CONGO: Tackling child trafficking

Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Sixteen-year-old Mayi doesn’t remember exactly when she was taken from the Togolese capital Lome to Congo’s second city Pointe-Noire by her “guardian”.

When not selling food on the streets, she says she “sweeps the house, washes clothes or the dishes and takes care of the children”.

Lucie, also 16 and from Benin, spends her days selling goods along the aisles of the market in Poto-Poto, a district of the capital, Brazzaville, where many West Africans live.

“My parents handed me over to an aunt a year ago. During the day I am here in the marketplace. In the evenings I sell cake on the main road,” she told IRIN. “If I complain about being tired or having a headache, I am accused of being lazy or stupid. Sometimes they hit me. I’ve realised I am not like the other children in the house. I am a slave.”

Many children are brought to Congo at a young age: nine or 10 years old, sometimes even younger. Some are illiterate; few have finished primary school. They end up as domestic workers or prostitutes. Physical and psychological abuse is common.

While the sensitivity of the issue makes it hard to gauge the extent of child trafficking in Congo, a report prepared by UNICEF and the Congolese government in 2007 (volume one and volume two both in French) estimated that 200,000 children in west and central Africa are affected by trafficking every year.

Some 90 percent of Beninese families in Congo - which number around 2,000 - have a child working for them, while the cities most affected by child labour are Pointe Noire and Brazzaville, according to the report.

The report listed the countries of origin of the children in Pointe Noire, in order of importance, as Benin, Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Togo and Cameroon. In Brazzaville, most came from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which lies just over the Congo river.

The report noted that Congolese children were also affected, especially those orphaned or left unaccompanied as a result of the country’s civil wars. Some of these children were handed over by their parents, most notably in Pool, one of the regions most affected by conflict, to a city-dwelling relative.

“Whether victims of transnational or internal trafficking, the exploited children, who live in particularly difficult conditions, are for the most part only compensated by a salary that is meagre given the long hours and hardship of their labour,” the report said, noting that the working day for such children typically begins at 4am.

As well as highlighting the importance of reducing national and regional poverty levels, the report made several recommendations for reducing child trafficking, including strengthening the legislative framework and increasing judicial penalties for traffickers.

”Mobilising civil society will also play a preventive role… The combination of these factors is essential to achieving the primary objective of all stakeholders: reintegrating children while keep their interests a priority,” it said.

The Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission had already shed some light on the problem in 2004, when it published a report entitled Child Slaves, Child Workers, which noted the absence of legal measures specifically designed to protect children from such abuse.

“After this report we made a plea to the Pointe Noire authorities. This led to the creation of a body to monitor vulnerable children, although this is not yet operational,” Serge Moutou of the Justice and Peace Commission told IRIN.

“In the meantime, we are trying, with UNICEF’s help, to further raise awareness among the target community, which are the Togolese and Beninese,” he added.

“We welcome the fact that these communities, especially the imams and other officials from Koranic schools, have now engaged themselves following a workshop on the issue held on 25 June. They promised to quickly organise community meetings, focus groups and family visits as to sensitise members of the community,” said Moutou.

Action Against the Trafficking of West African Children (ALTO), an NGO based in Pointe Noire with an office in the capital, is going even further.

“We go to Pointe Noire airport and intercept children coming from Benin. We also want to get our Brazzaville branch to be more active,” said ALTO’s chairman, Vincent Pareiso.

In the capital, there are two main entry points: Maya-Maya international airport and Brazzaville Beach, where boats from DRC arrive. Border police at the beach estimate that 80 children cross the river every day.

Since 2006, ALTO has dealt with almost 100 cases and helped repatriate around 50 children, with the help of UNICEF, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Benin’s consulate.

Children are given the choice of returning to their country of origin, being taken in by a local family, or a special home run by Silesian nuns.

“In Pointe Noire, we work with the town hall to raise awareness of the issue. Working with the local government and civil society we help repatriate children to their countries of origin,” explained Thérèse Engambé, the head of UNICEF’s office in the city.

“In our efforts to fight this form of criminality, we build ties between countries from where the children come and those where they end up,” she added.

“In the future we plan to educate police officers and jurists about trafficking and to facilitate the prosecution of culprits with existing national legislation,” she said.

Draft legislation on child protection that includes measures to criminalise trafficking is currently before the national assembly.
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