The ILO Excludes Child "Marriage"

AIDS-Free World approached the ILO about its refusal to count child "marriage" as child labour. We pointed out that child "marriage" for girls amounts to slavery-like practices, the sale and trafficking of children, forced labour, and hazardous work that harms their health and safety. We argued that no changes to the ILO Conventions regarding child labour were necessary, as child marriage already fits within the current terms. And the answer we got back was classic bureaucratic speak:

[C]hild marriage may not be interpreted as constituting a worst form of child labour for girls, given definitional primacies. — Letter from the ILO Chief of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch

The letter went on to explain that Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour "was intended to be confined only to the world of "work" (that is economic activity, even if illegal)".

Their position was clear: Child marriage doesn't amount to work, so it can't possibly constitute child labour. That begged the question: what does the ILO consider "work" or "economic activity"? 

Defining "work"

In the ILO’s Resolution on Child Labour Statistics, they describe the categories of “children in employment” and “children in other productive activities”.

“Children in employment” are doing tasks that qualify as “economic activity”.  In order to define economic activity, the ILO uses the definitions found in the System of National Accounts (the “SNA”), which is an internationally agreed standard set of recommendations on what types of work qualify or do not qualify as economic activity, and how countries should measure economic activity. In general, if children are doing work that qualifies as economic activity (work that falls under the “production boundary” of the SNA), they would be classified as “children in employment”.  From there, depending on the age of the child and their working conditions, a determination would be made about whether the work constitutes illegal child labour or a permissible form of work. 

The second category, “children in other productive activities” includes children who perform unpaid household services:

"Children in other productive activities includes children who perform unpaid household services, that is, the production of domestic and personal services by a household member for consumption within their own household, commonly called “household chores”. In contrast, the performance of household services in a third-party household, paid or unpaid, is included within the production boundary of the SNA." (Para. 13)

This definition is illustrative. It makes a simple distinction: household chores performed in one’s own household fall under the category of “children in other productive activities” whereas the same chores in a third-party household, paid or unpaid, fall under “children in employment”. In other words, the ILO’s position is that if a child conducts unpaid household services in her own house, she is doing chores, and if she is in someone else’s house, there is an economic interest, so she is working.  

The result of the ILO's position

Based on the ILO's definition of "economic interest", and its position that there is no economic interest in the work performed by girls in child "marriages", the only conclusion to draw is that the ILO considers the household of the illegal spouse to be a girl's legal household. Consider the three different scenarios regarding the ILO's position on whether there is an economic interest in work being performed: 

  1. A child performs work in her own household = no economic interest
  2. A child performs work in her neighbour's household = economic interest
  3. A child is illegally "married" to that neighbour and performs the same work in her illegal spouse's household = no economic interest

What changes from scenario #2 to #3? It seems that the illegal "marriage" changed the girl's household. What before was a neighbour's third-party household is now the girl's household, even though it was through an illegal act. 

stating the obvious: Illegal "marriages" are illegal

 Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

The ILO's position is indefensible but apparently, it is necessary to state the obvious: an illegal marriage is illegal. National governments have decided that, below a certain age, children cannot provide consent to marry, and therefore it is illegal for a child below that age to be married. That age may vary by country, but below the lawful age the respective government has set, the marriage cannot legally occur. There is nothing about these arrangements that should be considered legitimate. They are illegal actions, taken by the child’s family and/or her future illegal “spouse”, and they go against the law of the country. They do not have any more legal validity than a slave auction would. They are illegal and illegitimate.

Yet, perversely, the ILO views these illegal marriages as having legal effect by valid means of transferring the household of the child. Treating illegal marriage as legitimate—even though it is only through the commission of a crime that the child is placed in the household—gives legal weight to an illegal act. It is akin to arguing that the home where a kidnapped child is kept is her valid household. 

The result is that even before looking at the type of work performed in a child "marriage', the ILO discounts the possibility that the work could be child labour because of their skewed view that an illegal "marriage" determines a child's valid household.

If the ILO were to look beyond this first faulty assumption it would see the inherently hazardous nature of the work performed by a girl in a child "marriage": the continuous sexual assaults she faces, the long hours, poor conditions, and lack of education. It fits all the definitions of child labour, and even a worst form of child labour, but the ILO inconceivably views the work as being performed in her own home, so it is all excluded from child labour statistics. The ILO's position is wrong and needs to change.