On World Humanitarian Day, the ILO’s Francesco D’Ovidio looks back at his experiences working to end child labour, and some of the inspiring people he has met.
“These are really my hands? Are you sure, Francesco?”
Dibou was looking at the five meter high poster hanging in the middle of the foyer of the Conference Hall in Oslo. The poster was an immense picture of a pair of beautiful, tiny, hands. They belonged to Dibou, we had been told.
At that time Dibou was 15 and she had just lost her job as domestic worker in Dakar. The Madame she was working for found difficult to accept that she had to fly all the way to Europe to attend a conference. She thought Dibou was making fun of her. But, no. Dibou had never been so serious. On top of her tough job, chez Madame, Dibou was the charismatic leader of the Senegalese chapter of the African Movement of Working Children and Youth and, as such, she had been invited by the Government of Norway to the 1997 Oslo International Conference on Child Labour, together with representatives of the Global March Against Child Labour and other prominent organisations
It was not the first such invitation. She had already been to Lima, New York, Amsterdam and other places very far from Dakar. Always for the same reason; to explain with patience to the UN, to the ILO, to politicians, what child labour was really like. Because, she said, if they had to come out with another Convention, they better get it right!
I was with her that day in Oslo in 1997, as I was with her and other kids at the 1998 International Labour Conference in Geneva, when the first discussion on the adoption of Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, took place. I had graduated in law in Italy a couple of years before and, like many of my generation, after the murder of the Judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino by the Mafia, I wanted to become a judge.
Things changed, and I found myself in Dakar, Senegal, as an intern with the INGO, ENDA. My work involved supporting the African Movement of Working Children and accompanying their leaders to international fora on child labour.
I was in Oslo by chance in 1997, because my boss was not feeling well and couldn’t travel to Norway. Now, again by chance, I find myself Officer in Charge of FUNDAMENTALS, because my bosses position is vacant, to celebrate the fact that C182 has now been unanimously ratified by all ILO member States. This has never happened before, it’s a big thing.
I wish I could be with Dibou to tell her, “So eventually they got it right, this Convention, Dibou. All countries have ratified it now”. But I think I can guess her answer: “C’est bien, Francesco, mais il y a encore du boulot à faire”.
Yes, Dibou, there is still so much to do and sometimes it is so hard to keep on pushing and pushing.
I miss Dibou a lot, as I miss the clairvoyance of hundreds of children who stopped for a second from crushing stones, fishing, digging in mines, welding in a workshop, to talk to me. They all wanted to go to school and play, for sure, but, most of all, they wanted dignity for their parents and peace for their communities. If this is not given, well…they will keep on working; ratification or not.
Don’t get me wrong. It takes a lot to obtain universal ratification for an international labour standard and we should all be proud of it. It means that people around the globe are convinced that the direction we took is right. But, let’s be honest, it doesn’t mean that the issue is resolved, that we have won the fight. For that to happen we need to implement the Convention, everywhere.
So let’s roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty, so that this long and inspiring journey can truly mean something.
- by Francesco d’Ovidio, Officer in Charge, Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch, FUNDAMENTALS