Ethiopia’s Hidden Weavers

Five barefoot young boys were walking to town to look for work when the police apprehended them in a cat-and-mouse battle to stamp out child labour among traditional weavers who produce Ethiopia’s famous white ‘shamma’ shawls. The Gamo and Dorze people of southern Ethiopia have woven the soft, cotton cloth with its delicately embroidered edges for decades, proud of their heritage and a valuable source of income in the impoverished Horn of Africa nation.

“My family will not be hurt (that I left),” said one of the rescued boys, sitting in a government-run children’s shelter after spending the night in the police station in Chencha, some 450km southwest of the capital, Addis Ababa. “They will only regret that I will no longer be working for them as a shepherd,” he said, dressed in clothes given to him by officials working to trace the parents of the five runaways, aged between eight and 10.

The persistence of exploitation in the weaving industry illustrates the challenges in meeting a United Nations (U.N.) goal of ending child labour by 2025 in Africa, where 87 million children work, usually on family farms or small businesses. Interviews with about a dozen child weavers, parents, activists, and officials in and around Addis Ababa and Chencha found that child labour thrives because of poverty, culture, family pressure and clandestine trafficking networks.

Working in a windowless room, Mathewos is one of the thousands of boys brought to the capital from southern Ethiopia to work, despite more than a decade of efforts by authorities and charities to stop the illegal practice. “The weft is the hardest part,” said the 13-year-old, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, while pressing pedals with his feet to interweave threads and create an intricate black and yellow border on a headscarf. “It also requires labour to move the shuttle,” he said in Gamogna, with another weaver translating into Amharic, one of Ethiopia’s official working languages.

Mathewos has been weaving since his mother fell sick six months ago, and his cousin, Wesenu, brought him to Addis Ababa to work alongside nine other weavers, including another boy under the age of 15 – Ethiopia’s legal working age. “I provide food and clothing for him and his co-workers,” Wesenu, 42, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on a Tuesday afternoon in his mud and straw house in the city’s Anqorcha neighbourhood, surrounded by tall eucalyptus trees.

“He should learn how to weave here rather than being a shepherd in his hometown,” said Wesenu, who kept answering questions posed to Mathewos, saying that he considered himself like a father to the boy and was sending him to school.

Out Of Sight

The U.N. says most of the world’s child labourers are in Africa, and Ethiopia is home to one of the largest populations. Government data shows that 43% of under 18s – 16 million children – work in a country of 115 million people.

The bustling streets around Addis Ababa’s primary market for traditional clothes, Shiromeda, were the hub of the illegal child weaving trade until the government shut down the workshops and issued warnings in homes and schools that it was a crime. 

Community members now give tip-offs whenever they see a child at risk of exploitation, said Endeshaw Menychil, who supervises inspectors at the Bureau of Labour and Social Affairs.

“Despite a win at Shiromeda, child labour in the weaving sector … has not vanished but only changed form and location,” he said, with children now mainly working on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, where they are out of sight.

“(The adults) tell you that learning the weaving process helps a kid’s future. But, of course, you must work hard to end what’s in the culture. Yet making a living by making children work overnight, and telling them it is for their good, cannot be contemplated.”

One hidden hotspot is Wolete, on the capital’s western edge, where dozens of boys play table football and eat out on Sundays and Mondays – when their employers sell the shawls and dresses they have made at work. In his small photo studio, Teklu Haimelo, 41, chatted with several child weavers whom he has befriended with food, clothes and advice – as a former child weaver himself.

Teklu, exploited and beaten as a child by his employers, including his father, said dozens of boys in the area work illegally as weavers for about 100 birr ($2.27) a week. “(Their employers) bring them from the countryside to Addis and promise the parents they will enrol them in school. But the kids become a source of income,” said the smiley and affable photographer while cutting up portraits.

“They will not tell you if they are mistreated. But they are all depressed. So many of them do the job because they have to eat and survive.” After years of strong economic growth, conflict and COVID-19 are making life more challenging in Ethiopia, with rising prices and unemployment, while population increases add to pressure on land. Security, for many, lies in what they know. Abiyot Tonche, a 26-year-old weaver in the capital, said he would teach his toddler to weave when he turned 10.

“Involving a child in the weaving profession should not always be considered labour exploitation. Instead, it should be considered a knowledge transfer process,” he said. “You cannot always claim that a child’s future will be solely changed with formal education … our children must learn the work.”

My Childhood Was Snatched

 The Ministry of Women, children and Youth drew up a 10-year development plan last year, which involves hiring thousands of social workers, hotlines to report abuse and financial support for families, including a universal child benefit payment. But Tatek Abebe, professor of childhood studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, described the ministry as “marginal on many levels” and lacking funding and staff to implement its ambitious plan. “The government should invest in children, commit itself … to (dedicate) a good deal of its national budget so that it goes to improving primarily children’s health and education,” said Tatek, born and raised in Ethiopia.

About 95% of Ethiopians start primary school, but only 54% complete it. Only 25% of 15- to 18-year-olds are in secondary school, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund UNICEF, which believes Ethiopia can end poverty through quality education. But enrolment has stagnated as the country grapples with conflict, drought and floods, and millions of children are still out of school. Girls are often kept at home to help with chores or married off, while boys mainly work in the fields.

Ethiopia’s literacy rate of 52% is below the average of 65% in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Bank, which says being able to read is critical for young people to thrive, reduce poverty, and achieve sustainable development. This belief is shared by Zematch Chamo, a primary school director in Zozo village, a few kilometres from Chencha, the jumping-off point for most child weavers heading to Addis Ababa from the Gamo and Dorze heartlands.

“Education can change the community,” said Zematch, who tries to persuade parents in one of the poorest parts of Ethiopia to send their children to school rather than the city. “But poor people will not see this bigger picture.” Zematch has given several former child weavers a second chance, including Castro Kalbe, 26, who has just completed his final exams.

“My childhood was snatched from me,” said Castro, who was taken from his village, where he herded family cattle, to Addis Ababa at 13 by a relative who made him weave and care for his children. He was beaten regularly, and his parents did not hear from him for years. He eventually ran away. “I suffered a lot when I was young,” said Castro, who now works as a motorbike taxi driver and on the family farm. “I saw people in Addis Ababa whose life was changed thanks to education. That is why I convinced myself to get back home.”

Another returnee is Mesfin, who ran away from home at 12 to join his brother, an adult weaver in Addis Ababa. After a year, he changed his mind and returned. “Everybody was asking me how my life was in Addis Ababa,” said Mesfin, 15, who has tried to convince his classmates that it is not worth being exploited as an apprentice for years in the hope that you will eventually buy your equipment. I told them how difficult it was, but not many wanted to accept it.”

Beaten And Starved

On the lush hills of Zozo, dotted with potatoes, sorghum and inset, a plant resembling the banana tree that is a staple food in the south, 45-year-old farmer Mengistu Mado is torn over the future path for his children. Mengistu sent his 10-year-old son Melaku to Addis Ababa several years ago with a distant relative who promised to send money to pay his land tax.

“He asked to take my child when he understood that I was struggling to care for my family,” said Mengistu, who also sells bamboo baskets at the local market. But the money never arrived. And when Mengistu heard that his son was being beaten and starved, he brought him home.

“I never thought that my child would face such trouble. I never knew that there could be a problem worse than what was happening in our house,” he said. Melaku returned to school in Zozo for a couple of years but then went back to Addis Ababa, where he now works for himself as a weaver and lives with his two sisters, who are underage maids.

Melaku sends money home to support his father. “May God bless him. He helped me a lot. Our life has changed for the better now,” said Mengistu, who is still raising seven younger children. “I hope that half of my children will be able to study. If I can send them to school, I will … but if I am struggling, I will send the other boys to their brother in Addis Ababa.”

Charity worker Mulu Haile has dedicated two decades to convincing parents like Mengistu to educate their children rather than risk them being trafficked to urban areas by unscrupulous brokers whose only interest is making money. Her charity, Mission for Community Development Program (MCDP), has used music, drama and radio to inform communities, provided safe houses to rehabilitate rescued children and trained the police to protect at-risk youngsters. “Parents don’t know the consequences,” said Mulu.

“They believe they are shaping the child to become a good person (but) most of (the child weavers) are deformed by the job. They never see the sun. Their skin looks like a powder, and they have eye problems.” Campaigners, police and government officials in Chencha said that funding for anti-trafficking charities like Mulu’s has dried up as donor priorities have shifted elsewhere, making it easier for children to migrate or be trafficked. Mitiku Sebo worked in Chencha’s busy bus terminal – the starting point for most young migrants’ journeys – and was trained by MCDP to spot child trafficking.

“It is hard to monitor,” said Mitiku, whose official job is to issue vehicle exit papers, adding that he finds more children stowed among the luggage in bus trunks. “Community members, who you think are working as random cloth traders, can be part of the network.” He often buys stowaways’ tickets home, hoping this will prevent them from sleeping on the streets or being re-trafficked. 


Next to a bunk bed in MCDP’s former shelter – which it has handed over to the government –colourful paintings show a man in a suit giving orders to a young weaver at a loom and a boy shouldering a heavy sack travelling with a broker. Although the government has established committees to reunite rescued children with their families, campaigners said most would likely migrate again because of poverty, hope for a better life and community expectations.

Police in Chencha have apprehended 36 children heading to urban areas for work since January, but much more slip through the net, said Markos Balcha, the district’s child trafficking expert at the Bureau of Women and Children Affairs. “The police are part of the corrupt system of the trafficking chain. They have links at every stage of the route,” Markos said. 

“They will communicate with (other) police officers at every stop on behalf of the traffickers (taking bribes) so that their colleagues can help the latter pass the checkpoints easily.” The police rejected the allegations. “There is no police officer that neglects (child trafficking),” said Wedadjo Wendemu, principal inspector at Chencha district’s police station. “We don’t know any traffic police who (facilitate) this,” he said, adding that police budgets and salaries were too low to address the issue effectively.

Markos would like to see more prosecutions, which are rare, for child trafficking – punishable by up to 20 years in prison – and for hiring children under the age of 15, for which there is no defined penalty in the 2019 labour law.

“In this area (Chencha), even a relative who has raped his sibling will go away without being charged,” Markos said. However, a significant challenge is that communities often resolve disputes informally instead of turning to the police, sometimes only asking brokers and abusive employers to apologise. “It (could) break the tie of kinship in our community,” said one elder, Abraham Sadiyu, while drinking traditional beer and eating roasted grains on market day in Zozo village.

But two young weavers in Chencha, who started work at 12 and 14, wanted the adults in the community to respect their right to education and allow them to decide their futures. Temesgen, whose parents sent him to work in a stranger’s house one year ago, is one of them. “I want to go to school, but I don’t know how,” said the 15-year-old, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, as he sat behind a loom in a workshop serving as a dormitory for three teenage weavers.

His colleague Tariku, who gave his age as 17, said he regretted running away from home five years ago to work. “I dropped out of school because I saw weavers who had changed their life for the better (but) I love education,” said the teen, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, who works from 7 am to 11 pm behind closed shutters. “I fear that (my employer) will insult me if I ask him to send me to school. But all I want is to learn.

Reporters: Emeline Wuilbercq and Yared Tsegaye
Text editing: Katy Migiro. Producer: Amber Milne Thomson Reuters Foundation Image: Nickolas Nikolic, Unsplash

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