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Child Trafficking in Benin, West Africa

By
Karin Brown
March, 2010

 
This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.



Emily was only ten years old when her family handed her over to a woman in exchange for money, with hopes that she would receive an education by moving to the city. Instead, she was placed as domestic help in a home where she worked for three years before running away. Eventually, aided by the police, she found a safe place to live- an orphanage run by a non-governmental organization (NGO) that provides vocational training. Now seventeen, she hopes to be a hairdresser, but lacks the funds to open a salon of her own.[1]

Emily's story is representative of a ubiquitous challenge facing her home country of Benin and the region of West Africa more generally. Child trafficking occurs both within Benin, typically from rural to urban areas, and also across country borders.

The Breadth of the Problem

In 2006 alone, over 40,000 children were trafficked to, from, or through Benin,[2] a country with a population of over 8 million. Informal trafficking routes involve Benin, the Ivory Coast, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Togo, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Niger; each country playing a part in the supply, retention, and/or transit of children.[3] Benin is centrally located in this trade, both in terms of its role and geographical location. Bearing in mind that statistics on trafficking are unreliable due to methodological weaknesses and gaps in the data, the United States government estimates that between 600,000-800,000 people are trafficked yearly across borders, one sixth to one half of whom are children. In areas of West Africa children are the majority of people being trafficked.[4]

What constitutes child trafficking? A simple definition from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) explains that "a child [person under the age of 18] has been trafficked if he or she has been moved within a country, or across borders, whether by force or not, with the purpose of exploiting the child."[5] It is important to note that even if this transport is voluntary on the part of the family or child, it is still considered child trafficking. The Palermo Protocol of the United Nations Convention Against Tansnational Organized Crime further clarifies that "exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation, forced labour or service, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs."[6] On the international level, trafficking is understood as a modern-day form of slavery. The ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (C182) categorizes child trafficking among "forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery."[7]

Child trafficking is intimately linked with poverty and child labor.[8] The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that in West Africa children are predominately trafficked for domestic service or for forced labor on tea, cotton, and cacao plantations or in mines.[9] Commercial and domestic sexual exploitation is also an issue, but statistics on the prevalence are not available.[10] What about abduction of child soldiers? Is that considered to be a different problem? The demand for cheap and compliant labor to work under poor conditions spurs this practice of trafficking forward.[11] It is a highly demand driven phenomenon. These working environments are often hazardous to the child's health and/or development. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates in 2005 that between 980,000 and 1,250,000 children were trafficked worldwide into a situation of forced labor.[13] Again, data is not exact due to the clandestine nature of child trafficking and the chidren's involvement with the informal economy. In order to understand child trafficking, it is essential to examine how child labor is defined. Depending on the context or society, work done by children is understood in different terms.

The ILO explains that "'child labour' is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development."[14] This definition allows for children to work in the context of assisting their families around the home or in a family business to earn extra money, as long as they are able to attend school. Also, the type of work, number of hours worked, and conditions are considered when judging whether or not the child's work is labeled as "child labor." In an effort to make data consistent and comparable, in 2008 the 18th International Conference of Labour Statisticians agreed upon a new definition of child labor which moves beyond a simple economic definition of 'work' and instead accounts for both the type and conditions of economic activity and household chores.[16]

A look at economic, child labor, and education statistics in Benin helps to illustrate the connection between poverty, child labor and child trafficking. Benin is a relatively poor country with 47% of the population living below the poverty line.[17] Nearly half, or more precisely 46% of the population between the ages of 5 and 14, work.[18] This is a remarkably high rate of child labor, even when compared with the overall rate for Sub-Saharan Africa of 26.4%, which the ILO claims to be the highest regional rate.[19] Although the percentage of males and females who attend primary school is relatively high at 72% and 62% respectively, this drops off significantly with secondary school attendance rates at 40% and 27%.[20] Though 44% of the population is literate, only 23% of women are literate.[21] Low levels of literacy, low rates of school attendance, and widespread poverty are mutually reinforcing factors that contribute to the prevalence of child labor and subsequently the trafficking of children.

In addition to poverty, historical and cultural factors contribute to the prevalence of child trafficking and labor. A United Nations (UN) report describes the historical and social context in which trafficking takes place, explaining that the "practice of 'child fosterage,' sending children to live with extended family or friends to be educated, trained or to work, is a culturally accepted practice in West Africa and is done to foster extended family solidarity and to further the educational and vocational training of the child."[22] This voluntary placement of children with extended family is meant to provide them with opportunities unavailable in their rural setting, but instead may only lead to their being trafficked.

The UN reports that in Benin young women trafficked from rural areas to urban centers are typically "forced into sexual exploitation."[23] Children trafficked around and out of Benin are forced into domestic, construction and agricultural work, as well as street hawking, and handicraft activities.[24] According to a 2006 UNICEF study, 93% of children trafficked in or through Benin were Beninese, 92% were trafficked within the country, and 86% percent were underage girls.[25] Insufficient vocational, economic, and/or educational opportunities in rural areas make children and their families vulnerable to recruitment. Deception through "promises of an education, training or paid employment are used to secure the release of children" by recruiters who are often family or close friends of the family.[26]

There are also structural, legislative, and enforcement factors at work. The UN details a comprehensive list of factors enabling the trafficking of children in the region, including "porous borders, corrupt government officials, involvement of international organized crime groups or networks, limited capacity of or commitment by immigration and law enforcement officers to control trafficking at the borders, lack of adequate legislation and lack of political will or desire to enforce existing legislation or mandates."[27]

Responses to Child Trafficking

There are a number of legal structures in place on the international, regional, and national levels that prohibit the trafficking of children. Recognized as an international problem, countries have begun to join together to combat the practice. Although Benin has taken many steps to address the issue of internal and external child trafficking, it remains a pressing issue.[28] Listed below are a number of the legal instruments related to child trafficking that Benin is part of, but have not necessarily been effectively implemented.

International level:
  • The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is an international legally binding mechanism that articulates the human rights of children and obliges signatories to take action on their behalf (Benin ratified in 1990).[29]
  • An optional Protocol to the CRC on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography deals specifically with issues of trafficking (Benin ratified in 2005).
  • The ILO (C182) Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (Benin ratified in 2001).
  • United Nations Convention Against the Tansnational Organized Crime Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (Benin ratified in 2004).[30]
Regional level (bilateral and multilateral agreements):
  • African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1991)
  • Joint Nigeria-Benin Committee to Combat Child Trafficking drafted a 2008-2009 Joint Action Plan[31]
  • Agreement between the Republic of Benin and the Federal Republic of Nigeria on the Prevention, Repression and Abolition of Human Trafficking, especially Women and Children (2005)
  • Agreement known as "Measures to combat trafficking in human beings in Benin, Nigeria and Togo" signed in 2002 by Benin with the UNODC
  • Political Declaration and Action Plan Against Human Trafficking (ECOWAS 2001)
National level:
  • 2006 Act Relating to the Transportation of Minors and the Suppression of Child Trafficking criminalizes child trafficking and sets up penalties for offenders[32]
  • The Police Minors Protection Brigade (MPB) works in collaboration with foreign governments to rescue victims of child trafficking and refers them to NGOs for care

Despite these international, regional, bilateral, and national initiatives to reign in the practice of child trafficking, the government of Benin has not made adequate progress in prosecuting, convicting, and punishing trafficking offenders.[34] As legislation is developed and implemented, the problem of child trafficking is also being addressed by NGOs. Child trafficking gained attention "not from statistical data but from the alarm raised by activists, the media and non-governmental (NGOs) in Nigeria, Togo and Benin in the late 1990s."[35] Presently, UNICEF's 5 year (2009-2013) child protection policy and strategic plan partners with the European Union, USAID, ILO as well as NGOs, including CARE International, Terre des Hommes, Plan Benin, and the Salesien Sisters to increase access to social protection mechanisms and do advocacy/awareness raising.[36] One important initiative involves raising awareness about the need to register births. Presently only 60% of births are registered in Benin.[37] A more accurate census will help with efforts to report, monitor, and prosecute child trafficking.

A study by the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) found that professional training and apprenticeships can help to prevent the worst forms of work for children.[38] In Benin there are a number of NGOs who have adopted this strategy, helping children rescued from trafficking to either reintegrate back into school and/or provide them with professional training. Some of these organizations include: Plan International, Borne Fonden, Terre des Hommes, Sante et vie pour tous, Tomorrow Children, and Conseil des activites educatives du Benin (CAEB).[39] The professional training or apprenticeship is for children who have little or no education, and is adapted to their age. In Benin the pedagogy and methods of apprenticeship, an indigenous tradition, had to be adapted to a system of formal education.[40] In many of the programs they are aided in finding an internship, a job, or in creating their own business. There are multiple benefits for the individual (apprenticeship in a trade, recognized diploma or qualifications, development of their potential and self esteem, socialization, safety and hygiene) and for the country (sense of work security, development of businesses, job creation).[41] The NGO Tomorrow Children is providing this service to Emily.

In addition to the international, regional, and national efforts to monitor trafficking, local initiatives have sprung up in Benin. Village Committees, initially established in 1999 and now present in over 700 communities, are meant to "provide 'social surveillance' or social control of the activities and movement of the village's children."[42] Functioning as an early warning system, these committees monitor vulnerable children and report suspect departures of children.

There is need for increased coordination between governmental agencies and NGOs as traffickers are able to adapt to and circumvent new laws and structures meant to curb child trafficking.[43] Efforts to combat child trafficking are in motion on a variety of levels. A range of issues converge around child trafficking- poverty, unemployment, economic demand for child labor, education opportunities, corruption, porous borders, implementation of legislation-- which necessitates simultaneous engagement by the government of Benin, regional players, the international community, local and international NGOs, and community members. The fight against child trafficking not only involves the need to combat criminal trafficking networks in the short term, but requires addressing longer term systemic inequalities.


[1] The author met Emily in the summer of 2009 in Benin at the NGO 'Tomorrow Children,' where she was learning to become a hairdresser.

[2] U.S. Department of State. Trafficking in Persons Report. Published by the U.S. Department of State. (2009).

[3] Salah, Rima. Child Trafficking in West and Central Africa: An Overview. Published by UNICEF. (2001). http://www.unicef.org/media/newsnotes/africchildtraffick.pdf

[4] UNICEF. Progress for Children: A Report Card on Child Protection. Published by UNICEF. (2009), 17. http://www.childinfo.org/files/Progress-for-Children-No.8-EN.pdf

[5]UNICEF. Note on the Definition of Child Trafficking. (2007). http://www.unicef.org/southafrica/SAF-pressrelease-notetrafficking.pdf

[6] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. United Nations Covenant Against Tansnational Organized Crime and the Protocols Thereto. (2004), Article 3(a).

[7] International Labour Organization. C182 Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention. (1999), Article 3.

[8] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Measures to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings in Benin, Nigeria, and Togo. Published by UNODC. (2006), 24.

[9] UNICEF. Progress for Children: A Report Card on Child Protection. Published by UNICEF. (2009), 20.

[10] Ibid, 20.

[11] International Labour Organization. "Trafficking in children." (2009). http://www.ilo.org/ipec/areas/Traffickingofchildren/lang--en/index.htm (Accessed February 2010)

[12] Adepoju, Aderanti. "Review of Research and Data on Human Trafficking in Sub-Saharan Africa," International Migration (2005), 82.

[13] International Labour Organization. "Trafficking in Children." (2009). http://www.ilo.org/ipec/areas/Traffickingofchildren/lang--en/index.htm (Accessed February 2010)

[14] International Labour Organization. "About Child Labour." (2009). http://www.ilo.org/ipec/facts/lang--en/index.htm (Accessed February 2010)

[15] Ibid.

[16] UNICEF. Progress for Children: A Report Card on Child Protection. Published by UNICEF. (2009), 16.

[17] UNICEF. "Benin: Statistics." (2009). http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/benin-statistics.html (Accessed February 2010).

[18] UNICEF. "Benin: Statistics." (2009). http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/benin-statistics.html (Accessed February 2010)

[19] International Labour Organization. "Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Right at Work: Child Labour in Africa." (2005). http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed-norm/---declaration/cic_documents/publication/wcms-decl-fs-38-en.pdf (Accessed February 2010).

[20] UNICEF. "Benin: Statistics." (2009). http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/benin-statistics.html (Accessed February 2010)

[21] U.S. Department of State. "Background Note: Benin." (2010). http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/6761.htm (Accessed February 2010)

[22] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Measures to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings in Benin, Nigeria, and Togo. Published by UNODC. (2006), 27.

[23] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Measures to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings in Benin, Nigeria, and Togo. Published by UNODC. (2006), 11.

[24] U.S. Department of State. Trafficking in Persons Report. (2009). http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2009/123135.htm

[25] Ibid.

[26] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Measures to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings in Benin, Nigeria, and Togo. Published by UNODC. (2006), 65.

[27] Ibid, 28.

[28] United Nations. Convention on the Rights of the Child. (2006) http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/898586b1dc7b4043c1256a450044f331/af244100fbf1ad36c125723a003fa4ab/$FILE/G0644845.pdf

[29] UNICEF. "Convention on the Rights of the Child." (2008). http://www.unicef.org/crc/index-30160.html (Accessed February 2010)

[30] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. "Signatories to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Crime and its Protocols." (2010). http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/treaties/CTOC/signatures.html (Accessed February 2010).

[31] U.S. Department of State. Trafficking in Persons Report. Published by the US Department of State. (2009).

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] U.S. Department of State. Trafficking in Persons Report. Published by the US Department of State. (2009).

[35] Adepoju, Aderanti. "Review of Research and Data on Human Trafficking in Sub-Saharan Africa," International Migration (2005), 75.

[36] UNICEF. Results Matrix- Benin County Programme 2009-2013. (2008), 10. http://www.unicef.org/about/execboard/files/08-PL4-BENIN-CPD-Matrix-ENG-180408_-_final.pdf

[37] Ibid, 11.

[38] Organization Internationale du Travail. La Formation Professionnelle et l'Apprentisage: Une Alternative Au Travail Precoce et eux Pires Formes de Travail des Enfants en Afrique Francophone. (2009).

[39] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Measures to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings in Benin, Nigeria, and Togo. Published by UNODC. (2006), 137-141.

[40] Organisation internationale du Travail. La Formation Professionnelle et l'Apprentisage: Une Alternative Au Travail Precoce et eux Pires Formes de Travail des Enfants en Afrique Francophone. (2009).

[41] Ibid.

[42] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2006. Measures to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings in Benin, Nigeria, and Togo. Published by UNODC. (2006), 81.

[43] Ibid, 102.

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