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Fireworks at Kansalaistori Square, Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Fireworks in Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

'Kenja', the worst form of child exploitation, still in practice

In most cases, large families in poorer rural Amhara, in the face of a lethal combination of dire poverty and inculcated harmful traditional practices (HTP) usually are in dilemma to the question of whether to keep their children with them or send them away to work elsewhere as a coping mechanism and also with the belief the child is better off living with economically better families.

Residents of Fagatalakuma woreda in Awi zone face economic hardship and harmful traditional practices that are affecting the welfare of children and families - even though the woreda has increased access to primary and secondary education and health care and other development schemes. According to Muluken Tadele, woreda Administrator, the woreda has 75 primary schools, three high schools, one preparatory and one TVET schools. As well as 25 health posts, six health centres. The education and health coverage is 94 per cent while clean water access is 57 per cent.

However, as a way out, the society has been practicing the worst form of child labour exploitation - locally called 'kenja' - which practically involves renting children aged 8-16 to wealthy families for a period of one year and more for a payment of 1,300-1,600 birr or in kind (grain). During the previous regimes, the deep rooted practice was carried out in open market, 'qaquira gebia'. literally in similar way cattle are sold. Be it sell, trade or contract, kenja is for the sole purpose of exploitative labour that also involves trafficking. Boys in particular are rented out to surrounding and far off kebeles to work mainly in farming. Even today, the practice is conducted clandestinely and in the open with a singed contracts between the parent and the renter through brokers. The victims are often from poorest of the poor families whose socio-economic vulnerability brokers and wealthy families take advantage of.

Ethiopia's Ministry of Women, Children and Youth Affairs (MWCYA) is working towards improving the lives of women, children and youth

Seleshi Berihun, 13, is a sixth-grader and resident of Segla kirstos kebele. He said, “My mother is a poor widow. When I was in grade five, she was unable to send me to school anymore. Instead, she rented me to a wealthy farmer in 'Segla kidanemherit' kebele for three months, taking 1,300 birr payment. I cried and cried. For two days I was herding, collecting fire wood, fetching water and doing other household chores.

“I heard a rumour that I was going to be sent to 'kenja'. I informed my teachers but before they can intervene, I was gone. But, immediately, I sent word to my peer group that I was in 'kenja'. Then my teachers were informed and they came to my rescue. He said, “My mother returned the rent money. If she hadn't, I would have been forced to work with constant beating and hardship."

Seleshi added, then, that he is back in school and supporting himself by working as a facilitator with PADet (Professional Alliance for Development), after receiving peer-to-peer training. He said, “I saved 225 birr from my perdium and bought three chickens. Now, they are paying for my education.”

The peer to peer groups teach society about kenja and other HTPs, as well as stressing the importance of education.

“I tell parents about the hardship of kenja, so as to stop them sending young children - and about the benefit of educating them.”

Adam Meri is a resident of Segla Bambeldawna kebele, and was also a victim of kenja when he was young. But that didn't stop him from sending his two boys to kenja when they were just five and seven years old. He said, “I was poor so I had no choice but to send my children to kenja.”

Mr Meri added that, even though are now young adults, they still are working in kenja. He said, "I passed untold hardship I when I was in kenja. My children also tells me similar stories about the heavy work load, the verbal and physical abuse they endure. They are not even allowed to sleep in the house - but out in the compound.

“I regret sending them to kenja. I wish they had a chance at education.”

Mr Meri said that kenja is still practiced widely, noting, “The rich are sending their children to school, but the poor to kenja.”

Gente Eriku, a farmer and resident of the keble, also affirms the practice of kenja is till common, and that it has also been formalised as a business practice - but that there is hope. He said, “Per year, 20-30 children go into kenja. Now, the practice is done in contract with the parent and the payer. Now, with the help of PADet, the development army is bringing back children to school.”

Birtukan Tilahun, a teacher at Bosena General primary school in the kebele, is also a leader of a girls' club and a peer-to-peer coordinator for the last four years. She said, “I first come face-to-face with kenja on my way to Addis Kidam. I saw a huge gathering and a man inspecting a boy and bargaining at the same time. It dawned on me that I was witnessing a kenja process. I was so surprised, so shocked and so sad.”

She added that she and her friend discussed and prepared a drama based on this experience, and presented it to the woreda communities to raise awareness in every kebele. According to her, through the restless action of peer-to-peer groups, clubs and the student parliament, they have managed to save and return to education many young people, who are now involved in income-generating activity.

“If you had come during the farming season, you wouldn't have found many male students, because they would be in kenja. Now, the practice and number of student dropouts in general are decreasing."

Legal measures taken

Inspector Yetwale Belete, the woreda Police Head, said that kenja is the worst form of child exploitation - but that it is a common practice there, with parents renting minors, and taking payment in money or in grain.

“Two years ago the practice was rampant. Children were rented out in the open at the town centre at Addis Kidam. The police weren't aware that it was practiced out in the marketplace. Parents brought children together with livestock. After palpation and bargaining, a wealthy farmer could rent a child for a term."

Residents of Fagatalakuma woreda in Awi zone face economic hardship and harmful traditional practices that are affecting the welfare of children and families - even though the woreda has increased access to primary and secondary education and health care and other development schemes

Traditionally, a parent would tell a relative or put out word that he would like to rent his child - but not in the market.Inspector Belete said, “For the society, it is a simple practice of selling and buying labour, and never seen as an abuse of childrens' rights. But we know it is a crime and against the law."

The inspector added that the dire poverty makes it very difficult to enforce the law, and that is why the police have opted to create awareness of the shameful act. Now, the society has a better awareness and more are trying to put their children into school. He said, “So far, we have managed to conduct public conferences in all 27 kebeles on the consequences of kenja We have also reviewed several cases and two individuals have been penalised."

The woreda Administrator also agreed with the Police head, saying, “Now the practice is done clandestinely not openly as before. But still poor families are renting their children through a written contract. The administration is trying to change the mindset first and trying to income generating activities Plan-International through PADet. But so far nobody has been prosecuted, penalised or imprisoned."

The Ethiopian Constitution article 36 (1) (d) explicitly prohibits the Worst Forms of Child Labor covered in ILO Convention 182. While, Article 41, dealing with socio-economic rights, imposes a duty on the State to allocate resources to provide for rehabilitation and assistance to children who are left without parents or guardians with available means. Moreover, Article 9(2) stipulates, "All citizens, organs of well as their officials have the duty to ensure observance of the constitution and to obey it."

Article 596 (1) (a) & (b) of the country's revised Criminal Code states enslavement, by whoever forcibly enslaves another, sells, alienates, pledges or buys a person, or trades or traffics in or exploits a person in any manner, or keeps or maintains another in a condition of slavery, even in a disguised form, is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from five years to twenty years, and a fine not exceeding 50,000 birr.

The primary responsible governmental organ ensuring the well-being of the country's children is the Ministry of Women, Children and Youth Affairs (MWCYA) and similar regional bureaus. However, despite MWCYA's actions, and despite all the laws and protection measures, vulnerable children in the woreda live under terrible conditions - which make parents, in some cases even the children themselves, party to a conscious decision to be in kenja.

The MWCYA's Amhara Bureau is working towards improving the lives of women, children and youth of the region. In terms of kenja, it is aware of the practice but other than giving awareness and capacity-building training sessions, other than talking in general terms, it can't say exactly what it is doing to curb the practice. Nor does it seem aware of what woreda offices and communities do at the grass root level or is able to work in coordination with them to alleviate the situation.

Endalew Giwen, the MWCYA's Amhara Bureau Deputy Head, said, “I don't have any information that children were sold or rented at open market at any time. Nor do I have data or information on children who have been returned from kenja. We can't arrest all parents who are in violation of children's rights.

"What we can do is teach the public about the harmful practice. In that regard, the Bureau has conducted continuous awareness activities as well as capacity building to implementers in all level. To ensure children's right is not the responsibility of this Bureau only, it is the responsibility of all."

Ashageri Blehu, Child Protection Office Head, repeated what the Deputy Head said and added that, in Amhara region, the office is trying to reach vulnerable children through community-based care and income-generating schemes for families - saying, “As far as the Office is concerned, no parent or broker has been prosecuted or imprisoned in regards to kenja.”

Results achieved

Plan-International, in partnership with PADet, a local NGO, has at least been implementing a Protection of Children/Girls from Violence project (PCV)in the woreda to eliminate HTPs focusing on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Child Marriage by strengthening Child Protection Structures and by increasing public awareness through education, information and a campaign with a 2.2 million birr budget. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland is the sole financier the project through Plan-International. Direct Beneficiaries of the Project in total number some 14,500 - out of which 5,800 are girls, 3,500 boys, 2,500 are male adults and 2,700 are female adults. The three-year project has been implemented in six kebeles in Fageta Lakuma woreda, Awi zone, since January 2012. Major changes registered include the significant decrease of child marriage from 490 to 131, with a lowering of schoolgirl dropouts from 414 to 274.

These changes have been realised due to school-based child protection activities like peer education, the involvement of girls in income-generating activities and enhanced saving as well as a strengthened coordination among children, community organisations, Kebele representatives, community leaders, teachers and community policing structures and government structures, which have enhanced responses to reported cases of abuse.


Meskerem Lemma