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Friday, 29 September, 2000, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
Mali's children in slavery
Three enslaved children in Benin
West Africa has a major problem with child slavery (photo: ESAM/Anti-Slavery International)
By Joan Baxter in Bamako

They number about 15,000 and their plight is enough to "make you weep", says Malian Minister of Woman and Family Affairs Diarra Afoussatou Thiero.


One small boy drank his own urine for three days because the plantation owners had locked him up without food or water'

Diarra Afoussatou Thiero
They are child slaves from Mali, between the ages of six and 16, and they work on plantations in neighbouring Ivory Coast, where Ms Thiero says they are regularly beaten, starved and locked in tiny dark huts to keep them from fleeing.

"One small boy brought me to tears when he told of how he drank his own urine for three days because the plantation owners had locked him up without food or water," she told an emergency meeting of donors and NOGs.


Intolerable, inhumane, incomprehensible

Delegates
The meeting had been convened to seek about $1m to enact a national action plan to repatriate, rehabilitate and resettle the Malian children.

All present, including French, German and Canadian diplomats and many NGOs that have been working on the problem for years, agreed that the situation was "intolerable", "inhumane" and "incomprehensible".

Trafficking

They agreed it was time to bring the children back home and to track down and stop the international "mafia" that traffics children throughout Africa.

And all applauded last month's signing by the Malian and Ivorian governments of an accord to put an end to the traffic and the practice of child slavery.

They deplored the way the child traffickers operated, paying parents about $50 per child with promises that the plantation work would pay so that the children could send money home, when in fact the children were being sold off as slaves.

Cocoa plant
Many of the children work in cocoa plantations
A spokesperson for the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) said that while the minister may not have got the pledges she hoped for, he was sure that once donors were sure the political will was finally there and that large numbers of children were being repatriated, the money would not be a problem.

So far this year, NGOs on their own have repatriated, rehabilitated and resettled 250 children.

Ivory Coast 'volatile'

Some donors expressed concern about the volatile political situation and the growing anti-foreigner sentiment in Ivory Coast, saying this lent a new urgency to the plight of the Malian child slaves.

"There are two scenarios," said Michel Larouche, director of Save The Children (Canada) in West Africa.

"One is that all the children could be expelled and then we're going to need a lot more money because it will become a full-blown emergency.

"Or we may have to change our strategy to pull them out of the plantations.

"Either way, we will do it."

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See also:

28 Sep 00 | Africa
The bitter taste of slavery
06 Aug 99 | Africa
West Africa's child slave trade
18 Sep 00 | Africa
Oasis of calm no more
17 Jun 99 | World
Child slavery ban agreed
15 Jul 00 | Africa
Cocoa destroyed to boost price
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