Traditional Practices being Abused to Exploit Children in West Africa, Warns IOM

Date Publish: 
Tuesday, November 21, 2006 - 16:00
© IOM 2006

Cultural and traditional beliefs in West Africa are being misused
to abuse children across a region where an estimated two million
children are thought to be victims of human trafficking or other
forms of exploitation, warns the International Organization for
Migration.

The informal and traditional African practice of poor parents
sending their children to friends, relatives and to informal
schools such as Koranic schools or Daaras because they don’t
have the resources to send them to conventional institutions, has
long been regarded as a form of community support. Education in
Koranic schools for both rich and poor is widely respected in
teaching people to appreciate material deprivation and to help
people become responsible adults.

However, the practice, which is unregulated, can make children
vulnerable to human trafficking and is open to abuse.

Some Koranic masters or teachers in Daaras, give little or no
education to the children they are entrusted with. Hundreds of
thousands of children in West Africa are being forced to become
street beggars for the personal enrichment of the masters
themselves and are punished or beaten if they refuse to beg or
don’t collect enough food and money at the end of each
day’s work.

Although the teachers claim that making children beg is
essential to the survival of the Daaras as well as being an
important lesson to learn on the harsh realities of life, parents
are usually ignorant of what is happening to their children,
particularly if they have been sent to other West African countries
or to big urban centres.

Senegal is now the centre of the Daara system in West Africa,
receiving boys from various West African countries. But it also
receives many girls from the region, trafficked or exploited as
domestic workers or in the sex industry along the beaches of the
Petite Côte, where tourism is flourishing.

The girls, also sent to distant family and friends as part of a
long respected tradition, can be as young as seven or eight and
forced to work for very long hours with little to no pay.

Other examples of child exploitation and trafficking include
Malian children in Mauritania working as domestic workers, Malian
children working in exploitative conditions in the cotton fields of
Côte D’Ivoire and Burkinabe children in Mali being
forced to work on farms instead of receiving an education.

"Awareness of the issue among the public and families in
particular is slowly gaining, but it is still very limited.
Governments and civil society need to do much more to address this,
and more importantly, the consequences on the children themselves.
And they need to act much faster," said Armand Rousselot,
IOM’s Regional Representative for West Africa.

Although member states of the Economic Community of West African
States (ECOWAS) signed the Dakar Declaration on the Fight Against
Trafficking in Persons in 2001 committing them to greater
coordination in counter-trafficking efforts and to coming up with a
legislative framework to end human trafficking in the region and
recently, progress had been slow. However, ECOWAS and the Economic
Community of Central African States (ECCAS) recently agreed on a
three year plan of action and adopted a multi-lateral cooperation
agreement to protect women and children from human trafficking in
their regions.

"The plan of action is a very important step forward and is to
be applauded. But it is critical that the actions listed are fully
implemented if efforts to counter human trafficking in West Africa
are to be really successful and the suffering of these children in
particular, is to be stopped," said Ndioro Ndiaye, IOM Deputy
Director General.

Working with partners on the ground including national
non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and with funding from the US
State Department, IOM is working to both raise awareness of child
trafficking and to help the victims.

Assistance includes returning children who have been trafficked
from other countries back home to be reunited with parents who are
informed of what has happened to their child. The abuse of their
trust in a friend or family member is disturbingly common across
the region. In just one village in Guinea Bissau, four boys now
returned home had similar tales to tell.

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