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Reviewed by:
  • Child Labor in Sub-Saharan Africa
  • Marcia E. Sutherland
Child Labor in Sub-Saharan Africa Loretta E. Bass Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2004vii + 212 pp., $49.94 (cloth)

Loretta Bass addresses the historical and contemporary factors that account for a disproportionate number of African child workers. In view of sub-Saharan Africa's poverty, and the fact that many children do not have access to primary and secondary schools, Bass argues against the criminalization of child labor because children must work and contribute to their family's budget. According to the author, "child labor becomes a social problem when researchers, policy makers, and the media begin to frame it in this regard" (10).

Bass adopts a culturally sensitive perspective and a microanalytical approach in her identification of child labor activities in specific African countries. Bass wrote that this text was based on her ethnographic fieldwork including informal interviews on the subject in Senegal during the 1990s. However, a clearer description of the author's methodological approach and research procedures is needed.

In chapter 2, Bass explains how various factors have influenced and shaped child labor, including Africa's long history of very young children working in agricultural and domestic work; Africa's triple religious heritage of Islam, Christian religions, and traditional African religions; postcolonial class and ethnic inequality; urbanization, industrialization, capitalism, and the consequences of structural adjustment policies. Children's early work exposure was to aid in their character development. The author describes the historical development of Islam and colonialism in Africa. She discusses the encountered difficulties of destitute rural Muslim male children who are engaged in begging work on the streets in Africa's urban centers in exchange for an Islamic education. According to Bass, the most exploited Muslim boys are those who are routinely disconnected from their parents. Europe's colonial rule of Africa and its impact on exploitative child labor are discussed. Bass indicates that "throughout Africa, colonial governments sought to use children in mining and commercial agriculture, and even separated children from their parents" (32). In postcolonial Africa, young children continue to provide unpaid work in plantation and commercial agriculture. Equally significant for the author is the devaluation of female labor and feminine work. Children's work is also devalued because it is perceived as "an extension of, and subordinate to women's work" (24).

In chapter 3, the author deals with several disparate themes. While noting that several sub-Saharan [End Page 149] African countries have reduced their child labor rates, the author emphasizes that lower wages in rural areas are associated with an increased rate of child labor. The author argues that Africa's poverty will not be reduced without debt forgiveness. She also provides several examples of undemocratic African leaders who appropriated foreign loans for themselves and their families. Moreover, loans have been poorly managed or stolen by leaders and other workers. These activities have contributed to the underdevelopment of the African masses who are unfairly burdened by debt repayment. Bass indicates that debt repayment demands and structural adjustment policies have made it quite difficult for African governments to fund schools, social services, and health care adequately. Bass cogently argues that most "African countries have strong societies but weak states" (56). In this context, there is primary identification with one's ethnic group, which can engender ethnic conflicts, civil wars, and power struggles over natural resources and undermine children's life chances. The democratization of African nation-states in the postcolonial era is also discussed. The author also mentions the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has created millions of orphans who are responsible for working to provide for siblings and elderly grandparents. Orphaned children's lack of education tends to place them at risk of being infected with the HIV virus. The author also discusses the strengths and limitations of laws by sub-Saharan African governments, the United Nations, and other international institutions to limit child labor. She insists however that laws "making child labor illegal may criminalize the child laborers rather than protecting them, therefore pushing children deeper into clandestine work situations and lowering their standard of living" (68).

In chapter 5, Bass indicates that urbanization and capitalism influenced a shift...


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