Social Norms or Child Labour?: The Case of the Maasai Community in Kenya

Social Norms or Child Labour?: The Case of the Maasai Community in Kenya

Josephine Munthali (Child Support Project, UK)
Copyright: © 2018 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2578-3.ch006
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This chapter discusses social norms which purportedly condone “unpaid child labour” as a way of bringing up children, especially girls, in preparation for early marriage in the Maasai community in Kenya. International organisations such as the International Labour Office (ILO) and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) view “unpaid child labour” as detrimental to children's education and welfare. Yet, in the Maasai culture, it is viewed as a way mothers prepare girls to be responsible married women from an early age. Findings revealed that the young educated Maasai girls and boys who are “agents of change” are actively engaged in sensitising their communities and advocating for the rights of girls, and women. The Chapter recommends that the Government of Kenya, international NGOs and stakeholders work together with agents of change in their communities to create awareness concerning children's rights.
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This chapter focuses on the issue of unpaid child labour (traditional work) in which young children, especially girls, engage from a very young age. UNICEF (2016) suggests that children across the world are becoming agents of change and participating in rights campaigns. For instance, child labourers in Bangladesh have joined the Global March against child labour. Among the Maasai, the agents of change are committed and willing to do what is best for the Maasai children. Their life stories narrate their experiences of growing up in Maasai communities. Yet they overcame hardships and some actually fled their homes to rescue centres so as to pursue their education. Agents of change are therefore perceived as best suited to creating awareness on children’s rights, which could change communities’ attitudes towards young girls. UNESCO rightly asserts that children and young people need a political mechanism through which they can debate important issues such as child labour (UNESCO, 2016). Moreover, UNICEF supports communities in developing countries such as those in Africa in changing their cultural acceptance of child labour, while supporting strategies and programmes to provide alternative income to families, access to nurseries, quality education, and protective services.

This chapter discusses social norms which traditionally require mothers to prepare girls for early marriages and to be responsible women from an early age. Children are not aware of their rights as they are meant to believe that the upbringing is culturally accepted and is a way of life for the Maasai. Most of these children engage in activities which are globally viewed as “unpaid child labour” as discussed broadly in this Chapter. Discourse shows that unpaid child labour activities which are mainly done at household level affect children’s education, especially that of the girl child.

Social norms and activities which are culturally accepted continue to be in constant competition with Government policies. For instance, whilst the Maasai communities concentrate on “culture education”, the Government of Kenya has enacted the Basic Education Act, 2013, which requires all school going children to be in school. Furthermore, the policy has put in place tough measures to deal with parents who engage children in activities which keep them out of school. This Chapter shows that agents of change view “unpaid child labour” as a factor affecting children’s education and leads to early marriages. The question is: how can communities such as the Maasai change their predominant beliefs and practices and embrace children’s rights as proposed internationally and adopted by the Government? It is noted that it is often difficult to change people’s beliefs and their way of life. In fact, historically even the colonists and missionaries failed in changing communities’ beliefs and practices (Munthali, 2001).

The objective of the Chapter is to impart knowledge and encourage debate on competing ideologies of predominant social norms versus global and national policies such as child labour; and the importance of engaging communities in participatory approaches to creating a platform for dialogue and consensus. The Chapter will contribute to deeper understanding of childhood conceptions and children’s rights in the Maasai community. This should benefit students, professionals, and researchers working especially in education and child welfare.

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