MANILA (ILO Online) – Together with other children, Aiza stands in the mercury-laden water, shoveling mud or bending over a large pan in search of a tiny speck of gold. She earns 20 pesos or half a dollar for a small bit of gold the size of a grain of rice.

Aiza learned to search for gold from her mother and her 6-year old sister is now learning from her. She had to quit school at an early age to contribute to the family income and provide for her mother’s medical needs.

The search for gold sent many children away from home, school and play to the dangers of the mines.

“Our bodies ache, but we have to go on. I was able to reach up to fifth grade only. I don’t want my children to be like me. I want them to finish school and find a job they want but I don’t have money for their education,” says Aiza’s mother*.

Rodel was luckier than Aiza, maybe because he is a boy. A new ILO report prepared for the World Day Against Child Labor 2009 finds that the danger of girls being forced into child labor is linked to evidence that in many countries families give preference to boys when making decisions on the education of their children.

Rodel received his college diploma last month. But looking back to his past as a child laborer in small scale mining when he was 10, the dark mining tunnel still scares him today.

“I was so tired, so weak since I had to work at night and go to school the next day”, remembers Rodel. He reached a point of working full time when his parents could not afford to send him to school anymore. Every day, Rodel had to work for 8-12 hours or longer to earn a maximum of $1-2 a day.

His most dangerous experience turned out to be a real eye-opener when his father used dynamite to blast rocks inside the tunnel. “I had to run and get out but it was too dark. All of a sudden, I tumbled and fell about 10 feet. I felt so miserable, and then I realized that I didn’t like what I was doing. I just wanted to go back to school”, recalls Rodel.

A Survey on Children conducted by the National Statistics Office of the Philippines in 2001 revealed a total of 4 million working children aged 5-17 years in the Philippines, of which 2.4 million were in dangerous work. Over 18,000 children are engaged in mining and quarrying. Half of them are 10 to 14 years old.

Like Aiza and Rodel, most of these children work in small scale mining, which use low technology methods and do not follow safety standards. Children in mining often complain of body pains due to heavy loads. They are exposed to dangers of landslides and falling rocks. Moreover, child labourers cannot shield themselves from large amounts of dust and mercury-based chemicals in mining sites which can cause serious brain damage.

A health assessment of the Occupational Safety and Health Center and the ILO involving 80-100 children in a small scale mining area revealed that some children were contaminated with mercury. Their growth was stunted and they do poorly in school. They developed skin diseases, cough, colds and fever. Often, they quit school to work all day in small scale mining.

“The International Labour Organization and its partners stand for a world where no girls or boys are forced to work at the cost of dropping out of school as young as 5 years old and risking their health or even their lives,” says Linda Wirth, Director of the ILO Subregional Office for South-East Asia and the Pacific.

“Working children like Aiza and Rodel may earn 40 or 50 pesos ($1) a day and it may be enough to keep a family from falling apart. Still, a few pesos cannot change their world in the way an education can,” says Wirth.

From being a child laborer, Rodel became a child advocate. At 14 years old, Rodel was chosen as child advocate after joining the Summer Youth Camp of the ILO International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) and the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM).

He started out representing his town and province until he was elected as President of all child advocates in the entire Bicol region. “Our number one advocacy was to end child labor in the Philippines. We joined the first Global March against Child Labor. We marched on the streets with our banners on Let’s Work Together against Child Labour,” recalls Rodel.

The Philippines was the first country to start the Global March against Child Labor in 1998, bringing together both government and non-government organizations, trade unions, teachers, families, child advocates and individuals in the fight against child labor. After the Global March, Rodel had the chance to go back to school. “I received a full scholarship from Senator Loren Legarda through the endorsement of ILO IPEC,” he says.

Having left the dark tunnel of the mineshaft, 25-year old Rodel can now see a brighter future ahead. But he remembers Aiza and the other child laborers.

“After graduation, I want to find a decent job …but I also want to help other children to get out of child labour. If we allow children to work, then they will remain uneducated. If child laborers do not get a chance to return to school, then nothing will happen in this country because they are our future.” concludes Rodel.

*The story of Aiza and other child laborers were featured in the award-winning film “Burden of Gold” produced by the East Road Co, Inc. in partnership with ILO and UNICEF.