Children, Adolescents, and the Child Labour Debates in Bolivia

Willman, Christopher (2020). Children, Adolescents, and the Child Labour Debates in Bolivia. PhD thesis The Open University.



The debate as to whether children should be involved in work or not is contentious. Bolivia provides a unique context to study such debates. Not only does Bolivia have a high proportion of children who work, but it also has a very politically active movement of organised working children. In 2014, much to the dissatisfaction of the ILO and other actors, Bolivia became the first country to explicitly lower the legal working age to 10 years old, contravening international standards.

This thesis aims to analyse child labour debates in Bolivia by including children’s and adolescents’ perspectives on work. Children’s voices are often excluded from such debates. Theoretically, this research is grounded in three main, yet interrelated bodies of literature: childhood studies, children’s citizenship and children’s rights. Childhood studies literature is frequently used when researching children who work; the concepts of children’s citizenship and children’s rights are less often applied to frame such analysis. The thesis argues that the intersection of these conceptual areas is essential to understanding children’s work and relevant debates, given the ways that children themselves currently understand and articulate their work.

The thesis engages with the main actors in the Bolivian debates using a number of qualitative methods. Interviews were conducted with members of children’s organisations, the Bolivian Government, the ILO, Bolivian NGOs and other actors. A sentence completion task was also conducted with schoolchildren. Document analysis of relevant texts supplemented these methods.

The thesis finds that children express a range of perspectives on working, which are important to consider in both policy and academic debates. These perspectives reveal that children articulate their positions in these debates through discourses of citizenship – specifically rights and responsibilities – as well as through their intersecting relationships with family and education. Considering these perspectives allows us to move beyond existing ‘child labour’ assumptions and debates, and actually attend to the views and aspirations of children.

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