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Child Labor & Educational Disadvantage – Breaking Cycle Starts with Building Opportunity

Over 200 million children around the world are involved in child labor.

Child labor takes place in every region of the world, but it is most prevalent in developing countries. The two leading causes of child labor are poverty and a lack of education, which almost always go hand in hand.

The absolute number of 5-14 year-old children in hazardous work is highest in sub-Saharan Africa. Around 26 million children are affected. With just 16 per cent of the world’s children, the region accounts for half of all hazardous employment among 5-14 year olds. Around 13 per cent of the region’s primary school-age children are involved in hazardous work.

By far the largest source of child labor is unpaid family work in the agricultural sector, where 130 million children are involved (Global March Against Child Labor 2012). Only one-in-five working children are in paid employment.

Projecting the trends for economic activity and child labor ratios for 5-14 year olds from actual towards 2020 points to a scenario that could include:

  • Around 65 million child laborers in 2020, with 50 million in hazardous employment 

  • Another 19 million children in child labor in 2012 than in 2005, with hazardous labor 
accounting for the bulk of the increase. 

  • Around 40 million 5-14 year-old children in hazardous work by 2016. 

  • An increase of 16 million in the number of child laborers by 2020. 

  • An increase of 27 million primary school-age children involved in hazardous work by 2020. 


Beyond the obvious and immediate harm, it causes to the children involved, child labor has life- long consequences. Excessive involvement in the world of work, especially in high-risk areas of employment, traps children in a cycle of poverty, vulnerability and diminished opportunity.

Education is part of the cycle of deprivation. Facing restricted opportunities to develop the skills and competencies they need during their school years, child laborers subsequently experience diminished life-chances and elevated risks of working poverty in adulthood.

While the precise mechanisms of work are complex and influenced by a range of unobserved factors – such as household preferences and family behavior – the clear message to emerge from the research is that child labor is keeping many children out of school. Meanwhile, millions of children in school are fighting a losing battle to balance education with employment. In this section we look at: 

  • The impact of child labor on school attendance, including global out of school numbers 

  • The characteristics of children in employment, with a focus on parental wealth and education 

  • Time-intensity effects and the trade-off between child labor and education 

  • Evidence on the effects of child labor on learning achievement 

  • The impact of household chores and sibling care on school attendance among girls 

  • Education disadvantages associated with hazardous employment and the worst forms of child labor. 


 Though much has been achieved over recent years’ child labor remains a global epidemic. That epidemic is depriving some 215 million children of their childhood, exposing them to the risks that come with arduous and often dangerous employment. It is also holding back progress towards the education for all goals, trapping a whole generation of children in a cycle of poverty in the process.

Education has a vital role to play in changing this picture. Getting children out of work and into school should be an international development priority. Removing the financial barriers that keep children out of school and raising the quality of provision through more effective teacher training, more equitable public spending, and a strengthened focus on marginalized children and areas is one of the requirements for unlocking the potential of education to act as a catalyst for change. But if the right to education is to be translated into a reality for children trapped in the worst forms of child labor wider measures will be needed. Education has to be integrated into wider national strategies for eliminating child labor through strategies that combat poverty, inequality and vulnerability, including social protection and targeted support.

 Success in combating child labor will require more than good policies. Many of the required interventions are well known. What has been lacking is political leadership in countries affected by the worst forms of child labor and political engagement on the part of aid donors, non- government organizations and others. There are no ready-made blue-prints for changing this picture. Yet the complexity and resilience of the child labor problem is not an automatic barrier to progress. In the 19th Century, social reformers working for the eradication of child labor were confronted by vested interests, political and the force of received wisdom. Their efforts succeeded because they were able to marshal strong evidence and mobilize public support. Similar efforts are required at the start of the 21st Century. While child labor is deeply engrained in the social, economic and cultural fabric of many societies, there are compelling moral, economic and political grounds for making its eradication a priority in national planning and international cooperation.

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