Making Sense of Society: Sophie Hedges

For the last two years the United Kingdom’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has held a writing competition to encourage and recognize the writing skills of ESRC-funded students. Winners for the 2016 round were honored March 21 at a ceremony in London. Social Science Space will publish the winning essays, runners-up and eight shortlisted pieces in the next few weeks; here we present the shortlisted essay, “Child labour – making childhood work,” from Sophie Hedges of the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine.

For more on the competition, click here.

Child labor

Making sense of childhood work and education

Sophie Hedges
Sophie Hedges

By Sophie Hedges

In a Tanzanian rice field, families take a break from the harvest to chat and share a joke. The joke today is the mzungu researcher who stands awkwardly, gently sweating under the midday sun, asking if she can interview their children. Their father is bemused but welcoming. He’s curious about the tablet we’re using for the interviews. They don’t teach us about that here, he says, computers are for rich people. Life here is hard, a lot of hard work in the fields or herding cattle. What’s farming like in the UK? I bet a lot of people have tractors or horses, but here we plough by hand. We have horses, I tell him, but people mainly ride them for fun rather than using them for farming. This tickles him. Why on earth would you ride a horse when you could drive in a car?

There were countless moments like this during my fieldwork, me trying to make sense of Tanzanian society, and people trying to make sense of me and my research. My project collected data on how children and young people aged 7 to 19 divide their time between school, work, and leisure. International policies aim to promote schooling and abolish formal work for children, and generally assume a trade-off between the two activities. However, this dichotomous approach has been criticised on two grounds and my research aims to address some of these problems.

Firstly, policies are based on an ethnocentric understanding of childhood, in which children’s place is assumed to be in school, and their work has little importance. This makes sense in contemporary Western societies, where formal education is necessary for economic and social success, and children’s work is of limited value. However, it ignores the realities of life in developing societies such as Tanzania, where school is risky. Long journeys between home and school, harsh discipline, and a lack of secure jobs make education a high stakes game, with many families unable or unwilling to play. For families still reliant on subsistence agriculture, children’s work is valuable and even vital to household economic security. Additionally, children themselves value working as a way to help their families and gain important skills, as demonstrated by the African Movement of Working Children and Youth’s request that the ‘right to work’ be recognised by UNICEF in their Convention on the Rights of the Child. This more positive view of children’s work receives little attention in policy or the media however.

The second criticism is that a discourse focusing on the negatives of children’s work leads to unhelpful definitions and data. The majority of working children do household chores and work on family farms, yet there is little data on how these activities interact with school attendance. According to International Labour Organisation definitions, over a quarter of the children I interviewed are child labourers. However, this statistic would make little sense to those who participated in my study. Most of these children are also attending school, and it is seen as children’s responsibility to help their families. Working on the farm or doing chores is an important part of growing up and gaining respect within the community, and gives children complementary skills to those they gain in school.

My research derives from studies within evolutionary anthropology and demography, which have highlighted the benefits of children’s work. By collecting data on children’s time allocation to all activities, I aim to present a more nuanced consideration of the relationship between work, school and leisure. This more critical approach matters because making sense of developing societies according to our own standards is unfair, and stigmatises families who must make difficult decisions. It is also important to challenge assumptions, which can prove to be incorrect. I found that girls actually spend more time in school than boys, yet also contribute more productive work to their households. Girls seem to manage this by sacrificing leisure time. This echoes the ‘double shift’ faced by many women in Western societies, who face expectations that they will both work and shoulder the burden of household chores. Achieving equality in education and the workplace is important, but a shift in focus towards challenging gender stereotypes may be needed to achieve gender equality at home as well.

Re-evaluating what constitutes a ‘good’ childhood could also be useful in making sense of issues in our own societies. We are facing a crisis of childhood obesity and children’s mental health, yet continue to require developing countries to aim for Western-style childhoods. A childhood with more responsibility and worth beyond academic achievement, as well as more physical activity, could help to bolster children’s self-esteem and health. Recognising that we can learn from other societies, rather than seeking to impose our own ideals of childhood, could be beneficial for everyone.


“Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual” |Wilhelmiina Toivo, University of Glasgow

“Living and looking for lavatories” | Lauren White, University of Sheffield


“Marginal money, mainstream economy”| Max Gallien, London School of Economics and Political Science

“Biotechnology and the world of tomorrow” | Elo Luik, University of Oxford


“Better healthcare with deep data” | Alison Harper, University of Exeter

“Child labour: making childhood work” |Sophie Hedges, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

“What future while living in uncertainty?” | Vanessa Hughes, Goldsmiths, University of London

“Ensuring a sweeter future” | Siobhan Maderson, Aberystwyth University

“Understanding the forgotten decade” | David Pollard, University of Birmingham

“Schools, funding and donor power” | Ruth Puttick, Newcastle University

“Fostering inclusion in the face of division” | Caoimhe Ryan, University of St Andrews

“Listen to the local” | Ruben Schneider, University of Aberdeen

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