The ILO Excludes Child "Marriage"

AIDS-Free World approached the ILO about its refusal to count child "marriage" as child labour. We pointed out that child "marriage" for girls amounts to slavery-like practices, the sale and trafficking of children, forced labour, and hazardous work that harms their health and safety. We argued that no changes to the ILO Conventions regarding child labour were necessary, as child marriage already fits within the current terms. And the answer we got back was classic bureaucratic speak:

[C]hild marriage may not be interpreted as constituting a worst form of child labour for girls, given definitional primacies. — Letter from the ILO Chief of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch

The letter went on to explain that Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour "was intended to be confined only to the world of "work" (that is economic activity, even if illegal)".

Their position was clear: Child marriage doesn't amount to work, so it can't possibly constitute child labour. That begged the question: what does the ILO consider "work" or "economic activity"? 

Defining "work"

In the ILO’s Resolution on Child Labour Statistics, they describe the categories of “children in employment” and “children in other productive activities”.

“Children in employment” are doing tasks that qualify as “economic activity”.  In order to define economic activity, the ILO uses the definitions found in the System of National Accounts (the “SNA”), which is an internationally agreed standard set of recommendations on what types of work qualify or do not qualify as economic activity, and how countries should measure economic activity. In general, if children are doing work that qualifies as economic activity (work that falls under the “production boundary” of the SNA), they would be classified as “children in employment”.  From there, depending on the age of the child and their working conditions, a determination would be made about whether the work constitutes illegal child labour or a permissible form of work. 

The second category, “children in other productive activities” includes children who perform unpaid household services:

"Children in other productive activities includes children who perform unpaid household services, that is, the production of domestic and personal services by a household member for consumption within their own household, commonly called “household chores”. In contrast, the performance of household services in a third-party household, paid or unpaid, is included within the production boundary of the SNA." (Para. 13)

This definition is illustrative. It makes a simple distinction: household chores performed in one’s own household fall under the category of “children in other productive activities” whereas the same chores in a third-party household, paid or unpaid, fall under “children in employment”. In other words, the ILO’s position is that if a child conducts unpaid household services in her own house, she is doing chores, and if she is in someone else’s house, there is an economic interest, so she is working.  

The result of the ILO's position

Based on the ILO's definition of "economic interest", and its position that there is no economic interest in the work performed by girls in child "marriages", the only conclusion one could draw is that the ILO considers the household of the illegal spouse to be a girl's valid household. Consider the three different scenarios regarding the ILO's position on whether there is an economic interest in work being performed: 

  1. A child performs work in her own household = no economic interest

  2. A child performs work in her neighbour's household = economic interest

  3. A child is illegally "married" to that neighbour and performs the same work in her illegal spouse's household = no economic interest

What changes from scenario #2 to #3? It seems that the illegal "marriage" changed the girl's household. What before was a neighbour's third-party household is now the girl's household, even though it was through an illegal act. 

clarifying the ilo position

In mid-2018, AIDS-Free World finally had the opportunity for a discussion with statisticians at the ILO. Their first point of clarification surprised us: according to their statistical definitions, the illegal spouse's household in a child "marriage" is considered a girl's household, just as the home of a kidnapper would be the kidnap victim's household. They admitted it seems strange, but all that matters for these national household surveys conducted by every ILO member state, is whether a child sleeps there and shares one meal. If they do, then that's defined as their household. The ILO promised: "this isn't a value judgment," it's just how the statisticians define household.

But of course it is a value judgment to not take into account why someone is in the household. How and why the child is in the house changes her role, and changes her ability to accept or reject labour. What might be household chores performed by a child for her mother and father, become child labour under the threats and abuse of her illegal spouse. 

What is the result of defining an illegal spouse’s household as a child’s valid home? In the unlikely event that the labour is captured by household surveys, which we discuss more below, then such labour would be categorized as household chores rather than child labour. Why? Because as we stated above, chores performed in one’s own home can’t be child labour, only chores performed in a third-party household. So this “value-free” classification of household, ends up determining whether the chores a girl performs in an illegal marriage are included in child labour statistics, or in a separate household chores category.

capturing forced labour data

In our discussion with the ILO, they contended that they are capturing most instances of child labour performed in child marriages, because there’s no reason their household surveys would exclude such children. In other words, they content, if the labour being performed qualifies as child labour, then the marriage status of the child is irrelevant, the household surveys should capture it.

There are instances where we agree. If a child is in a marriage and works at a farmstand, there’s no reason the household surveys wouldn’t capture that labour. Where the household surveys would not capture the labour, is when the illegal marriage is the basis for the labour being coercive. Consider: an illegal marriage is a forced marriage, since a child can’t consent to an illegal act. Any labour that results from that forced situation, whatever the form the labour takes, should also be considered forced. How can a household survey which doesn’t ask if the child is “married” ever hope to capture such labour?

The ILO claims they do. They say that in the vast majority of cases, such labour comes through in their household surveys. But their claims simply don’t make sense. The ILO admitted that it cannot capture forced child labour data through household surveys. This makes sense, after-all, who would answer a survey honestly by admitting to an illegal act? There is no reason that forced child labour that came about through illegal marriages would be any different. Which means child labour statistics still exclude millions upon millions of girls.

What is the answer?

At its most fundamental level, this campaign is about pushing the ILO to publicly recognize that combatting child labour necessarily requires combatting child marriage, since millions of children, mostly girls, are performing child labour due to their illegal marriage. The ILO needs to make this public acknowledgment, which would then necessarily lead to updating its policies, programmes, and data. We recognize these changes, particularly in data, can’t happen overnight. But the data can be presented in ways that more accurately reflect the gender balance in child labour.

Child labour statistics currently give the mistaken impression that the problem is overwhelmingly male. Adding in the labour of girls in child marriages, whether it is counted as household chores, or forced labour, reveals that child labour is very definitely a female problem as well. The ILO needs to start presenting its statistics accordingly, combining child labour and household chore data, and providing estimates - clearly and prominently, not buried in footnotes - that acknowledge the millions of girls in illegal child marriages whose labour isn’t being included in child labour statistics.

The ILO is doing serious work on child labour, but the way it treats labour in child marriages perpetuates a gender bias that is simply not acceptable.

We need your continued support by telling the ILO that you care about this issue, that gender inequality in its programmes cannot be ignored, and that to fulfill its mission to eradicate child labour requires that the ILO start to be a voice, and a leader, in the battle against child marriage.