Suriname is one of the smaller countries in South America. However, compared to the Caribbean islands, it is one of the larger nations. The population is very heterogenous with major ethnic groups being Creoles (or Afro-Surinamese) and Marrons (Maroons), Hindustanis (Indians), Javanese (or Indonesians), and native Americans (AmerIndians). There is a number of smaller ethnic groups as well such as Chinese and Brazilians.
Ethnic background, religion and culture play a crucial role in the life patterns and thinking of the population. This also pertains to the issue of child labour. In some cultures, it is more common for children to assist their parents, while the age at which children begin to work also differs.
The Labour Laws in Suriname state that persons younger than 18 years should not do hazardous work or work night shifts. Children below 15 years should not work on Fishery boats. Children below 14 years should not work at all, except in a family agricultural setting, in special institutions, and for educational purposes (vocational training). The main law dates from 1963.
The Law on the minimum age of employment does not match with the often quoted Law on compulsory maximum school age of 12 years (Law on Elementary Education of 1960). This school age has actually been overtaken, however, by a new formulation in the Constitution (Article 39), and by the practice of the schools to write off children at the age of fifteen. The Constitution of 1987 imposes an obligation on the Government to ensure compulsory elementary education for all the citizens. This actually raises the school age from 12 years to the age upon which one has completed his/her elementary education.
The population of Suriname is rather young with a mean age of 23.8 years in 1995. Children up to the age of 14 years made up 32.9% of the population in that year. . There are no exact statistics on the share of children in the overall population n 2002, nor the number of working children, but only estimates. One estimate is from an unpublished survey report by the Ministry of Labour and Environment (1998), which reports that about 2% of all children between ages 4 and 14 can be considered economically active. In many reports about child labour in other countries, the family demographics and its social context play a role as causes of child labour, and in Suriname this seems no different.
Suriname has a small open economy, which still depends heavily on its main export products, bauxite, aluminum, and timber. Other export products are gold, oil, rice, shrimps, and bananas. Due to high inflation and unstable exchange rates, the country has suffered from a declining macroeconomic and monetary situation. The government has lost many revenues due to informal economic activities in sectors such as gold mining, timber, fisheries and trade. The vast natural resources triggered the World Bank at one point to consider Suriname as one of the 17 potentially richest countries in the world. This has remained an illusion for most of the population.
According to the UNDP, about 63% of the urban population was living below the poverty line in 1993, while this was still 53% in 2000. The same report stated that 62% of the children between the age of 0 until 14 years old lived under the poverty line. Furthermore, data from the General Bureau of Statistics showed that families around the poverty line in 1999 could spend one fourth of what they could back in 1969. About half of the families of the working children, who were interviewed during this survey, dipped under the poverty line, while most of the rest hovered just above this line. Other indicators in the survey put the percentage at 74%. Economic context and factors definitely are at work when it comes to child labour.
In Suriname, 62% of the children between the age of one and 14 years lived with both parents in one house. Almost 23% were living only with their mother and 7% lived without a mother and father. Only 3.5% of all children were orphans, but 10.8% did not stay with their biological parents (Ministry of Social Affairs, 2001).
Social problems faced by children in the interior areas where tribal Marrons and Amerindians live, are the lack of adequate housing, electricity or water. There is hardly any social infrastructure in these areas. Children in these areas also have little access to social and health services (Ministry of Social Affairs, 2002).
Some children are living in extreme stress situations such as poverty, unemployment of the parent(s), no adequate house to live in, bad health conditions, dangerous or sometimes criminal surrounding and the appearance of violence. Suriname has a relative high percentage of teenage pregnancy i.e. in 17% of all deliveries the mother was younger than 20 years. The report of the Ministry of Social Affairs (2001) also shows data of children who were punishable for criminal acts.
Ringeling (1999) stressed the need of educational facilities e.g. a shortage of instructional and teaching materials, not enough books, or lack of programs for teachers. A shortage of qualified teachers in the interior and rural areas resulted in situations where some teachers have to work with two classes. In such situations the teacher is mainly giving instructions, while there is little time to ask questions or actually work in the class.
The Ministry of Education (2002) underlined the problems of badly maintained buildings, no books or materials, not enough chairs or tables, no access to water or ability to come by bus in the rural and interior areas. The overall curriculum of the school dates from 1965 and needs to be updated. Methods of teaching used in the classroom date from the eighties. Non attendance is a common problem, which makes it hard to be successful. If a child does not have adequate facilities he or she will achieve less in school, and again there is a high risk for repeating a class or to drop out of school.