The Future Lost:
The Economic and
Social Consequences of Child Abuse In Africa
By Debbie Ariyo
One only has to look around to
realise that the notion of the happy “African Child”, proudly eulogized by
the author Camara Laye in his famous book of the same name has long since
gone. Recent events demonstrate
that the present day African environment denies the average African Child any
true joy of living. The African Child continues to suffer the effects of war,
poverty, ignorance, mal-nutrition, under-nutrition, starvation, diseases
especially AIDS, exploitation, oppression and neglect. The African girl child in particular
lives under the constant threat of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
The recent increases in the
different forms of child abuse, exploitation and suffering in Africa is
extremely distressing. Under the
guise of tradition and poverty, African children continue to be exploited,
oppressed and abused by so-called adults whose job it is to protect them.
Although Child Abuse does not only exist in
Africa, it is more prevalent here.
Abuse of African children takes many forms. The phenomenon of child trafficking
for forced or compulsory labour is growing so fast that most countries in
Africa fit into one of three categories - sending countries, transit
countries and receiving countries.
Child trafficking has become a very profitable, multi billion dollar
business for the organised syndicates involved. As they flee poverty,
Africa's children are being increasingly exploited by traffickers, who make
billions of dollars a year by buying children for as little as 14 dollars a
head and sending them to slavery in Europe or the Gulf.
According to a recent ILO
report, an estimated 60 percent of sex workers in Italy are from
Nigeria. In the words of Meera Sethi
of the International Immigration Organization, Africa has become a
"supplier of fresh flesh" for countries in the European Union, via
paedophile and prostitution rings.
Sethi said Belgium, Britain and Italy receive the youngest African
girls, while Germany and Spain are major transit countries.
Child slavery, in which children are forced to work in very abject conditions,
with little or no pay is spreading widely around the continent, more than
ever before. UNICEF estimates that
200,000 children from western and central Africa are sold into slavery each
year, notably for seasonal work such as harvesting cocoa and other cash
crops. In Ghana, under the Trokosi
traditional practice, young girls are regularly given up as slaves to “atone”
for crimes committed by other people in their families.
The issue of Domestic Child
servitude - the modern day Cinderella syndrome, in which children are
subjected to the worst forms of labour within the home, most of the time
under very exploitative and abusive conditions, is very prevalent in most
African countries. Many children who
are trafficked within the West African sub region usually under atrocious
conditions, end up feeding the domestic labour market in the main urban
centres of countries like Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Equitorial Guinea and the
Congo. The case of Nigeria is once
again particular. According to the
Child Welfare League of Nigeria, with the presence of a child domestic
servant in virtually every household, Nigeria could be seen to have the
largest number of child domestic workers in the world. Majority of these children end up being
physically, emotionally and if they are girls, sexually abused.
There are more tales of
woe. Out of the 300,000 child
soldiers around the world, it is estimated that 120,000 of these are
African children who have been forced and recruited to take part in wars and
fighting in some African countries.
Sudan, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, to name a few African
countries, are all shamed by the tragedy of child soldiers. The nature of
child participation in wars ranges from active combat to support roles such
as spying, mine-clearance and manning checkpoints. Young girls are made to
provide sexual services for adult combatants. Since armed conflict does not discriminate in terms of gender
or age, child soldiers often suffer greatly from the physical and
psychological effects of violent conflict.
They are exposed to atrocities such as mass murder, torture and sexual
abuse. Under the influence of drugs and alcohol, often they are the
perpetrators of such brutality, some of the time against their own family
Sexual exploitation, in which under-age young children are forced or
cajoled into sex sometimes under the guise of marriage is also on the
increase. Most of these young
children end up emotionally and physically damaged. Some of them develop terrible conditions like Vesico Vaginal
Fistula (VVF). Others end up being
infected with diseases such as HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
All around us, we continue to
see children being abused, oppressed, exploited and denied their basic rights
as human beings, as citizens and as children. Why has child abuse in Africa risen to such a high level?
Experts have blamed the sudden
rise in child abuse cases on the terrible economic conditions in Africa,
which has led to a high level of poverty especially in the poor, rural parts
of the continent. This means some
parents, in order to relief the suffering, are often willing for their
children to move away, sometimes to live with a better off relative. Ignorant of the possible dangers, they do
this believing their child would be properly looked after. Usually, the opposite happens.
In a number of African
communities, some instances of child abuse are actually not seen as such, but
are considered an inherent part of the socio-cultural values and
customs. In other cases, children are
bonded to others to pay off debts incurred by their parents. At times, however, child abuse defiles any
form of socio-economic reasoning and can be downright evil. In 1996, the wife of a former Minister in
the Republic of Benin was tried and sentenced to a prison term for beating to
death a child she employed as a domestic servant.
But there are also other external
reasons. Again foreign countries have
been fingered for their role in fuelling cases of child abuse in Africa. Recently, Cote d'Ivoire's Premier,
Paschal Affi N'Guessan charged international chocolate manufacturers as
partly culpable for the trade in child slaves in West Africa. This is due to
the international firms' price policies which prices cocoa from West Africa
cheaper than elsewhere. For cocoa
traders to be able to reduce their overhead costs, they often rely on very
cheap labour – easily provided by children – to make this happen.
The problem of child soldiers is most acute in countries
rich in natural resources like Sierra Leone, Angola and Sudan. Foreign companies mining diamonds or
extracting oil have been accused of often knowingly using children as armed
guards to protect their property.
As a token
effort to help stem this tide of woe, almost all African countries have
signed up to implementing the 1990 United Nations Convention on the Rights of
the Child. Most African countries
have ratified the ILO Convention on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of
Child Labour, most recently Nigeria. In almost all African countries, there
is very little government effort aimed at either regulating or legislating
against child abuse. In countries
where such legislation exists, very little effort is made at enforcement.
So whilst the various African
governments bid their time, Africa and its children continue to suffer
disastrous consequences of these acts of abuse. On a personal level, the victims suffer harmful psychological,
emotional and physical effects that stay with them for the rest of their
lives – that is if they manage to survive the trauma. This is in addition to being condemned to
a lifetime of abject poverty having been denied as children access to the
necessary education that would have enabled them to make something positive
of their lives. Socially, we are
bringing up a generation of lost Africans who, deprived of their childhood,
might end up unable to function as responsible and capable citizens. For example, there have been recent
reports that countries like Sierra Leone and Congo DR are decommissioning
some of the child soldiers involved in wars in those countries. But with no plans or thoughts given to how
these children, most of them well trained in the use of weapons, would be
re-integrated into normal life, even when the war is over, one doesn’t have
to be psychic to predict the possible social consequences on those
In other parts of the world, the concept of the
knowledge-driven economy is fast becoming a strategy for economic
development. All over, technological
advances, especially in the areas of information and communication
technology, are occurring on a tremendous scale. However, with almost half of
Africa’s children deprived of even the most basic education, how do we begin
to compete with those other continents?
Africa’s future human capital is being devalued and depreciated,
thereby reducing the chances of any significant future economic growth and
Globally, with a high
proportion of our future leaders and citizens denied their basic rights as
children, sincerely speaking, we don’t really stand a chance against the
other continents who take pride in ensuring their children enjoy the best
years of their childhood and are groomed into becoming responsible leaders
and citizens. What sorts of future
leaders and citizens are we bringing up?
Or as a friend of mine would say:
“Who would lead Africa into
the 22nd century?”
Ariyo is a business development expert and International
Co-ordinator of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, a web-based campaign to
raise mass awareness about child abuse in Africa. www.abusemuststop.org