Thu, Jul 05, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Gabon struggles to stem the tide of child trafficking


Senami, a 13-year-old girl, was purchased in Benin.

“My father didn’t want to sell me, but someone put a spell on my uncle and he persuaded my father,” she said.

Taken to oil-rich Gabon, Senami slaved as a domestic servant and later as a roadside peanut seller.

With a mixture of rage and sorrow, she recounts her tragic life — inhumanly long hours, a mat on the floor to serve as a bed and scraps for food.

She worked for a “wicked” Beninese woman in Libreville, who made her “do everything.”

“But when she found that 100 CFA francs (US$0.18) were missing she beat me with slippers and then with a stick,” she said.

Niakate Tene, 12, was bought by a man in her native Mali for 500,000 CFA francs in 2012 and was forced to marry him.

She was found by the police chained in her husband’s home and in tears.

Her husband only served a month in prison before being temporarily released.

Senami and Niakate, whose names have been changed, are among many, possibly hundreds, of foreign boys and girls who toil in Gabon as de facto slaves.

Yet Gabon is only one of nine West African nations, alongside Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria and Togo, where the UN says the centuries-old exploitation of child labor remains entrenched.

Recruitment for domestic work appears to be the most prevalent form, but other types of labor include work in plantations, small trade, begging and soliciting.

The children survive on meager portions of food and are generally made to sleep on the floor. If they are paid, the rewards are small, for the salary goes to the trafficker.

Many youngsters are brought to Gabon through perilous routes, sometimes on rickety boats on winding rivers.

“Six people died during our journey — we traveled on a dugout canoe for four days,” said Senami, who traveled to Gabon at the beginning of this year.

Today she lives in a state-run transit center housing about 80 other rescued foreign children. She only dreams of returning to Benin “to be back with my family and to work for myself.”

Child trafficking in West Africa involves a murky, complex web of cross-border greed, said Michel Ikamba, a UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) official in Gabon.

It entails traffickers in the country where the child is picked up, middle men in a transit nation such as Nigeria, and finally “receivers” in the host country, who put them to work, Ikamba said.

The gang cream off the money from the children’s work, said Melanie Mbadinga Matsanga, a member of the Gabonese national committee in charge of fighting child labor.

A child nanny is paid between 100,000 CFA francs and 150,000 CFA francs a month, but the money goes to traffickers, Ikamba said.

“The child is not paid ... and nothing goes back to the home village,” he said.

“Trafficked children can work from 10 to 20 hours a day, carry heavy loads, operate dangerous tools and lack adequate food or drink,” a UNICEF report said.

In Gabon, the phenomenon has reduced since a 2004 law criminalized child trafficking, UNICEF said, but could not give figures.

“We have referred many people to the courts and it made an impact,” said Sylvianne Moussavou, a lieutenant-colonel in the police who is involved in the fight against child trafficking.

However, many of the children had their ages changed in fake papers produced by the traffickers in order to escape prosecution, she added.

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