Young children hawking tissue papers in the estates.

Child labor in Mukuru kwa Njenga/Reuben has become a plague that cannot be ignored! As the evening sets in, children as young as 6-14 years both girls and boys start flocking the roads in Mukuru kwa Njenga slum to hawk all kind s of items. On the roadside they stand next to “their” stalls. With roasted peanuts on their hands, tissue papers stacked on their backs, onions among other products, they fill the streets hoping to capitalize on the many industrial workers who are on their way home from work.

They will follow one customer after another sometimes blocking their way and perhaps forcing them to stop, then with eyes portraying innocence they will plead with the workers to buy in a sheng language. To some irritated workers who are already tired they shove them aside not worrying neither their age nor their next stand.

At the junction of AA of Kenya and Muhindi Mweusi supermarket around 6pm, I meet Dennis Mutua, aged 12 years selling omena. He has proceeded to standard eight. His mother who also runs a vegetable stall some few meters away assigned him the duty since it’s on weekend.

Mutua has been helping her mother during the holidays to make extra coins to support their family. Though he would love to have time with his friends and perhaps play some games, he can’t because he opens “his” business from 4pm. Even after closing at 8pm he has to wait for her mother tills she closes then go home together.

Her mother Eunice Mutua asserts there is nothing wrong with her child helping her to earn few cents to better their lives.

“Hii si child labour kama vile unasema. Kuna gani shida mtoto akisaidia Mamake? (This is not child labour as you term it. What’s wrong with a child helping her mother),” and at that point she ends the conversation.

The story is the same for Joseph Musyoka and Ben Ndolo who move around selling tissue papers in the estates. With stacked packets they move from house to house and even to passers-by. Their stop-over is at movie sellers where they catch a breath while viewing the latest movie or watching the trailers. The two have been hawking for three months now. Joseph lives with his aunt while Ben stays with his mother at Transformer area in Mukuru kwa Reuben.

“Tunaenda shule lakini si kila mara, (we attend school but not regularly),” the two notes

Their aspiration of one day to become IT expert and roads engineer respectively continues to be shuttered each day they skip school and move around looking for money.

Same scene is witnessed at the upcoming dump-site in Mukuru kwa Reuben, it is filled with young children all searching for scrap metals/plastics without any protective gears in order to earn a few coins which they will take home to cater for other family members.

These activities according to Joshua Ajigu, a paralegal from Kituo Cha Sheria constitute violation of children rights hence child labor.

“These acts of children hawking can be termed as modern day slavery and degradation of children’s rights. It hinders the fight against poverty eradication in the slum and even shutters the dream of having a society which does not indulge in child labour. The same children will be parents of tomorrow without any proper mode of living; their children may be forced to become hawkers too. Here in Mukuru kwa Njenga its prevalent.” said Joshua.

Joshua notes that there is a thin line between child labor and children helping their parents at home. He argues that, children under the age of 18 years can assist in clearing the dishes after meals, tidying the house or any activity which does not put the child in danger or interferes with physical or social status of his upbringing.

“Any activity an underage child takes to earn money for whichever reason willingly or unwillingly, to support particular cause that is classified as child labor, as the activity prevents the child from enjoying the privileges of being child as he/she assumes the role of an adult” he explains.

Young children are being denied the joy of being children and hence burdened with the responsibility of becoming breadwinners at tender age. The responsibility the parents place on these children has created a vicious cycle. Having no basic education, they grow up with nothing to hold on to future, marry the same people who they have been hawking with and bring children who also get in to the same practice at young age.

Many parents continue to use their children as baits since they will attract more customers than them. But while resting in the house waiting for the day’s returns, the children out there encounter all sorts of harassment.

Damaris Wairimu, sukumawiki vendor near Embakasi Girls’ high school, can attest the brutality these innocent children go through.

She has witnessed some children being beaten on allegations of having stolen from a customer. Others forced to give extra balance even after they have returned the money and worst of all being robbed by other street children.

“We try to assist them but many residents question why their parents allowed them to come to streets. Other times they are mistreated before our eyes with nothing to do due to fear of being victimized also.”

Young girls too are prone to defilement! But what has hindered the fight against child labor in this area? Chief Peter Sila of Mukuru kwa Njenga slum notes that it hard to trace the children’s parents as they too cannot take you to their home.

“It is a challenge considering the nature of life here, congested house without number to identify where the children come from. However, we are working closely with other organizations to sensitize the importance of taking care of the young ones and dangers of reversing the parental role,” notes Chief Sila.

Though there is enacted law in Kenya, Children Act 2001, to protect children even against child labor, its fruits are yet to be seen or felt. As many slums continue to mushroom so does the child labor continues to expand. Having many young children roaming the streets without proper education is like brooding ground for criminal activities to prosper. They too deserve better lives and all effort should be done to protect them against this vice.