A young girl in child slavery working in a quarry, breaking rocks with a hammer.
Child slavery can mean anything from breaking rocks in a quarry, to working as domestic worker being a child soldier, to being forced to marry as a child. More than 5 million children around the world are in slavery.

What is child slavery?

Despite the fact that many people believe that slavery no longer exists, an estimated five million children are in slavery worldwide, including in the UK.

Child slavery is often confused with child labour, but is much worse. Whilst child labour is harmful for children and hinders their education and development, child slavery occurs when a child’s labour is exploited for someone else’s gain.

Said and Yarg’s story

Said and Yarg are brothers born into slavery in Mauritania. They worked every day from a young age. While their masters’ children went to school, Said and Yarg worked.

“We weren’t allowed to eat the same food as the rest of the family, sleep in the same rooms or wear the same clothes. They would beat us for any reason at all, and sometimes we didn’t even know the reason.”

Said and Yarg were able to escape slavery and take their former master to court with support from Anti-Slavery and its partners.

Child slavery includes:

  • Children used by others for profit, often through violence, abuse and threats, in prostitution or pornography, forced begging, petty crime and the drug trade
  • Forced child labour, for example in agriculture, factories, construction, brick kilns, mines, bars, the tourist industry or domestic work
  • Children forced to take part in armed conflicts
  • Children forced to marry

Why do children work?

Most children work because their families are poor and their labour is necessary for their survival. Children are often employed because, compared to adults, they are more easily controlled and are unlikely to demand higher wages or better working conditions.

For poorer children from rural areas, school is not an option. Education can be expensive or schools are too far away.

As well as being a result of poverty, child labour also perpetuates poverty. Many working children do not have the opportunity to go to school and often grow up to be unskilled adults trapped in poorly paid jobs.

Child work, child labour, child slavery?

The terms around exploitation of children can be quite confusing so here is a short guide.

Child work. Some types of work make useful, positive contributions to a child’s development, helping them learn useful skills. Often, work is a vital source of income for their families.

Child labour. Child labour is not slavery, but nevertheless hinders children’s education and development.  Child labour tends to be undertaken when the child is in the care of their parents.

Worst form of child labour. “Hazardous work” is the worst form of child labour. It irreversibly damages children’s health and development through, for example, exposure to dangerous machinery or toxic substances, and may even endanger their lives.

Child slavery. Child slavery is the enforced exploitation of a child for their labour for someone else’s gain.

Child trafficking. Trafficking involves transporting, recruiting or harbouring people for the purpose of exploitation, using violence, threats or coercion. When children are trafficked, no violence, deception or coercion needs to be involved, trafficking is merely the act of transporting or harbouring them for exploitative work. When away from their families, they are at the mercy of their employers.

Child marriage. Many marriages involving children will not amount to slavery, particularly between couples aged 16 to 18 years. But when a child didn’t give their consent to a marriage, is exploited within it or is not able to leave, that child is in slavery.

Children in armed conflicts. Children forced to take part in armed conflicts don’t only include child soldiers but also porters or girls taken as “wives” for soldiers and militia members. Children involved in conflict are severely affected by their experiences and can suffer from long-term trauma.

Facts about child slavery

  • Worldwide 5.5 million children are in slavery, trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of forced labour, forced recruitment for armed conflict, prostitution, pornography and other illicit activities (ILO)
  • 168 million are estimated to be in child labour (ILO)
  • 120 million child labourers are below the age of 14 (ILO)
  • 85 million children are in hazardous work that directly endangers their health, safety and moral development (ILO)
  • more than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday. More than one in three (about 250 million) entered into union before age 15 (UNICEF)
  • 300,000 children are estimated to serve as child soldiers, some even younger than 10 years old (UNICEF)
  • 15.5 million children are in domestic work worldwide – the overwhelming majority of them are girls (ILO)
  • In the UK, 981 children were referred to authorities as potential victims of trafficking in 2015 (National Crime Agency)