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Uganda Child Trafficking-- A Growing Business, A Growing Concern

Selling children is becoming a lucrative business in Uganda. Children are sold, often for labor or for commercial sex, both inside the country and outside, to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Others are taken as laborers. Voice of America Reporter Machrine Birungi has more from Kampala.

Some call it modern day slavery. But unlike historical slavery, which involved adults, today’s includes children being traded for money or food. Some are sold; others are rented.

In eastern Uganda’s Butaleja region, the district chairman, Richard Wamala, says rice farmers are using children as young as four years old to scare away birds. They throw stones at the birds or shout at them to keep fields clear, then return home to their parents at night. In return for their services, the children are given either food or small amounts of money.

Oasis Uganda is a Christian non-governmental organization that works with communities to improve the lives of children. It is one of the organizations that recently signed a UN declaration to stop human trafficking. Its country director, Ruth Visick-Evans, says their research found massive child trafficking in certain parts of the country: “The problems seem to me mainly in central and eastern Uganda, particularly on the border towns. So many children have been taken up to Busia where they are bought and sold and often taken to Nairobi again into forced labor and prostitution.”

Police in Uganda say many parents sell their children to businessmen and sometimes-distant relatives. They promise the children will have work, education, and shelter but instead use them as laborers and sex slaves.

Some children have been traded to be used as a religious sacrifice. Dan Makubuya says a relative sold him to a group of people who planned to kill him, My uncle sold me to two men and women. I heard them go aside and haggle over the price. I heard my uncle say that he wanted 4.5 million shillings (or $2,700 US dollars), but the buyers insisted that they would pay only four million shillings. After agreeing on the price, my uncle grabbed me by the neck and with the help of a woman bundled me up into the car through the window. I was then sedated and on gaining consciousness I found myself in a witchdoctor’s shrine. Makubuya says he managed to escape after the buyers determined he would not suit their needs. He said his body was scarred, which made him unsuitable for the ritual. It required someone who had not shed blood before, and to those who’d purchased him, the scars indicated that he had.

Activists say there are many reasons for this form of human exploitation. Faced with economic hardship, many parents, especially in rural areas, cannot afford to look after their children. In the underdeveloped eastern region of Karamoja, for example, some parents hand over their children for as little as 50,000 shillings, or about $30.

But a children’s rights organization says child trafficking cannot be attributed solely to economic hardship. Among those holding that view is Joshua Lubandi, the information officer for the African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect, (ANPPCAN.) Lubandi says the government must have stronger policies to fight the problem. He gave the example of some young women who worked a day job that pays little, so they seek illegal employment at night, “During the day they work as waitresses and maids in bars and restaurants and at night they work as sex workers. They are not paid for what they do during the day, but they get paid when they sell themselves at night. If the government comes out now, it will really save the lives of millions of children who are being trafficked both domestically and abroad.”

Ruth Visick-Evans of Oasis Uganda says her organization is part of a global coalition of over 700 member organizations in 50 different countries leading the campaign to stop human trafficking. The coalition is collecting signatures to petition the UN in November to take stronger measures against the problem, “The idea is to get over a million signatures to take to the United Nations in November to raise this issue at the United Nations level as being a significant issue for which we have to do something about.”

The Constitution of Uganda states that children under 16 years of age have the right to be protected from social and economic exploitation. In addition, they should not be employed in work that would endanger their physical, mental, spiritual, or moral health and social development, or that would interfere with their education. The Constitution prohibits child slavery, servitude, and forced labor. And article 125 of the Penal Code prohibits the procurement of girls under the age of 21 for sex in Uganda. Violations of the code are punishable by up to seven years in jail.

The enforcement of these laws will determine whether or not child trafficking can be controlled.