From the Frontline: Marcel Sibomana, African Movement for Working Children and Youth

Marcel Sibomana, 20, is from Rwanda. Marcel became a member of the African Movement for Working Children and Youth while he was working in domestic service. CRIN met Marcel at a meeting on children's rights in Ethiopia in March. We caught up with him again this week to find out more about his experiences in light of this week's negotiations in Geneva.

I was born in a village called Nyanza in the south of my country. I started working when I was 11. My first job was to dig stones which I would break up with hammers and sell to people who built houses. At this point I still attended primary school.

After this, I moved to Kigali, the capital of my country, where I found work doing chores for a family along with another worker. I washed and ironed clothes, mopped the floors, cooked and shopped in the market. The family had two children, so I used to get up at 4 am every day to prepare charcoal to boil water so that I could cook food for the family before their children took the bus to school and their parents went to work.

While I was working in this house, I would often see children going into a nearby building and wondered what was going on in there. One time I was invited to a meeting by a friend and discovered that the building was the office of an NGO called Caritas. I talked with the people there and they told me about a group they supported called the African Movement for Working Children and Youth. They said the Movement worked in many African countries to help protect the rights of working children. I started going to their meetings and they helped me to understand what children's rights meant. I was struck by the way they helped children come together to share experiences and fight for their rights from grassroots groups right up to the international level.

It wasn't easy at first. I didn't feel I could tell my boss where I was going because I was afraid he would be against it. After a while I told him and the family. They weren't against it, but they weren't interested either - they didn't try to understand what it was all about. Sometimes they would tell me I couldn't go because I had work to do. But then, when I became more involved and told them more, they began to understand. Then, when a friend from the Movement who lived in Conakry, Guinea, came to visit me, my boss sat up and paid attention. He thought that if someone was coming to see me from Conakry, the work I was doing must be serious! From then on he treated me with more respect.

Besides helping children to understand their rights, we also help working children if they have problems with their employer. Children can come to us with problems and we can mediate between the child and their boss to try to find a solution. If that fails, we negotiate with local leaders who are usually very helpful.

We also work with some government institutions. This was very hard at first. The officials didn't understand how working children could dare to come and talk to them. And they certainly didn't want to admit that there are children who work in Rwanda. Now we have much better relations and often meet with people from the Ministry of Gender and the Family Promotion, for example, we were invited to prepare and participate in all the meetings organised by this Ministry to celebrate the Day of the African Child.

We certainly do not want to prohibit children from working. We just want to make sure that children who choose to work are protected from harmful forms of labour and that they work in good conditions and are able to access health care, education and enjoy all their other rights. Many children in Africa work because they have no other way to survive. But there are also many children who are not so poor who choose to work because they want to earn their own money and learn practical skills.

When I'm not working I like to play football – I am trying to watch as much of the World Cup as I can at the moment. I also love to sing! I write my own songs. When we were celebrating the Day of the African Child last week, I performed a song I had written about children's rights. I can sing you a couple of lines but it's in the Kinyarwanda language! [sings...] It is about supporting children to develop themselves and enjoy their rights.

If I could say one thing to the people meeting in Geneva this week, I would ask them to make sure governments enforce the laws that they make. In Rwanda, as in many countries, we have laws to protect children, but nothing happens with them and community members don't know about them. Governments should make sure everyone knows the rules and make sure they abide by them.


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