West African Countries Mobilize Against Child Slavery

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
April 24, 2001
A flurry of news stories about a missing ship suspected of carrying
child slaves stirred the world's moral outrage last week. When the ship
finally came to port in Benin, West Africa, only a few unaccompanied
children were found on board.

The incident nonetheless highlights the very real problem of trafficking in children. As part of efforts to halt the practice, the Red Cross had organized a meeting on the issue this week in Dakar, Senegal. Representatives of Red Cross agencies from 16 countries in West Africa are attending.

"The slave ship incident has raised public awareness of the issue," said Denis McClean of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "The only good thing about it is that it might help mobilize volunteers and donor support."

McClean said the Red Cross has an important role to play in efforts to halt child slavery because of its strong networks of volunteers and grassroots communication. In Benin alone, the Red Cross has helped set up watchdog committees in nearly 100 villages to educate parents about what could happen to their children if they are sold.

"Volunteers help educate local people so that parents and relatives aren't trapped by their own ignorance into believing their children will be going to a safe environment that combines work and schooling," McClean said.

Clearly Defined Routes

The United Nations agency for children, UNICEF, estimates that 200,000 children a year are victims of child trafficking in West Africa.

At the First Pan-African Conference on Human Trafficking, held last February, Rima Salah, UNICEF regional director for West and Central Africa, said studies have shown clearly established child trafficking routes involving Benin, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Togo, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger.

Some of the countries provide children for trade, others engage children in labor and crime, and some are mainly used as transit points.

The issue of child trafficking has been the focus of increased attention by countries in West and Central Africa since UNICEF and the International Labour Organization (ILO) organized a workshop on the problem in July 1998.

A follow-up meeting in 2000 drew delegates from 21 countries in the region and led to a number of measures, such as monitoring of borders, establishing mutual agreements to halt child trafficking and establishing internal agencies to handle the problem.

While Africa's prevalent poverty is a major factor contributing to child slavery, observers say poverty alone is not to blame. In some cases, children are sold to pay off family debt. Others are kidnapped. And rural, uneducated families are often conned by labor "contractors" who promise that children will have access to educational and social benefits that are available in larger towns and cities.

Cultural traditions also play a role. Many children in Africa begin working at a young age, which denies them access to the education that would help break the cycle of illiteracy and poverty that makes conditions ripe for trafficking in children. In some instances, impoverished youth in rural areas see leaving home as an opportunity for travel or a better life.

Moreover, the informal economies of many West and Central African countries encourage child labor and exploitation. Children are often expected to work as domestic servants or laborers in mines and factories and on farms. Some are forced into the streets to beg or engage in drug trafficking, pornography, and prostitution. Under such circumstances, the children are subject to abuse, poor nutrition, and social isolation.

Networks that participate in slave trade are frequently informal and local. The ILO says exploited children may be shifted among a number of workplaces to better elude officials and the law.

Multi-Pronged Efforts

At the meeting in Senegal this week, the delegates are expected to call for governments in the region to step up their efforts to curb child slavery and endorse international conventions against the practice. Only 20 of Africa's 48 nations have ratified a treaty that would ban child labor and slavery; many of the countries currently have no laws forbidding it.

Relevant treaties and conventions include the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and ILO measures aimed at preventing the worst forms of child labor.

Among other proposed actions likely to emerge from this week's conference are strengthening the monitoring of ports, expanding dissemination of information about child labor and trafficking, and setting up facilities to prepare child victims for being reintegrated into their families and communities.

"You have to move forward in a parallel manner on different fronts, and then one of them sometimes produces the breakthrough," said Juan Somavia, director general of the ILO in Geneva.

On Thursday, April 26, UNICEF and a coalition of public and private organizations will launch an international campaign to strengthen support for the rights of children. Signed pledges collected during the "Say Yes for Children" campaign will be submitted to the United Nations at its annual Special Session on Children, which will be held in September in New York City (pledges can be made at the campaigns Web site at:

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