When Emmerson Mnangagwa took over as the President of Zimbabwe in November 2017, ousting Robert Mugabe’s thirty-seven-year rule, the new president outlined a plan the help the state’s devastated economy. Zimbabwe’s economy is dependent on agricultural production to sustain itself, especially tobacco farming. Zimbabwe is one of the top tobacco producers in the world and tobacco farming provides the only hope the State has for revitalizing its economy. However, as a member of the United Nations Zimbabwe is under a responsibility to uphold human rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and as a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Children are facing devastating health consequences when working on these farms and the farming impacts their ability to get an education, a fundamental human right guaranteed for all children.
Tobacco is Zimbabwe’s most valuable export, and unfortunately the industry is tainted by child labor and other serious human rights abuses as the physical harvest of tobacco is hazardous. Child labor seems to be a result of the poor economy as local tobacco farmers often cannot afford to hire help and must thus must rely on their children or other young family members to harvest. Human Rights Watch interviewed Panashe, a fifty-year-old tobacco farmer who owned a half hectare of tobacco, and he completely relies on help from his sixteen-year-old daughter and twelve-year-old niece to work on the farm because he failed to earn anything from the farm the previous year and therefore could not afford to hire anyone.
In addition to the devastating health impacts, tobacco farming leads to children being absent from school and falling behind in their schoolwork. Zimbabwean law prohibits anyone under the age of sixteen from working and anyone under the age of eighteen from performing hazardous work. Hazardous work is described in the law as work “which is likely to jeopardi[z]e or interfere with the education of that child or young person” and “any work involving contact with any hazardous substance . . . or process.” Anyone working with the tobacco plant are exposed to nicotine and toxic pesticides and many children interviewed by Human Rights Watch described symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning and pesticide exposure. The future health consequences of nicotine exposure through skin absorption are currently unstudied; however, the future impacts of pesticide exposure include respiratory problems, cancer, reproductive health issues, and neurological defects. While no one should be handling tobacco plants and pesticides without the proper equipment, children are especially vulnerable because their brains and bodies are still developing.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed many teachers to discover how working on tobacco farms impacts children’s educations as well. Many teachers noted that students were absent frequently during the tobacco season, one teacher reported his students showing up on average only fifteen to twenty-four days out of a sixty-three-day term. One mother stated “I hope that my children will go back to school, and become better people, because they can’t do that working in tobacco farming. Tobacco growing is a very difficult field. It makes one grow old before their time.”
While it is important for Zimbabwe to boost their economy, it should not be done at the expense of children’s health and educations. Obviously, Zimbabwean law is being violated in the tobacco industry, but many international human rights obligations are also being violated. Child labor in these hazardous conditions violates many rights guaranteed under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). First, Article 24 guarantees children the enjoyment of the highest standard of health which is jeopardized by consistent exposure to nicotine and pesticides while working on tobacco farms. Second, under Article 28, every child is guaranteed the right to an education, something which is violated when children are forced to miss school days in order to provide for their families by working on tobacco farms. Finally, under Article 32 children are guaranteed the right to be free from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or interfere with their education. Working in tobacco fields is inherently hazardous to a child’s health and interferes with their ability to educate themselves because they are economically exploited by either providing for their families or providing free labor when farm owners cannot afford to hire workers.
In summary, Zimbabwe needs to ensure that children under eighteen are not sacrificing their right to an education in order to work in hazardous conditions. While children should not be allowed to work on tobacco harms, at the very least Zimbabwe and all tobacco farm owners should ensure children are using the proper equipment when handling tobacco and pesticides. In addition, the Zimbabwean law prohibiting anyone under the age of sixteen from working should be strictly enforced to ensure these children are able to gain an education.