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West African Groups Working to Fight Child Trafficking

  • Nico Colombant

In West Africa, governments that have signed treaties banning child trafficking face an increase in forced child labor, but do little to end the practice. They face resistance from impoverished families who keep on sending away their children and Islamic teachers who use the revenue of children's work to fund traveling Koranic schools. Some non-governmental organizations are trying to help by offering education.

A 14-year-old boy with raw hands, Mamadou, works away furiously on a cocoa plantation near the Ivorian town of Daloa.

He says his tutor forces him to work long, unpaid hours. He says he has no choice.

His parents gave him away because of their extreme poverty, hoping he would one day come back to them with some money. Afraid he will be heard, Mamadou quickly resumes work.

It is not known how many children work on Ivorian cocoa plantations. Many from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso actually left when civil war broke out several years ago.

And under pressure from the U.S. Congress that could turn Ivorian chocolate into a pariah product, the Ivorian government is trying to establish a child labor monitoring system. Official Youssouf Ndjore says only a slow grassroots program can curb the use of forced child labor.

"It is a social issue and as a social issue it is a long-lasting issue and if you want to tackle it you have to use long-lasting result methods based on the community and this is what we are trying to do," he explained.

Several hundred kilometers to the north, in the Malian town of Segou, young boys are receiving free French classes.

This is a center that helps children, like 12-year-old Ibrahim, who have been brought from Burkina Faso by an Islamic teacher, to learn the Koran but also to work in nearby rice fields.

He said he didn't know where he was going when he was taken. At the center, he's also given time off to rest, watch television and wash his clothes, while listening to music.

The center's director, Abdoulaye Noel Cissoko, says in addition to working in the fields, the children have to beg to get money. He says he has difficult negotiations with Imams to allow these children to come to his center even for brief periods.

He says he is accused of working against Islam with what Imams view as Western principles.

"We try to explain to them that's true we are working like white people so it's very difficult for them to accept that people working with white people can help them," he said. "They are always thinking we are here to change the system that is in place many years ago, so we try to explain to them that we have come to help them and not to stop learning Koran. So we don't disturb the system that they made, that's why now slowly they are opening the doors for us."

Since it's not the rainy season yet, children at this outdoor Islamic school in Segou actually have time to study the Koran.

The Imam, Ibrahim Sawadogo, who shows his pupils had authorizations to travel from Burkina Faso, says without him, they would be getting no education.

He says organizations like the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) talk a lot about the rights of children, but that they don't do much to actually help impoverished children.

UNICEF officials in Mali refused to react to such comments, saying the subject was too sensitive.

Imam Sawadogo says in most villages there are no schools, and in cities they are too expensive for most families to afford.

Another Imam admits Koranic schools don't do a good job in teaching children such practical things as how to dress according to the weather or what not to eat when they beg for leftover food, but he says it's better than nothing. Turning to the problem of using child labor, he blames educated women, saying they are worse culprits.

He says that because most mothers have abandoned household chores in big cities, thousands of young girls are brought from villages to work in their homes in slave-like conditions.

Much like for the Burkinabe boys, non-governmental organizations try to organize classes for these girls to attend. Here at one class in Mali's capital, Bamako, around nine at night, young girls, who look tired out from their long workdays, are trying to learn how to read and write.

Twelve-year-old Seiba arrived late, because she had piles of dishes to do and her employers wouldn't let her go.

She said she sneaked out and walked alone through dangerous streets to get here because she says these classes, the first she's ever had, are important to rid herself of ignorance. But her employers think the classes make her too tired to work, and a few times they ripped apart her notebooks.

Mali's government has signed several treaties to curb the worst forms of child labor and cross-border trafficking as have other nearby governments, but officials say due to poverty and lack of schools, most children have no choice but to work at a young age. Officials told VOA they wouldn't force children to stop working unless that was their own decision.

Asked why children are not bussed back by police to their village when they are found working hundreds of kilometers away from their homes, one top official in Mali's family and child agency, Moussa Beidy Tamboura, said that would be too abrupt. He says what's needed is disseminating more information about the problem, and not a crackdown.

It would also be impractical he said, as some children could only identify their home village as say, having two mango trees.