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UNICEF: Children in Sierra Leone Vulnerable to Exploitation

The United Nations says the situation of children in Sierra Leone is dire, with a huge problem of children being trafficked abroad. UNICEF is urging that adoptions be stopped until protective measures are put in place in the West African country.

UNICEF Representative in Sierra Leone, Geert Cappelaere, says children are in danger because many of the elements that led to the country's 10-year-old civil war remain. He says the government is very weak, corruption is rampant and poverty is widespread.

Mr. Cappelaere says about 14 percent of Sierra Leone's children are orphans. He says they and many of the children who still have parents are vulnerable to fraudulent adoptions abroad.

"Children being taken away from their parents with a false promise of going to study in another country. Children ending up being adopted and parents hearing nothing about their children. Emerging birth registration. The country has a birth registration of around 20 percent. Again, that means that 80 percent of the children in Sierra Leone are not anywhere registered, so they are an easy target for trafficking," he said.

Statistics paint a bleak picture. They show that Sierra Leone has the highest child mortality rate. One of three children dies before age five. The country also has the world's highest maternal mortality rate. Eighteen-hundred mothers die in pregnancy out of 100,000 live births.

Sierra Leone is a very young country. About 50 percent of the population is under age 18. But, according to the statistics, these children can only expect to live until age 34. More than 65 percent of the population is illiterate and more than 75percent live on $2 a day.

Along with this, Mr. Cappelaere says there are huge problems with protection issues.

"And we have for example indications that children have been enlisted by fighting forces in Ivory Coast. Sierra Leone children. Who would care about them. They have never been registered. So, if they disappear, there is a family with a child less ... The use of children in diamond mining… The problem of early marriages. Girls are married at age 12-13. Female genital mutilation is widespread in the country," he added.

Mr. Cappelaere says the government must give more priority to these huge problems. He also is calling for a halt to international adoptions until the country has better protection services in place. These include organizing a proper birth registration system and better law enforcement.