Felipe Caetano: I was a child labourer and now I fight for children's rights

A photo of Felipe with text on it

Throughout my childhood, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Many said I would be a politician or something, but there was a problem: my childhood was interrupted by child labour.

I started working at 8 years old.

While my friends were having fun on weekends, I was a small waiter serving people on the beaches of my city. I had no right to play.

And this routine was quite tiring for me: all-day long, under an intense sun, barefoot and with a very busy workload. I was exhausted to go to school on Mondays.

Felipe sits with other young people during a workshop
In 2013, I founded NUCA, an adolescent citizenship group with UNICEF’s support. The group does workshops with adolescents, campaigns and public hearings on the big issues affecting children in our communities.

Today I wonder what I would have been if I had kept working. Maybe I would have stopped studying, and I would probably be a father already. I’m grateful to UNICEF, the Labor Prosecutor's Office, and other institutions that take children out of work, and bring them to education.

It was exactly through UNICEF ​​that I learned about my rights, that I knew that as a child I had various rights - even the right to speak, to express myself. I am very grateful for this: it was through education and participation that I managed to get out of child labour.

But I couldn't just go on with my life after leaving child labour.

So I decided to fight for other children to have the same opportunity. This is how, with a group of teenagers in my city, I sought the help of the Public Ministry of Labor to create a specific committee to combat child labour in my state. Today, there are committees in 16 states of Brazil, with more than 700 members. I also founded a national committee.

I am fighting for my rights and that of millions of other children. Adults need to hear our voices. Fighting for these rights is as important as a country's economy or winning a world cup.

But this is not only about me. I am fighting for my rights and that of millions of other children. Adults need to hear our voices. Fighting for these rights is as important as a country's economy or winning a world cup.

Yes, we are children, and we do not have the solutions to all the problems in the world, but neither do the adults. But children are capable of transforming the world: a child alone faced the Taliban for the right to education, and for her bravery won the Nobel Peace Prize. Another child is a powerful environmental advocate and has raised thousands of voices around the world. And I have been facing a culture that insists on using and exploiting child labor on a daily basis.

This year we are celebrating 30 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, one of the greatest milestones of human rights. Our celebration has to be about fighting more than ever, fighting so that more and more children can be free. Struggling to ensure that Articles 12, 13, 14 and 15 of this Convention, which state that all children have the right to participate in social and political life, are guaranteed and enforced, especially at a time when hatred and violence are increasing all over the planet. Participation is not a privilege. Participation is a right.

Participation is not a privilege. Participation is a right.
Felipe speaks at the UNICEF Executive Board
Speaking at the UNICEF Executive Board in New York on11 September.

I'm not just Felipe, I'm the 152 million children around the world who are in child labor, I'm the 263 million out of school, I'm every girl and every boy who has their rights violated, every child whose voice cannot be heard because of violence.

Girls and boys from different countries, ages and religions are affected by the same problems: lack of education, child labour, and hunger.

We know they are not the only ones, but we fight daily to be the last. But this is not the time to mourn for them, but time to fight for them.

One day in an activity with other children who came out of child labour, I asked them, “If you could ask a very powerful person something, what would it be?” And one of them replied, “I would ask for a pencil and notebook to me and all my friends.”

See, even a child who has little wants to share.

Those who have a lot more, should do more.


Felipe is a 17-year-old child rights advocate from Brazil. On 11 September 2019 he spoke at the opening of UNICEF's Executive Board. Watch his speech here.