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IOM Finds Widespread Abuse of Children in West Africa

The International Organization for Migration warns cultural and traditional beliefs in West Africa are being misused to abuse children. It says an estimated two million children are believed to be victims of human trafficking or other forms of exploitation. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from IOM headquarters in Geneva.

Africa has an age-old tradition of poor parents sending their children to friends and relatives to give them a chance at having a better life. In the same spirit, many poor parents send their children to Koranic schools because they cannot afford to send them to conventional institutions to be educated.

Spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, Jemini Pandya, says the parents' intentions are good. But, this practice is unregulated and is often open to abuse. For example, she says many of the boys who are sent to Koranic schools get little or no education.

"The Koranic masters are often making the boys go out in the streets to beg, setting a daily quota for the amount of money that they need to be able to raise and the amount of food," she explained. "And, if they are very lucky, they might get something like two hours of education just on the Koran itself and virtually nothing else. If they do not come back with the right amount of money or food, they can be severely punished."

IOM says Senegal, which is the center of the Daara or Koranic school system in West Africa, receives boys from various West African countries. It says Senegal also receives many girls from the region who are trafficked or exploited as domestic workers. It says girls as young as seven or eight are forced to work extremely long hours for very little or no pay. Many are made to work as prostitutes along the beaches where tourism is flourishing.

Pandya says parents often do not know what is happening to their children. She says it is hard to keep watch over the children when they are sent to large urban centers like the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

"It means that the parents and other family members are less able to monitor what is happening to the children, which leaves the door wide open for any kind of abuse to take place, not knowing what is happening," she said. "It means that these traditions which are good traditions because they have been long regarded as a form of community support are now, because of the scale of the problem in the region, are now open to abuse."

IOM says other examples of child exploitation and trafficking include Malian children working as domestic help in Mauritania or in the cotton fields of Ivory Coast. It says there are children from Burkina Faso who are forced to work on farms in Mali instead of receiving an education.

The Economic Community of West African States and another regional group recently agreed on a three-year plan of action to protect women and children from human trafficking. IOM calls the plan an important step forward. But, says it will only work if the actions listed are fully implemented.