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The BBC's Andrew Clark
"There are reports that some of the 180 children thought to be on board are ill"
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Esther Guluma, UNICEF
"The boat is not only old but it lacks amenities"
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Beninese Communications Minister Gaston Zossu
"A solution is going to be found"
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The BBC's Liz Blunt in Lagos
reports on the phenomenon of West Africa's working children-little maids
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Monday, 16 April, 2001, 08:00 GMT 09:00 UK
West Africa's 'little maids'
A Nigerian girl sold into slavery
Lucky for some: This Nigerian girl was returned home
By Elizabeth Blunt in Lagos

Little maids are everywhere in West Africa.

In Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan in the afternoons, teenage girls sit in rows outside smart apartment blocks with the babies and toddlers they were hired to mind.

In middle-class Nigerian homes, the house help in the kitchen is often alarmingly young.

It would not occur to them that working for no pay could be considered slavery

The BBC's Elizabeth Blunt

You find young girls and boys hawking cold water round every West African market and washing up in buckets alongside every cooked-food seller.

Some of the youngsters are working with their own mothers or aunties and some with distant relatives.

But others were recruited by agents who tour the villages in the poorest rural areas promising kind masters and mistresses and good wages.


Good mistresses do exist - they take responsibility for the children in their care and make sure they get some kind of education or basic training.

But others are cruel to their young maids, beating and abusing them and turning them out into the street when they get old enough to answer back or pretty enough to attract the attention of the men in the family.

And even the kindest families are often reluctant to pay teenagers cash wages, assuming that a child from a poor village should be grateful to earn her keep and be taught civilised manners.

It would not occur to them that working for no pay could be considered slavery.

Not all child workers have to travel to other countries to find jobs, but Togo and the Benin Republic have serious rural poverty and no large city to provide employment.

Meanwhile Gabon, far to the south, has oil wealth and a very small population.

And so, to match the supply to demand, the recruitment agents embark on journeys of thousands of miles with their young charges.

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See also:

16 Apr 01 | Africa
Search for 'slave' ship
18 Jan 01 | Africa
Africa's trade in children
06 Aug 99 | Africa
West Africa's child slave trade
28 Sep 00 | Africa
The bitter taste of slavery
29 Sep 00 | Africa
Mali's children in slavery
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