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Friday, 6 August, 1999, 09:48 GMT 10:48 UK
West Africa's child slave trade
children work as domestic
Children are sold by parents and taken to neighbouring countries (Photo: Unicef)
Ticky Monekosso in Benin describes the trafficking and selling of children within West Africa.

There are growing signs that economic pressures and persistent poverty in Africa are leading to a resurgence of the traffic in child slaves.

These children are for sale in West African countries as both domestic and commercial labour and also for sexual exploitation.

Child slaves wanted for
Domestic work
Industrial labour
Market stalls
Shop assistants
Sexual exploitation

Until recently this trade has been largely seen as a phenomenon of war-ravaged societies such as Angola, Sudan, Somalia or Chad - where even 10-year-old girls are servants and concubines at rebel military bases.

But now, even in relatively peaceful areas the traffic is growing.

Countries in the front line of this trade include Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Gabon, Nigeria and Togo.

Obtaining the children

The responsibility of educating children has traditionally been given to the extended family system. In Benin it is known as "videmegon" - an expression of community solidarity.

In many cases middle-aged "sugar daddies" provide girls with money for school fees, books or clothes in return for domestic help.

However, the increasing need for paid work in modern West Africa is eroding the traditional values of communities that once placed limits on the abuse of children.

Estimates in Africa say two in five children under 15 are working
Estimates in Africa say two in five children under 15 are working
Brokers scout for children among poor families in rural areas in Benin and Togo. They see their work as a cross-border operation.

Some of these brokers say they kidnap children simply playing outside or who have wandered into urban areas.

Others say they persuade parents that their children will receive a professional training or a good education with a wealthy family.

Most of the parents are then corrupted by receiving a little cash.

Dangerous journeys

The journey is always dangerous and many children die in transit.

It is estimated that up to 250 million children work worldwide
Traffickers have to pay the fares, including food for the children during the journey as well as bribes to ensure the collaboration of border guards.

They have to recoup this money from the child's labour in their future host country.

Once in their host family the children receive no money. They are bonded to the traffickers or to the person to whom they are sold.

They work very hard from early morning to late at night to pay off money owed.

They face very harsh living conditions and are unable to see their families.

A significant number run away from their employers. Unable to return home and unable to find alternative employment many of them resort to prostitution, washing cars or collecting fares on mini-buses.

Supply and demand

Traders say girls from Benin and Togo are particularly in demand in wealthy families in Lagos in Nigeria and in Libreville in Gabon.

Other children are taken as far away as Bangui in the Central Africa Republic, which itself is a poor country. Children from there are said to be in high demand in Cameroon.

In one instance the Benin authorities found 400 children aboard a boat anchored in Cotonou harbour, itself an historic slaving market.

In July 1997 Benin police arrested five West Africans preparing to ship them to Gabon.

Police said the children, some aged only eight, were bought from families for the equivalent of about $30.

This time, the child slaves were intended for other West African capitals and not America.

Facts are difficult to come by. In Togo diplomatic sources stress that hundreds of girls are transported across the country's borders each year and 1,000 Togolese girls are estimated to be employed in Gabon.

A Togolese diplomat based in Libreville has urged his own government to take action to stem the flow of children being trafficked out of Togo.

According to investigators, more than 30 children are crossing the Benin-Nigeria border every two months. Of them 95% are girls intended for domestic work, half are under 15 years old. Some of these girls have attended primary school but very few have attended junior or secondary school and 45% have never been to school.

Child markets

A children's market was tracked down in a five storey building in Lagos, where residents used to go to choose the children they wanted for domestic work.

In 1996 this illegal market was discovered full of malnourished children, aged between seven and 17 years old, waiting for buyers.

A special child slave stock market has long been common in the Marche du Plateau- a popular market in Abidjan in Cote D'ivoire where relatively wealthy local women come to buy their 'helpers'.

Groups have also been taken to Europe under the pretext of participation in sports tournaments or in one case a public audience with the Pope.

Officials from a Western embassy in Nigeria were arrested on charges of involvement in this trade. In Abidjan, child trafficking is said to be largely in the hands of the Lebanese.

Parents may be paid as little as $15 to 'lease' their offspring to Arab Gulf states, Lebanon and Europe.

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Child slavery ban agreed
15 Jun 99 | Africa
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