The international forum in La Paz (Bolivia), 2017

With the assistance of ProNATs, an International Forum for the rights of working children took place from 16 to 18 October 2017 in the Bolivian metropolis of La Paz, where elected representatives of the movements of working children and youth met with child rights activists and academics. Under the motto "Globalisation of dignity", the participants discussed emancipatory policy approaches to support working children and called for a fundamental policy change which respects the rights and interests of working children and guarantees their participation as well as their protection.

Around 250 people attended the Forum, including academics and practitioners from four continents. They discussed in numerous workshops, panel discussions and other formats with children and youth from several Latin American and African countries. At times, working children from India were also connected via video conference. The Forum was organised by the solidarity network EuropaNATs (of which ProNATs is a member) and the Bolivian Foundation La Paz in coordination with the Latin American, African and Indian Movement of Working Children and its support organisations.

There were two main reasons for the location and timing of the Forum. On 4 August 2014, a new Children and Youth Act came into force in Bolivia, which extended the rights of working children, but was implemented only hesitantly. The Forum was intended to underline the importance of the law and to support the forces that were committed to its implementation in Bolivia. The second event was a world conference on the "sustainable eradication of child labour" planned by the International Labour Organisation(ILO). Since the ILO had refused to invite working children to this conference, which was held in Buenos Aires from 14 to 16 November 2017, political alternatives were to be presented in advance.


The Forum, which took place in the rooms of the University Mayor de San Andrés, included various types of events: In addition to the lectures, which were mostly supported by a PowerPoint presentation, four panel discussions and eight workshops were held. The lectures and panel discussions were simultaneously translated into English or Spanish. In the workshops, informal translations were provided in the other language. The participants from Africa were assisted by people who translated into French.

One third of the participants were children and youths from Bolivia and other Latin American countries. In order to facilitate communication with them and to actively involve them in the discussion, the topics discussed and the results of the discussions were recorded on a continuously updated, graphically appealing wall newspaper. In addition, the parts of the event were repeatedly linked by means of playful and musical interludes in order to create a child- and participation-friendly atmosphere.

The intended dialogue between the generations and between scientists and practitioners can be described as successful. Children and youths were not only represented on the panels, but also actively participated in the plenary discussions and workshops. At times, the Forum resembled an exuberant happening, in which not only talking but also singing and dancing were communicated with each other. It was important that the management of the various events was equally divided between adults and children and that some artists could be won over for the accompanying programme.

As not all invited persons could be present in person, some contributions were transmitted by video link. The video transmission of three girls and an adult companion from India was particularly moving.

The plenary sessions were recorded on film and transmitted via livestream on YouTube. All discussions in the plenum and in the workshops were recorded and some were recorded on posters. The most important results and messages were recorded in a final declaration, which the organisers formulated shortly before the end of the Forum.   

Following the Forum, a separate meeting of children's delegates was held at the premises of the Bolivian Confederation of Trade Unions COB from 19 to 21 October, with some of the invited academics and practitioners participating as observers and interlocutors. Here, concrete actions were planned following analyses of the situation of the movements in the different countries. Among other things, they decided to set up a separate press agency, to produce a study on good practices in the protection of working children and to address the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva with a complaint about the violation of the participation rights of working children by the International Labour Organisation.

Some difficulties

The planned participation of representatives of the Bolivian government fell short of expectations. Although the Vice-Minister for Equal Opportunities (part of the Ministry of Justice), who is responsible for childhood policy, attended the opening and staff from other ministries were informally present at some plenary sessions and workshops, official participation in the debates on the implementation of the Children and Youth Act failed to materialise. Obviously, in view of internal disagreements at the time of the Forum, the government did not want to take a public position. On the positive side, however, it should be emphasised that several employees of governmental ombudsman offices for children's rights as well as non-governmental organisations from Bolivia and other Latin American countries actively participated in the Forum.

Despite an invitation, UNICEF and ILO were not represented at the Forum. UNICEF justified the cancellation with the thematic emphasis of the programme, but nevertheless wished the "important event" every success. The Bolivian ILO representation waived a written explanation of its non-participation, but indicated that, by order of the headquarters in Geneva shortly before the ILO conference in Buenos Aires, participation was out of the question. In the final declaration, the organisers regretted that in this way they had once again failed to listen to the working children and to engage in productive discussion.

The South Indian children's union Bhima Sangha and its supporting organisation The Concerned for Working Children were not personally represented at the Forum because the two elected children's delegates had not received their passports in time (this is very common with working children as they often do not have regular birth certificates, parents cannot be reached or do not agree to travel abroad). However, the Indian organisations had sent several written statements and participated in a video conference.

A partly scandalous odyssey was connected with the arrival and departure of the two children's delegates and their companion from Africa. As it was impossible to obtain a visa through the regular channels, special permits had to be applied for from the Foreign Ministry in a time-consuming procedure, which was successful at the last moment. After a strenuous two-day journey, the African women were prevented from entering the country for more than two hours upon arrival at El Alto airport by the representatives of the migration authorities and treated in an unworthy manner. They were again treated in a similar manner on leaving the country.

Effect and summary

In Bolivia, the Forum attracted great interest and was considered an exceptional event. Although the government was reluctant to make public statements, it was signalled by numerous people (including those close to the then government) as well as representatives of social movements and NGOs that the Forum was an encouragement for their work with children and other disadvantaged population groups. For many children and youth organised in the Bolivian children's union UNATSBO, the forum was an opportunity to meet, exchange experiences, gain allies and regain strength. Nearly all local and national media were present (including at a press conference on the last day of the Forum), interviewed stakeholders and provided factual reports on the content of the Forum. A large mural on the university campus, created during the Forum on the basis of suggestions from the children, is an impressive reminder of the cultural diversity of the Forum.

The Forum has given new impetus to cooperation between the movements of working children beyond Latin America, particularly with the movements in Africa and India. The scholars and practitioners present not only made important contributions to the debate, but were themselves impressed by the very special "intergenerational" atmosphere of the Forum and found many suggestions for their further research work. In English-speaking countries, the results of the discussion were disseminated worldwide via the internet platform Open Democracy and reached an audience interested in childhood policy. In Spanish-speaking countries, the coordination office of the Latin American Movements of Working Children and Youth (MOLACNATs) ensured that the results were widely communicated. In German-speaking countries, reports were distributed via the blog Latinorama in the daily newspaper taz and an interview in the Latin American magazine ila. Information was also made accessible via various websites (from ProNATs, Christian Initiative Romero, Labournet, etc.).

However, the forum's impulses were not sufficient to advance the implementation of Bolivia's Children and Youth Law. At the end of 2018, against the will and without consultation of the working children and the local ombudsmen, essential parts of the law, which served the protection of working children and extended their rights, were annulled again. This was mainly due to pressure from the ILO and the US government (which is the only country in the world that has not even ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child).

Related pages

Final declaration of La Paz

Updated: 14.12.2020

Film about the La Paz meeting