Raising Awareness of Child Labour and Gender Equality

Among the decent work issues we see in some cotton production countries, there are two challenges in particular that we are working hard to address: gender inequality and child labour.

Despite the UN-led global push for education for all, child labour remains a challenge in developing (and sometimes in developed) countries, particularly when families are struggling to make ends meet. BCI takes this complex issue very seriously and works closely with independent labour experts to optimise our approach. We support farmers by helping them to understand and respect national legal requirements, as well as the fundamental, interrelated ILO conventions on respecting minimum ages for young workers (C138) and avoiding the ‘worst forms of child labour’ (C182). In the context of cotton farming, this could mean activities deemed hazardous for children, such as pesticide application.

We highlight the extent to which children can provide help on family farms, share advice on promoting young people’s health and wellbeing, and encourage parents to maximise educational opportunities, where they are available. Increasingly, we are working with our IPs to measure farmers’ awareness of child labour issues.

Our focus on decent work issues extend to gender inequality, too. Supporting women in the cotton supply chain has a multiplier effect, boosting their confidence, and strengthening their standing in their family and community. With women typically investing 90% of their income in their families , it also helps families save towards children’s healthcare and education. BCI currently works with 40,560 women farmers worldwide.

However, all too often, women cotton workers are likely to undertake the least skilled work (such as seasonal or part-time work), and enjoy less job security than men. Women workers globally are particularly vulnerable to low wages, receiving (on average) 25%-30% less pay than men for the same work.

In Pakistan, cultural forces combine to perpetuate these issues. For example, women have less voice in their family and community, with men leading decision-making, particularly in rural areas. Women have few rights to livestock, land or property, and are often restricted to indoor activities. In the country’s cotton sector, women perform much of the manual labour, yet few have the opportunity to be recognised as farmers or make farm management decisions. In making the leap, they face challenges from illiteracy to accessing government subsidies, training and resources such as water, fertiliser, as well as markets for their crops.

BCI’s IPs in Pakistan, including the Rural Education Economic and Education Development Society (REEDS), seek to create an environment that encourages both women and men to join its Learning Groups. In 2016, REEDS worked with 30 women farmers and 5,072 women workers. One of the women who was engaged by REEDS, Shama Bibi, had lost her husband, a cotton farmer, and was keen to become a farmer in her own right.

Despite initial resistance from her family, Shama became part of REEDS’ Learning Group in Rahim Yar Khan in 2015, steadily building her confidence and farming knowledge, covering every aspect of cotton growing, from seed to harvest. In particular, she learnt about best practice in observing crop health and spraying chemicals safely, replacing conventional pesticides with natural substances, and improving soil fertility, as well as optimising her irrigation and water harvesting techniques, and promoting decent work.

Now, a year on, Shama is running her farm profitably and is able to provide for her eight dependents. In particular, she has saved costs by using fewer pesticides, reduced post-harvest losses and maximised the crop she can take to market. She keeps track of costs, yield and profit in her Farmer Field Book. Meanwhile, improving her understanding of soil health is increasing her chances of cultivating healthy crops in the future.

“I have learned a lot through my discussions with Learning Group members,” says Shama. “My in-laws are impressed and often come to me for advice on cotton production issues. Next year, I am expecting to achieve a higher yield and better profitability.”

Importantly, understanding decent work principles prompted her to send her daughter to school rather than allowing her to help on the farm. Shama’s action is part of a wider trend, according to REEDS executive director, Shahid Saleem.

“The opportunity to share and build knowledge through the Better Cotton project inspires women to invest in their own and their daughters’ education, become involved in women’s entrepreneurship groups and scale up their business activities,” he says. “As they gain confidence and leadership skills, women also gain more respect in the community, and become more involved in household and farm decision-making. One of our Learning Group members went on to become a field facilitator herself and is now helping other women improve their cotton farming knowledge.”

In 2017, REEDS plans to reach more than 7,300 women workers and 50 female farmers in the rural districts of Rahim Yar Khan and Vehari.