Although slavery was formally abolished more than 140 years ago in most countries, there is a modern slavery that feeds on vulnerability. It is enabled by unemployment, lack of education and other cultural and social factors, to which the increasingly interlocking incidence of political and religious conflict, territorial displacement, and humanitarian and environmental crisis must be added. Poverty is a common denominator in these terrible circumstances and poverty leads to desperate decisions for individual and family survival.
Prominent among such decisions is sending children out to work, which exposes them to human traffickers and forced labour. Nearly a quarter of human trafficking worldwide occurs in Africa, mainly in West Africa and mainly affecting children. Many children work long and hazardous hours in artisanal mining and manufacturing, in agriculture and fishing. With the coronavirus pandemic worsening poverty in many parts of the continent, levels of vulnerability have risen along with the prevalent social and economic challenges. The following composite story illustrates the dire combination of challenges:
Caren (not her real name) was raised by a single mother of seven children, struggling with cancer but with no health insurance. The family depended on the meagre income from the mother’s small shop. Her working capital came through the community women’s group that depended on consistent returns of rotating income. Unfortunately, the shop was destroyed during political troubles. The mother did not have a bank account and any collateral to apply for a loan. She pulled the children out of school so they could find quick sources of income, such as street vending and menial jobs around markets and building sites. The children worked long hours for little income, and sometimes suffered physical abuse. When, eventually, the government offered free education, the mother could not afford school uniforms and books. When the trafficker showed up, offering an opportunity to go to school abroad, it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime to help the family. Out of desperation and lack of awareness, the mother agreed and the girl was sold into slavery at the age of 15 years.
Both males and females are trafficked within countries and across-borders for forced labour, sexual exploitation and debt bondage. However, women and girls are by far the most frequently targetted globally. In Africa, forced labour and forced marriage are the most common forms of modern slavery.
Human trafficking and modern slavery thrive on poverty and vulnerability, which have multiple and interlinked causes. Breaking the cycle requires holistic programmes that facilitate rural and urban income generation, increase access to education, and empower marginalised communities. Social protection, resettlement support and training programmes are also needed for the stable reintegration of trafficked children and women. They are often stigmatized, and some need sustained mental health support.
At national level, Ghana and other African countries do not need new or complex initiatives. Instead, there is a need for better targetting of poverty reduction programmes, greater gender equality and trafficking prevention efforts specific to different parts of each country. These efforts will raise awareness and address local cultural, historical and socio-economic forces that underlie vulnerability and feed modern slavery.
At regional level, state incapacity, porous borders, and corruption have enabled individual traffickers and transnational organised crime general to thrive. The clear priority, therefore, is to strengthen the capacity of border law enforcement agencies, and their performance will be reinforced by greater cooperation between neighbouring governments and their security institutions. One suggestion involves pooling human and material resources to expand operational capacity and implement robust policies against crime and trafficking. While a few countries already conduct some joint border policing, much more needs to be done at higher levels to harmonise legislation and judicial systems to enable timely extradition and readmission procedures. Through these processes, African countries will be able to improve socio-economic conditions, thereby reducing poverty and vulnerability to trafficking and modern slavery.
The writer is the CEO/Founder, Footprint to Freedom, survivor-led organisation
Survivor Inclusion and Engagement Specialist International Social Justice Commission, The Salvation Army Member ISTAC /OSCE/ODIHR
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