Child Exploitation

1997 Church of the Brethren Statement

The Bible as an Advocate for Children

Whoever welcomes this child in my name

Throughout the Bible, children are seen as a blessing and a sign of God’s favor, and are often bearers of God’s promise for the future. The scriptures call us to care for and defend the children, as they are the most vulnerable members of God’s family.

Early in the Old Testament, we hear of the significance of a child as a bearer of God’s promise and sign of God’s faithfulness. We also learn that children at risk can be recipients of God’s special concern. Later in the Old Testament, prophetic voices judged entire nations by their treatment of widows and orphans.1

In the New Testament, Jesus accords children a kind of respect and attention nearly always reserved for adults. In seeking out children and in naming them as role models for his disciples, Jesus revolutionized attitudes toward the place of the child in the human community.

Paul likewise calls on adults to treat children with respect and care. He admonishes parents not to provoke their children to anger, and calls for the provision of a stable home in which the child might grow.

The biblical record, and especially the life and teachings of Jesus, calls on Christians to ensure that children are respected and loved. Rather than being excluded, exiled or exploited, children are brought to the Master’s lap and thus into the center of the circle of his love and concern. They must be treated in the same way by his followers.

God chose to enter human history in the person of a child. Though Jesus’ mother anticipated his birth with an exaltation that in him the lowly would be lifted up and the mighty laid low, he was nonetheless born in a poor dwelling to parents of little economic means. Soon this child of prophecy was hunted by government authorities who saw him as threat, rather than a savior. The Christ child spent his early years as a refugee in a foreign land. It perhaps is no surprise, then, that this child grew to be a man whose early experiences were used by God to engender a special concern for the troubled children of the world. He had been one of these troubled little ones himself.

The Situation of Child Workers

if any of you puts a stumbling block before one of these little ones…

It is a troublesome time to be a child in much of the world today. Children are disproportionately numbered among the world’s poor, the world’s sick, the world’s uneducated, the world’s refugees, and the world’s victimized. Estimates are that 100,000,000 street children look for a place to call home.2 One in five children in the United States and two out of three children in many countries live in poverty. Every day, 35,000 children in the world die of preventable causes.3 In the past 10 years, wars have left 2 million children killed, 4-5 million disabled, and 12 million homeless. As many as 200,000 children currently serve as soldiers in dozens of the world’s armed conflicts.4

The causes for this blight upon the world’s children are many. Sometimes they are simply “collateral damage,” suffering from the latest economic plan or military conflict. Most often, however, poverty is at the root of children’s misery. In many places in the world, and particularly in rural areas, families find that they cannot earn enough money to care for basic needs such as food and shelter. Indeed, of the world’s 5.7 billion people, 1.3 billion live in absolute poverty, earning less than one dollar per day.5 With disturbing regularity, parents’ inability to provide for their families leads to suffering for their children.6

  • In many areas, poverty results from a lack of access to arable land. In an earlier period, colonial powers expropriated the land of those living in their colonies to grow crops for export to the ruling nation. [footnote: Promises Not Kept: The Betrayal of Social Change in the Third World, John Isbister, Kumarian Press, 1995, page 94ff] More recently, government priorities in a particular nation dictate that land be used to produce export crops as a means of generating bard currency to service crippling debts to international agencies.7 Repaying these debts reduces these governments’ ability to fund social services such as education and job training.8 Environmental degradation also affects land available to poor farmers. Abuses include overgrazing, soil depletion due to intensive cultivation, and ravages by floods resulting from deforestation.
  • Foreign aid programs often dictate development policies designed to enhance the economy of the donor country or the success of its corporations, with little regard for the effect of these policies on the poorer sectors of society. Additionally, as the Cold War has waned, foreign aid levels have decreased. For its part, the United States currently commits less than 1% of its federal budget to non-military foreign aid. Indeed, this nation ranks last among donor nations in percentage of Gross National Product given as development assistance to poorer nations.
  • The expanding world population puts added pressure on limited resources. In India alone, population density has increased three-fold in the past 45 years.9 Ironically, population increase is both a result and cause of poverty. For poor families, children bring added income security, but also greater demands on household budgets.

As these facts make clear, poverty is a dominant reality for a large percentage of the world’s people–and its children. This poverty, in turn, is at the root of the exploitation of children worldwide, as these young ones are forced into the labor market to supplement family income.10 Certainly, work can be a valuable part of a child’s development, as children can learn occupational skills, responsibility, and a sense of participation in a joint family or community enterprise. Work becomes exploitative when the child begins to be seen primarily as an economic commodity and the necessity to work denies other important childhood experiences.

According to United Nations statistics, the number of child workers in the world is over 250 million. [International Labor Organization, as reported in the Guardian Weekly, November 17, 1996]. These figures do not include children who work as domestic workers, of whom there are tens of millions globally. More than 95 percent of all child workers live in developing countries. Asia accounts for half of all child workers. However, Africa has the highest percentage of children working–roughly one in three. In Latin America, some 15 to 20 percent of all children work.11

The majority of the world’s working children are engaged in agriculture in some form. Many of these work in subsistence agriculture with their families. As such, these children are not “exploited labor;” they nonetheless are often deprived of education and other experiences beneficial to a child’s development.

Many other children, however, find themselves drawn into the commercial agricultural sector, often joining with other family members in working for a corporation or large landowner. In fact, up to 12 percent of the workforce employed on the world’s agricultural plantations are children.12 In many cases children are preferred over adults: they are plentiful in rural areas; they can be paid less than adult workers; and they are considered more docile and pliant than adults.13 Even when an entire family works together, their combined efforts often can only earn the equivalent of one minimum daily wage. Additionally, it is becoming clear that children are much more susceptible than adults to workplace hazards, including toxic chemicals, radiation, carcinogens, and occupational injuries.14 The United States is not devoid of unfair labor practices regarding children: It is estimated that 100,000 children work illegally in agriculture in this country.15

As poverty continues to be a scourge in many rural areas, millions of children have had to migrate to urban areas in search of work. Sometimes parents choose to send their children off to work in order to supplement family income. In other instances, the children are sent to work in order to pay off loans made to the parents. This is called “debt bondage.” It is estimated that in India alone, 10 million child laborers are in “chronic bondage.”16 A loan of as little as $10 is enough to ensnare an individual in a lifelong web of debt.17 Other children are tricked into becoming part of the child labor force by unscrupulous recruiters.

Child workers are often expected to work as much as 20 hours per day, seven days a week. [By the Sweat and Toil of Children, Vol.11, U.S. Department of Labor, 1995, page 5] Children as young as five years of age are “employed” as child workers. The fruit of their labor is often literally pennies a day, with much of this absorbed by the employer to cover the child’s living costs. [In one factory in Bangladesh, for example, investigators found that 60 percent of the workers were under 13 years of age. Monthly salaries for these children ranged from $7 to $30. Work shifts were often 14 hours per day, with the children needing to stand the entire period. Children who are late to work by as little as a minute on three different days have a full day’s wage deducted from their pay. International Child Labor: A Global Crisis, Pharis Harvey, International Labor Organization at Capitol Hill Briefing organized by the Child Labor Coalition, February 23, 1993.] In such settings, the child who works in a factory is often unprotected from workplace hazards, suffers from malnutrition and disease, and is subject to stunting and deformity.

Sexual slavery is another form of forced child labor. Children are sometimes sold into sexual slavery by poor parents. Often, however, the child is tricked into traveling to urban areas, or simply kidnaped outright. Once they begin their “work,” they join literally millions of children worldwide whose bodies are sold, primarily to middle class businessmen and tourists. Young girls are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation because they are not afforded the same vocational options and educational opportunities are boys. It is estimated that there are 500,000 girl prostitutes in Brazil, 400,000 in Thailand, and 70,000 in Taiwan.18 However, boys are also sexually exploited in some cultures. For example, little boys make up the majority of the 400,000 sexually exploited children in India and the 30,000 in Sri Lanka.19 These children often contract sexually transmitted diseases that scar them for life. For their trauma, these girls and boys receive a tiny percentage of the fees paid by numerous customers who abuse them each day.

Children in the United States are not immune to this kind of exploitation. Trapped with their families in the cycle of poverty, many children in this country become entangled in illegal drug trade and prostitution. It is estimated that 125,000 to 200,000 teenagers become involved in prostitution each year in the U.S., about two thirds of whom are street youth.20

Not only is their immediate existence imperiled, but exploited children caught in this vicious cycle find their future health and opportunities for a successful life jeopardized as well. Their emotional and relational growth is crippled. They are denied education, thus trapping them in a life of poverty. There is, then, the increased likelihood that their own children will likewise be used to generate money for their family, thus dooming them to repeat the parents cycle.

One driving force behind child labor is the proliferation of national and multinational corporations scouring the world for cheap sources of labor. While many U.S. companies have adopted “codes of conduct” that prohibit the use of child laborers, in reality the codes are often widely ignored by the independent contractors who run the factories in other countries. Certainly, few workers have ever heard of the “codes” that are supposed to be protecting them. In spite of claims of code adherence by U.S. companies, it is estimated that as many as 50 million children worldwide produce goods for the United States consumer.21 The lure of large profit margins outweighs moral considerations, as in many instances the wages paid to workers who actually fabricate a garment or other item amount to less than one percent of the eventual retail price of the article. [The chairman or one well-known athletic shoe company earns four times more than the entire shoe industry workforce in Indonesia, a prominent location for U.S. shoe manufacturers. Capitol Hill Briefing, The Child Labor Coalition, February 23, 1993.] In contrast, alternative trade organizations such as SERRV International return at least 30 percent of the retail price to the producer.

Consumption patterns among wealthy members of the global family play a key role in the exploitation of children as workers. As the richest twenty percent of the world’s population control eighty-five percent of the world’s wealth, their economic clout is enormous. These economic resources allow the wealthy to dictate economic policies and workers’ wages. Countries not complying with the rules find job opportunities moved to more amenable sites.22

Military power plays a role in maintaining the global economic order. Military force is used to protect economic interests, either by the deployment of troops or in providing military aid to governments whose strategic location or economic policies favor the economic interests of the donor nation. [Promises Not Kept, pg. 222] Military spending also utilizes funds that could otherwise be used to meet human need.23

Global Economy, Global Family
Let the little children come. . .

The nations of the world are increasingly bound together in a global economic system. Thus it is nearly impossible for citizens of one nation to be unaffected by developments elsewhere, or to think that their lives do not affect the lives of others. Citizens of the United States are certainly deeply affected by and greatly affect people of other nations.24

Even though citizens of this country are part of the global consuming class, we are not always aware of the implications of our economic policies and spending patterns. Certainly, corporations are not inclined to be transparent regarding their business practices when it is not in their best interest to do so. Most companies do not want consumers to be aware of below-subsistence levels paid to those who produce high-priced merchandise.25

Whether or not we are conscious of the implications of our actions, they often have a direct impact upon people and communities far beyond us. The pursuit of a continually increasing standard of living and the opportunity to be avid consumers affects our global family. Corporations competing to get our business will seek the sources of labor which will lower unit costs. Investors seeking the highest return on investments are reluctant to ask questions of companies that provide hefty profit margins. Shoppers seeking bargain prices to meet family budgets are unlikely to scrutinize the policies of producers able to provide lower prices.

Brethren have long understood that their lives are intertwined with those of their neighbors near and far. We have wanted to know the implications of our own and our nation’s actions for either good or ill in the lives of others. In this regard, we are fortunate to live in a nation where we can freely express our opinions regarding the actions of our government or of U.S.-based companies that do business around the world.

Brethren must use these opportunities to work toward a global community where all people have the chance to grow and develop as God intends. In particular, Brethren want to ensure that those who are the most vulnerable in the world–its children–are given the chance to fully experience the joys and freedoms of childhood, while preparing for the future by enjoying good emotional and physical health, experiencing a stable family environment, and attaining an appropriate education. Child exploitation denies these experiences for children, and thus must be opposed wherever it exists. This opposition is based on our sense of justice, human decency, and the dignity accorded all people–especially children–in the Bible and in our Christian heritage.

A Call for Compassion and Justice
Unless you change and become like children…

Jesus had an understanding of the character of children and the importance of the development of a child. He saw in children qualities of dependence, trust, an inclusive love that does not distinguish between rank or race, an expectation of great things, an instinct for faith, and a refreshing innocence. It was these qualities he doubtless had in mind when he instructed his followers to become as children. Child exploitation takes away all these characteristics, except for dependency; but even this becomes a negative quality, as the child becomes dependent on a demanding master.

The nations of the world have likewise noted that children are vulnerable and yet full of promise. As a result, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Among the articles of this statement is a call for children to be protected from, “…economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development…,” and that children be protected from all forms of sexual exploitation.26

In response to the needs of the world’s exploited children and to the calling of God’s people to extend special care to little ones such as these, the Church of the Brethren must reach out to children in Christian compassion and with a passion for justice. In particular, we recommend the following actions by Church of the Brethren agencies, congregations and members.

Annual Conference

  1. The Annual Conference shall have a goal to invite as a worship speaker someone from the international community or a speaker who brings an international perspective to Annual Conference at least every other year. The purpose shall be to educate and motivate the denomination to consider what it means to live our faith in the global community.

General Board

  1. The General Board is requested to provide study resources for use by congregations and groups related to child exploitation and its causes. Special attention should be given to the role played by U.S. consumers as a driving force in the global market.
  2. Curriculum planners are encouraged to deal with child exploitation and related issues in creating Sunday School and other study materials.
  3. The Washington Office shall keep members informed of legislation related to child exploitation, and advocate for children’s rights in its dealings with Congress and the Administration.
  4. General Board staff shall continue to be open to program initiatives that promote alternatives to the exploitation of child laborers. These include educational and economic development projects in areas of the world where children, and particularly young females, are at risk.
  5. The General Board shall take steps to ensure that none of its investments are with corporations that utilize child labor.

Brethren Benefit Trust (BBT)

  1. BBT is requested to take steps to ensure that none of its investments are with corporations that utilize child labor.
  2. BBT is encouraged to consider offering an investment option for its members that would invest funds in organizations in the United States and abroad that creatively assist poor people in moving toward economic stability so as to reduce the possibility for children being sent into the workforce or into prostitution.


  1. Congregations are encouraged to utilize classes, morning worship, and study groups in dealing with issues of child exploitation.
  2. Congregations are encouraged to use Children’s Sunday or another day of special emphasis to lift up the plight of children around the world.
  3. Congregations are encouraged to explore alternative economic models for interacting with the global community, including hosting a SERRV shop, supporting denominational development programs, and contributing to the Global Food Crisis Fund and Heifer Project International.
  4. Congregations are encouraged to seek ways to be in ministry to children and youth in their communities or regions who are vulnerable to becoming entrapped in activities that exploit and abuse them.


  1. Members of the Church of the Brethren are encouraged to carefully consider their role in a global economic system in which children serve as a source of cheap labor.
  2. Younger members of the church should take a special responsibility for publicizing the exploitation of children, raising awareness among their peers in churches and communities.
  3. Members are encouraged to make careful choices concerning consumption, using available shopping guides to evaluate products and companies based on whether they treat workers justly.
  4. Members should consider advocating for the rights of children from a Christian perspective with leaders of governments and corporations.

United States Government

  1. We encourage the adoption of laws that would prohibit the marketing of goods produced by child labor in the United States.
  2. We call on the United States to increase levels of foreign aid designed to create opportunities for a better life for vulnerable children and their families, thus decreasing the likelihood that children’s labor will be exploited at the expense of their health and future development. Of particular importance is the promotion of educational and training opportunities for girls and women.
  3. We call on the U.S. Government to ratify and support international treaties that protect children from exploitation as this is understood by this paper, and discerned by the church. 

This statement arose from concerns raised by participants at the 1995 Christian Citizenship Seminar, where the theme was “Living our Faith in the Global Community.” Study committee members are: Kelli McCauliff, Erin Flory, Nathan Musselman, Heidi Beck, Elizabeth Farmer, and David Radcliff, staff liaison. This paper is dedicated to Stephanie Miller, who died in a car accident on her way home from the seminar.


  1. Isaiah 1:16-17; Jeremiah 7:5-7; Micah 2:8-10.
  2. “Children for Sale Fact Sheet,” Office on Global Education, Church World Service and Witness, Baltimore.
  3. “Hunger Facts,” Bread for the World Background Paper No.124, Feb., 1994, Bread for the World Institute, Silver Spring, MD.
  4. “The young boys worked out quite nicely in the field,” comments a commander in the Mozambican civil war. “You know, they always did what they were told to do, they were fiercely loyal and brave in battle. They had the hardest job really, they were often the first to go forward when we attacked a village. . . . The ones who didn’t follow orders or failed in some way, they would be killed by one of the soldiers or, to prove their loyalty to Renamo (the rebel forces), by one of the boys in front of the whole group.” World Press Review, January 1996, p.8, 10.
  5. U.N Human Development Report, 1995.
  6. “Causes of Hunger,” Hunger 199S, Bread for the World Institute, p.48.
  7. Terry Lipinski, “The Place for children is in School: Child Labor in Brazil’s Export Industries,” unpublished report to the U.S. Department of Labor, May 1994, p.18. This report cites the acquisition of land in Brazil and elsewhere by agro-industry, forcing smaller farmers into shanty towns where they become reserve workers for agriculture as well as for local industry. Children in these families then must work to augment family income.
  8. Development: Seeking Abundant Life for All,” Office on Global Education, National Council of Churches in Christ-US, 1994. Developing countries pay nearly three times as much in servicing the interest on their debts to international lending agencies than they receive in foreign aid. Each year, $60 million in received aid is matched by an outflow of $160 million in debt interest repayment. To raise the necessary currency to fund this debt service, governments often choose to take over farmland previously used to grow food for domestic consumption, instead using the land to grow crops for export..
  9. “Born into Uncertainty,” Chicago Tribune, January 28, 1996. Many factors contribute to India’s swelling population. Among these limited access to safe and reliable birth control, skepticism about government programs designed to curb population, religious traditions that dictate the need for male children, and the economic necessity to have sons to care for parents in their old age.
  10. To define a child laborer, this paper draws on standards set by the International Labor Organization. A child worker, then, is anyone younger than 15 years of age who is engaged in work that is likely to harm their health or development, or to inhibit their attendance in school or their participation in vocational training.
  11. U.S. Dept. of Labor, By the Sweat and Toil of Children, Vol.1, 1995, p.2.
  12. U.S. Dept. of Labor, By the Sweat and Toil of Children, Vol.11; 1995.p.2.
  13. U.S. Dept. of Labor, By the Sweat and Toil of Children, Vol.11; 1995, p.25.
  14. Bequele, A. and Myers, W.E., “First things first in child labor: Eliminating work detrimental to children”; Geneva: UNICEF, 1995, p.9.
  15. “Children: The Forgotten Farm workers,’ The Fresno Bee, December 13, 1994. Cited in testimony before Congress by Pharis Harvey, executive director of the International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund, May 5, 1995
  16. “International Child Labor Hearing,” U.S. Department of Labor; April 12, 1994; Statement of South Asia Coalition on child Servitude.
  17. “Children at Risk Fact Sheet,” Office on Global Education, (Church World Service and Witness), Baltimore, p.14.
  18. Latinamerica Press, Center for Childhood and Adolescence, December 7, 1995.
  19. “Children for Sale Fact Sheet,” Office on Global Education, (Church World Service and Witness), Baltimore.
  20. Ibid..
  21. “Where Children Work: child servitude in the global economy,” Christian Century, April 5, 1995, p.362.
  22. “Hunger in a world of plenty,” New Internationalist, May, 1995, p.9
  23. While the nations of the world will pour $700 billion into military expenditures in 1997, many nations still have less than a 50 percent adult literacy rate; nearly one billion people do not have access to primary health care; and 700 million people are chronically malnourished. World Military and Social Expenditures 1996, World Priorities, Inc., Washington, D.C. 20007.
  24. “Buying Clothes Without Exploiting Children,” New York Times, August 4, 1995. Of all clothing purchased in the United States, approximately 50 percent is manufactured abroad.
  25. “Not a Living Wage, ” The New York Times, September, 1995, states that a Liz Claiborne jacket selling for $178 in the United States cost 77 cents in labor costs to produce.
  26. “UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,” article 32 and 34, respectively.

Resources related to child exploitation

  • “The Story of Puttinan,” a 27-minute video chronicling the work of a young Thai girl in educating her peers in Thailand about the dangers of child exploitation. Produced in 1995. Available free of charge from Church World Service Film Library, P.O. Box 968, 28606 Phillips Street, Elkhart, IN 46515 (219-264-3102).
  • “Remember Me,” a 15-minute video in which children around the world poignantly tell their own stories of their difficult lives, which are centered around work rather than “normal” children’s activities. Church World Service Film Library.
  • “The Predicament.” A humorous but serious play looking at a moment when the lives of two young women–one on the way to buy a pair of sports shoes while the other is being sent to work in a factory–intersect. Available from denominational peace office.
  • By the Sweat and Toil of Children, Vol. I, The Use of Child Labor in American Imports, U.S. Dept. of Labor, 1994.,
  • By the Sweat and Toil of Children, Vol. II, The Use of Child Labor in U.S. Agricultural Imports and Forced and Bond Child Labor, U.S. Dept. of Labor, 1995.
  • Facts Have Faces: “Children for Sale,” Office on Global Education, National Council of Churches USA. A four-page summary detailing the problem of children caught in the sex industry. OGE/CWS, 2115 N. Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21218-5755 (410-727-6106).
  • “A Guide to Action,” available from Ending Child Prostitution in Asia (address below). A packet of information and action suggestions produced by a leading child advocacy group.
  • ECPAT-USA NEWS, a newsletter published by Ending Child Prostitution in Asia.
  • Children Hungering for Justice, two 1-hour sessions on world hunger and children’s rights. Available at K-4, 5-8 and 9-12 levels. Includes abbreviated version of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Office on Global Education (see above)
  • Caution: Children at Work. Study guide for junior high and youth. Provides overview of child exploitation and prompts discussion of key issues. Available from denominational peace office.
  • World Military and Social Expenditures. The definitive compilation of global expenditures on the military in contrast to spending on health care, education, development, etc. Nation by nation and regional analysis. World Priorities, Inc., Box 25140, Washington, D.C. 20007.


  • Children’s Defense Fund, 25 E. Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001 (202-662-3589). Publishes the annual State of America’s Children. This group also publishes resources for the National Observance of Children’s Sabbaths.
  • Ending Child Prostitution in Asia, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 621, New York, NY 10115 (212-870-2427).
  • Church World Service and Witness (address above) provides printed facts sheets and films and videos. CWS also conducts development work around the world on behalf of the National Council of Churches in Christ-USA.
  • International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund monitors working conditions around the world. 110 Maryland Ave., NE, Washington, D.C. 20002.
  • UNICEF Headquarters, 3 UN Plaza, New York, NY 10017
  • Office on Global Education, Church World Service and Witness, 2115 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218-5755. This department of the NCCC-USA provides a variety of resources assisting Christians in becoming better informed about global reality and Christian responsibility.
  • The Child Labor Coalition, c/o National Consumers League, 1701 K Street, NW, Suite 1200, Washington, D.C. 20006. The Coalition brings together religious and secular groups committed to ending child exploitation. Publishes Child Labor Monitor.
  • Free the Children/USA, 603 N. Oak Street, Falls Church, VA 22046 (703-534-7045). This is a youth organization that helps others learn about child exploitation, lobbies Congress concerning child-friendly legislation, and raises funds to help children around the world who are trapped as child workers.

Action of the 1997 Annual Conference:

The study committee, along with Director of Brethren Witness David Radcliff, presented the document, which was approved by the delegate body. Four amendments were passed and have been included in the preceding text.