor exist in parts of Kisumu city.
He claimed that the bus park, Corona Market and Dunga beach are some of the places they have spotted rampant cases of child labor.
He explains that children living in the streets are always regularly employed by shop owners, hotel owners and bus operators for the purposes of cleaning hotels, vehicles and utensils.
In Dunga beach, he said that the children are employed to sell food items, hawk in open air markets and also work as potters carrying goods.
"Many times during school holidays, most especially during Covid-19 period, we saw a spike in the number of school children in town hawking with most of them selling vegetables, soap, and stools among other items, “he said.
Wandeo told People Daily that most of the time these children would do this work and would at times return back to their families late in the evening after sacrificing to help out in their homes.
To some aspects, he agreed that the pandemic has greatly contributed to the spike in the number of children selling items along the streets during Covid period with many of them flooding the streets, particularly in the second half of 2020.
The major contributor of child labour in Kisumu, he said, are employers seeking to illegally exploit children because of their low age and the low wage rate they pay them.
To end child labour, Wandeo told us that parents need to be sensitized and, if need be, arrested for putting their children at risk.
"Parents need to understand the risk they are putting their children in by allowing them to work in places where their safety is not guaranteed and exposing them to harassment which is not good for their mental development,” he said.
On his side, the Kisumu County Director for Education, Isaac Atebe noted that the Ministry of Education policy emphasizes on keeping every school-going child in school and not be left to roam in the streets.
“We are always combing and finding out which girls have dropped out through their head teachers so that we return them back to school,” he said.
He added, "As we get information from the head teachers, we work with the Ministry of Interior, reach the families and parents so that the children are kept in school."
According to Doris Ng'ong'a, the Programs Manager at Forum for African Women Educationalists Kenya Chapter (FAWE-K), since Covid struck the country early last year, they have been advocating for girls especially those who dropped out of schools to go back to school.
"We have been advocating for girls re-entry to school, not only those affected by child labour, but also those affected by other issues such as teenage pregnancy, victims of Gender Based Violence, Female Genital Mutilation and child marriage," she said.
She noted that the major contributor of child labour currently is hard economic times which forces parents to involve their children into various economic activities.
At FAWE-K, she says they identify children from needy backgrounds who dropped out of school at a tender age and take them back to school.