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A Dangerous Living

In a classroom in rural Mali, a young girl’s hand traces delicate letters on the blackboard. She’s writing out the answer to a question, but the fingers gripping the chalk are calloused from her time in the local gold mines. Sarata is just 15 years old, but she’s already a veteran of the dangerous and dirty work there.

She’s not alone. 55% of school-age children in Mali are involved in some form of work, and 1 in 3 have dropped out of school entirely to work full-time. One of the more common kinds of work for children is in dangerous hand-dug gold mines helping to dig and process Mali’s rich gold deposits. The work has many risks – cave-ins, falling into mine shafts, and exposure to dangerous chemicals used to extract the gold. It’s no place for a child.

Sarata first started working in mining in 2017, after the death of her father pushed her family into poverty. Her mother pulled her out of school, and Sarata worked alongside her mother and an older sister hauling up baskets of mud and washing them to find tiny specks of gold. They kept only a small portion of the wealth they dug up, barely enough to survive on. When she wasn’t digging, Sarata looked after the other miner’s children, and cared for her youngest sister, who has mental health issues.

Things became even more desperate for her family when Sarata’s mother passed away in 2018. Now orphaned, Sarata and her older sister had to work even harder to make ends meet. There was no time and no money for school. Sarata wanted to go back and finish her education, but it seemed impossible.

“When I worked in the mines, I pulled the ropes, I dug in the earth, and did babysitting.” – Sarata, 15


Right To Play has been working in Sarata’s village since 2016 through the Jam Suka program. Jam Suka means “child protection” in the Mande languages spoken in Mali. The program strengthened local systems that protect children from exploitation, including child labour, and helped them return to school. In Sarata’s village, that meant setting up a child protection committee and training local volunteers to spot and respond to children in trouble.

Filifing, Sarata’s uncle, is the head of the village. He was one of the first volunteers recruited to the new child protection committee and became its chairman. After being sensitized to the issue of child labour by Right To Play, he knew he had to help Sarata and other children in the village leave the mines. Filifing, along with several teachers from the local school, began mobilizing the whole village, children and adults alike, to get children like Sarata out of the mines and back into school.

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Sarata, a former child labourer, has been successfully reintegrated back into school. She wants to be a doctor one day.

Sarata’s sister and her grandmother worked with Filifing to support Sarata as she re-enrolled in school for the first time in two years. Sarata was excited – she had never wanted to be a miner and had always dreamed of something better. That chance had finally come.

“When I finish my studies, I want to be a doctor for children to bring health to the people of the village.” – Sarata


Along with mobilizing communities to help children leave the mines, Jam Suka helps children reintegrate back into school. Long absences from school erode children’s life skills, set back their learning, and make it challenging for them to pick up where they left off. Using active, experiential methods, teachers trained through Jam Suka ignite the learning potential of former child labourers like Sarata so they can catch up to their peers.

Since the campaign in her village helped her return to school, Sarata has been flourishing. She is excelling in her studies and, even with the challenges of COVID-19, she remains dedicated to learning. “When I finish my studies, I want to be a doctor for children,” she says.

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Children like Sarata who return to school from child labour benefit from classes that promote child development and help them catch up with their peers.

When she is not studying, Sarata helps out with the village’s campaign to get more children back into school. She participates in her school’s child protection club, where she shares her experiences as a child labourer, teaches other children about the risks, and helps them develop ways of talking to their parents if they are at risk of being pulled out of school.

Over the course of five years, Jam Suka has helped more than 2,700 children to escape child labour and return to school. In 2020, when school shutdowns forced many children into dangerous work, the program reached more than 1.7 million Malians through radio broadcasts that shared vital information about the risks of child labour and the alternatives families had.

“My biggest challenge was the loss of my mother, but I am glad to have been given the chance to leave the mines. Returning to school was a source of joy and pride for me. Every day I improve,” says Sarata.


The Jam Suka program that helped Sarata and thousands of other children defend their rights was made possible thanks to the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada. Active in three regions in Mali from 2016 to 2020, Jam Suka worked to protect children against child labour, female genital mutilation, early marriage, and begging.