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West African Human Trafficking is Catalyst for Child Abuse

November 28, 2007

Akissi was not even 10 when she was sent abroad from Togo to work as a domestic servant for a woman who beat her and twice forced chilli peppers into her vagina to punish her.

Now 15 and struggling to care for her 6-month-old baby and a husband who beats her, Akissi's tale was discovered by researchers investigating the psychological effects of child trafficking in West Africa and the way it encourages abuse.

Researchers for U.S.-based non-profit development agency Plan International, who shared their findings with Reuters ahead of Monday's World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse, gave the girl the pseudonym Akissi to protect her identity.

Working with researchers, Akissi drew a "life-line", with flowers to represent good experiences and stones for bad ones.

A green flower marks her return from domestic servitude in Benin to her village in Togo at the age of 12. A black stone indicates when she was raped there before her next birthday.

Akissi is severely traumatised by past and present abuse, and is at serious risk of committing suicide by consuming agricultural chemicals, having already tried to do so once, Plan researchers say.

"There are very few institutions ready to help them ... there is no psychological support for these children. Their families do not understand, and sweep it under the carpet," said Plan's Serigne Mor Mbaye, who worked on the pilot research programme in Togo that interviewed Akissi.

"This really is the tip of the iceberg," he said.


The U.N. Children's Fund UNICEF estimates that 1.2 million children are trafficked every year into what it calls "the modern-day equivalent of slavery".

This trafficking takes many forms in West Africa, encouraged by a tradition of "placing" young children with families of wealthier relatives to receive an education or learn a trade.

"It's a high-risk practice," Mbaye said.

"Many of those who are placed are victims of abuse. This traditional practice continues to happen, but (social) solidarity does not function like before," he said, adding that many children are placed these days with unrelated strangers.

The Plan research in Togo found most trafficked children went to Nigeria, girls generally as domestic servants and boys working in agriculture, markets or serving food.

Different types of child trafficking networks have sprung up in other parts of West Africa.

Police in tiny Guinea-Bissau uncovered a trafficking network last week when they found over 50 young boys headed to Senegal, where hundreds of children sent from neighbouring countries to attend Koranic schools end up begging for coins on street corners.

"You should have seen the state they were in. Aged between 4 and 21, these exhausted children were barefoot, poorly clothed, some naked from the waist up," said Carlos Abdulai Djalo, governor of the Bafata region where the 52 children were found.

Rights activists have campaigned against the use of "child slave" labour on farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana, which together produce most of the world's cocoa beans. But researchers have said the situation is often more nuanced than appears, with children working on family-owned fields in traditional fashion.

The child trafficking debate has been revived by the arrest last month in Chad of French humanitarian activists on child kidnapping charges over a bid to fly 103 children to Europe.

The children were presented as orphans from Darfur, even though most turned out to be from villages in the Chad/Sudan border area and had at least one living parent. (Editing by Pascal Fletcher)

Adapted from: Alistair Thomson, "African human traffic is catalyst for child abuse." Reuters. 18 Nov 2007. 



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