The year 2021 has been declared as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, aiming to inspire governments to achieve target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by taking innovative actions to eradicate child labour worldwide. Although child labour has decreased by 38 percent in the last decade, 152 million children are still affected, and the COVID-19 pandemic has had its negative impacts, threatening to reverse years of progress. It is time to accelerate the progress – and social protection plays a critical role in this endeavor.


Why is child labour still a problem?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, several countries had made incredible progress in reducing child labour (HRW, 2021b), decreasing the number of working children by almost 13 per cent, from 245.5 million in 2000 to 151.6 million in 2016 (ILO, UNICEF, 2021, p. 12).  Yet, the pace of change has been slowing down during recent years, and the number of children in child labour has settled at 160 million in 2020.

Progress across regions has been uneven, with almost half of the children in labour living in Africa (around 72 million children). In Sub-Saharan Africa alone 32 per cent of all children aged 5 to 17 are engaged in some form of employment (ILO, UNICEF, 2021). The ILO (2021) states that 70 per cent of all children in child labour are involved in agricultural practices, principally in subsistence and commercial farming, as well as livestock herding. Almost half of all these children work in hazardous contexts.

A recent report by ILO and UNICEF shows that global progress regarding child labour has stalled for the first time since 2000 (ILO, UNICEF 2021). The economic crisis, loss of jobs and rising poverty caused by the COVID-19 crisis have further increased pressure on children to enter the workforce in order to contribute to the family income, reversing years of progress in the fight against child labour. School closures, the loss of caregivers, as well as reduced implementation of child labour regulations have aggravated the situation, making millions of children vulnerable to exploitation. The pandemic also made more children take on household and caregiving responsibilities, while others have been forced to work longer hours or enter more precarious and exploitative situations (HRW, 2021b; ILO, 2021). International organizations believe that, without additional mitigation measures, the number of children in labour might rise from 160 million in 2020 to 168.9 million by the end of 2022, maybe even up to 206.2 million if austerity measures cause countries to cut down on their social protection coverage (ILO, UNICEF, 2021, p.13).

As the COVID-19 crisis threatens to further erode global progress against child labour, low- and middle-income countries, like Ghana, that are prone to substantial levels of child labour, need to accelerate the right policy responses to mitigation the pandemic impact.


The Ghanaian context and its post-pandemic challenges

Over the last decades, Ghana has been praised for its democratization process, as well as its achievements in economic growth and poverty reduction. According to Hudson (2021), Ghana’s poverty rate has decreased by half in the past 20 years, however, in the last few years the reduction has slowed down, becoming practically insignificant after 2012 (World Bank, 2020) with economic progress translating less and less into poverty reduction. Therefore, between 2012 and 2016, estimations by the World Bank demonstrate that every 1 per cent increase in GDP per capita triggered less than 0.1 per cent of poverty reduction (2020), and the COVID-19 pandemic also stunted the country’s progress. Amid an economic crisis, the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Ghana is severe, especially for women and children, and many Ghanaians have lost their jobs, healthcare and education (Hudson, 2021). With rising unemployment, inflation and high food prices, the pandemic is taking its toll on vulnerable groups in Ghana.

To encounter the negative effects of COVID-19 on Ghana´s socioeconomic efforts, the government used its national cash transfer programme Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) to provide additional funds to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic (Juergens, 2021). Yet, the Ghanaian government faced challenges in effectively managing their social protection system in times of a global pandemic and faced criticism by civil society organizations for unregular payments of the LEAP programme and the consequent negative impacts on recipients’ livelihoods, their right to adequate food, health and education. In 2020, the program reached only 5 to 10 per cent of the country’s population (HRW, 2021a).


Child labour in Ghana on the rise

With social protection policies yet to be upscaled in terms of outreach to more poor Ghanaians, especially children in vulnerable situations, child labour is an ubiquitous problem. Estimations of the Ghanaian government determine that one out of every five children in Ghana is involved in child labour (Republic of Ghana, 2017). Yet, Ghana is among the 26 “pathfinder countries” of the Alliance 8.7[1](2018), committed to accelerate efforts to eradicate child labour by 2025. For that, the country developed an ambitious National Plan of Action for the Elimination of the worst Forms of Child Labour in Ghana (2017-2021) (Republic of Ghana, 2017), envisioning the expansion and operationalization of social protection interventions, including the LEAP Programme in all child labour endemic areas.

Orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs), as well as their caregivers, are one of the main target groups of the LEAP cash transfer, and significant progress has been made in reducing poverty and child labour over the past years. However, Ghana hasn’t been able of keeping pace with its regional peers in using cash allowances to address the global pandemic and specifically extend them to households with children (HRW, 2021a) to combat negative effects on family income. In a recent report, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has, therefore, drawn attention to how the COVID-19 pandemic fueled child labour in Ghana, as missing social assistance by the government made many children enter the work force for the first time to support their families.

With many schools only actively resuming in January 2021, a third of the children in public schools were further lacking access to daily school feeding programmes, leaving them exposed to food insecurity and exploitation. Hudson (2021) states that 30 per cent of those experienced hunger as a result of school closure. At that time, schools in Ghana struggled to afford food, technology for remote learning and resources for students with disabilities (Hudson, 2021). Once children enter the workforce, their education suffer by continued work demands and unregular attendance. The 24 working children from age 11 to 17, interviewed by the HRW (2021a), worked in carpentry, fishing, transporting goods or selling items on the street, as well as at gold mines – classified as the worst form of child labor by the Government of Ghana.


Addressing challenges for the way forward

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the international community evidenced the importance of efficient social protection systems in order to avoid adverse effects on social progress and to protect the most vulnerable groups in societies. During a webinar on “Africa’s VISION to expand social protection and build forward better from COVID-19'', held in June 2021, representatives of African governments, the African Union, and civil society organizations shared the common view of social protection being a fundamental requirement to overcoming the COVID-19 crisis and to fostering more just and inclusive economies. Dr Rita Owusu-Amankwah, a Director at the Ghanaian Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, further “stressed the importance of strengthening implementation systems and place programmes on sound legal foundations” (Juergens, 2021, para. 7).

Human Rights Watch makes precise recommendations to governments, donors and companies in their report on increasing child labour during COVID-19 (2021b), such as the progressive introduction of universal child allowances and the enforcement of child labor standards. Additionally, the organization recommends the Ghanaian government and its to donors to prioritize cash allowances to families with the aim to protect children’s rights and enable families to maintain an adequate standard of living, so that they would not resort to child labor as an alternative to income loss of parents and caregivers (HRW, 2021a).

In times of crisis, it is of utmost importance to keep social protection efforts on a high standard, e. g. by ensuring frequent and transparent payment procedures. This also involves the passing of the social protection bill that is currently being developed to set the right policy framework to deliver social protection as coherently, effectively and efficiently as possible. In order to prevent further increases in poverty and child labour, it is necessary for the Ghanaian government to scale up cash assistance to families, enabling them to meet their needs without sending their children to work. Families should have all the means needed to protect their children’s right to an adequate standard of living and education, outside any form of child labour. Thus, adequate social protection and an increased effort in reducing child poverty mitigates the socioeconomic vulnerability underpinning child labour, opening opportunities in education instead.


Social protection as a tool to protect children's rights

As argued earlier, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on children’s rights, especially to those related to an adequate standard of living, education and protection from child labor (HRW, 2021b). Many low- and middle-income countries, like Ghana registered a rise in child labour, which could become even worse without adequate mitigation actions.

Human Rights Watch (2021b) believes that policy measures providing economic relief to families, such as cash transfers and child allowances, have greatly contributed to the remarkable reduction in child labor since the early 2000s, therefore, governments and development partners should substantially increase investments in child-sensitive social protection, using them strategically to relief economic distress on affected families and to keep children out of dangerous and exploitative work.

For further resources on gender- and child-sensitive social protection, please visit and review key resources on the topic.



  • Alliance 8.7 (2018). Brochure. Joining forces globally to end forced labour, modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour. Access here.
  • Hudson, C. (2021). The Impact of COVID-19 on Poverty in Ghana. The Borgen Project. Access here.
  • Human Rights Watch (2021a). Ghana: Covid-19 Pandemic Fueling Child Labor. Access here.
  • Human Rights Watch (2021b). “I must work to eat”. Covid-19, Poverty, and Child Labor in Ghana, Nepal, and Uganda. Access here.
  • International Labour Office (2021). 2021: International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. Access here.
  • International Labour Office; United Nations Children’s Fund (2021). Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward. New York. Access here.
  • Juergens, F. (2021). Africa’s VISION to expand social protection and build forward better from COVID-19. Access here.
  • Republic of Ghana (2017). National Plan of Action Phase II (NPA2) for the Elimination of th worst Forms of Child Labour in Ghana (2017-2021). Towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8.7. Access here.
  • World Bank (2020). Ghana: Poverty Assessment. Report No. AUS0001903. World Bank, Washington, DC. Access here.

[1]   Alliance 8.7 is a global partnership committed to take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour, in accordance with target 8.7 of the Agenda 2030.