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 members.

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 countries. 

 

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 competitiveness. 

 

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?” 

 

 

 

Debbie 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

 

 


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