Five barefoot young boys were walking to town to look for work when they were apprehended by the police, in a cat-and-mouse battle to stamp out child labor 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 450 km 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 who were working to trace the parents of the five runaways, all aged between 8 and 10.

The persistence of exploitation in the weaving industry illustrates the challenges in meeting a United Nations goal of ending child labor by 2025 in Africa, where 87 million children work, usually on family farms or small businesses.

Interviews with about a dozen child weavers, as well as parents, activists and officials in and around Addis Ababa and Chencha found child labor is thriving because of poverty, culture, family pressure and clandestine trafficking networks.

Working in a windowless room, Mathewos is one of 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 labor 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 neighborhood, surrounded by tall eucalyptus trees.

"It is better for him to 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 UN says most of the world's child laborers are in Africa, and Ethiopia is home to one of the largest populations. Government data shows that 43% of under 15s – 16 million children – work in a country of 115 million people.

The bustling streets around Addis Ababa's main 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 Labor and Social Affairs.

"Despite a win at Shiromeda, child labor in the weaving sector ... has not vanished but only changed form and location," he said, with children now mostly 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. Of course, you cannot easily end what's in the culture. Yet making a living by making children work overnight, and telling them it is for their own good, cannot be contemplated."

One hidden hotspot is Wolete, on the western edge of the capital, where dozens of boys play table football and eat out on Sundays and Mondays – when their employers are out selling the shawls and dresses they have made.

In his small photo studio, Teklu Haimelo, 41, chatted with several child weavers who he has befriended with food, clothes and advice – as a former child weaver himself.

Teklu, who was 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 enroll 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. 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 harder in Ethiopia, with prices and unemployment on the rise, 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 as labor exploitation. 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."

'Education can change the community'

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 short of funding and staff to implement its ambitious plan.

"The government should really 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, who was born and raised in Ethiopia.

About 95% of Ethiopians start primary school but only 54% complete it and just 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 enrollment 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 and to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development.

This belief is shared by Zematch Chamo, primary school director in Zozo village, a few kilometers 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 the age of 13 by a relative who made him weave and take care of 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 the age of 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 own 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 enset, 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 take care of 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 of her life 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 in making money.

Her charity, Mission for Community Development Program, 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 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 works 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 exit papers to vehicles, adding that he is finding 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, in the hope this will prevent them sleeping on the streets or being re-trafficked. 

A corrupt system

Next to a bunk bed in MCDP's former shelter – which it has handed over to the government – colorful paintings show a man in a suit giving orders to a young weaver at a loom and a boy shouldering a heavy sack traveling with a broker.

Although the government has established committees to reunite rescued children with their families, campaigners said most were likely to 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 many 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, main 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 effectively address the issue.

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.

A major challenge is that communities often resolve disputes informally, instead of turning to the police, sometimes only asking brokers and abusive employers to apologize.

"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.

'All I want is to learn'

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 own futures. 

Temesgen, whose parents sent him to work in a stranger's house one year ago, is one of them.    

"I really 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 that also serves 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 also has been changed to protect his identity, who works from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. 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."

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