Friday, February 8, 2008

Wag the child: In Guinea, who's exploiting who?

Literature Review is an occasional series investigating how the Western press covers an African country or issue.

Child exploitation, slavery and trafficking are all serious problems in West Africa. I should know. I am most likely guilty of it.

For the past four years, my wife and I have employed a maid who has then taken a girl from her village and hired her to do some of the housework she can’t get to while she’s cleaning and cooking for us. Our maid claims this is right (in her eyes) by sending the girl to night school and supplementing her income by teaching her to weave, an art form that she can make a lot of money in the future. By taking these girls out of the village, our maid has always claimed she is making life better for the “bonne” who would most likely be married off by now and not have the chance to go to school.

Is that human trafficking? Most likely. Is it a bad thing? I don’t know. Is it part of Burkinabé culture? Surely.

Don’t get me wrong, child exploitation is a problem here. The little girls who walk from bar to bar at night selling boiled peanuts most likely were trafficked from their villages. Ditto for the young boys spending all day in the blinding sun selling Chinese junk.

But after reading a recent story from IRIN about abandoned children being sold into slavery, I have to wonder if the children are the only people being exploited. The story documents anecdotes from residents of Conakry, Guinea who have noticed a significant increase of children living on the streets. Predictably, IRIN spoke to a few kids they found digging through garbage who related that their parents had died and life with their often violent grandmother became too unbearable. So they left.

The UN-based news organization then provides some context.

From IRIN:

Manimam Condé, who coordinates between the Guinean government and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Forecariah (city in southern Guinea), said unwanted children had reason to be afraid: Traffickers solicited children's parents and guardians, promising to give them a better life but actually putting them to work - or worse.

"Some children are sold and others are put directly to work - sent to work on plantations, or to sell things [carrying them] on their heads in markets," she told IRIN

Some children are... sent to work on plantations or to sell things... Sometimes parts of children are used as sacrificial offerings for ceremonies

"You also have sales of organs and body parts for medical uses. Sometimes parts of the children are used as sacrificial offerings for ceremonies."

According to the Conakry-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), Action Contre l'Exploitation des Enfants et des Femmes (ACEEF - Action Against the Exploitation of Children and Women), tens of thousands of unwanted children like these in Guinea are being forced to work in slave-like conditions.

Maybe I am completely inured to the problem of poor Guineans (or West Africans for that matter), but something about this story doesn’t seem right. Red flag number one would be the statement that “tens of thousands” of Guinean children work like slaves. That’s an awful lot of children. To insure there is not a dry eye in the house, the story also references the age-old myth of trafficking in human organs. I’ll admit, from time to time you do hear stories in Ouagadougou of people using organs for some weird fetish, but it often is used to blame Nigerians for something. The problem with using body parts for fetishes is that the bodies usually show up (like they did in Ouagadougou). The story makes no reference to that.

The bottom line is I can’t help shaking the fact that these children are targets – targets of another international organization fudging facts to push the dial of sentiment up to 11 regarding an already serious and sad problem.

Data-free research?
If one wants to investigate the problem of child trafficking, how about looking through some data. Each year, the US government ranks individual countries on the extent of the problem of human trafficking and the degree which governments attempt to tackle it. Once this information is collated, the State Dept. ranks the countries in a three-tiered system – one being best, three being worst – which they confess weighs more towards government intervention than the actual scope of the problem.

Guinea earns the ranking of a tier-2 country, which the State dept. admits is set aside for “[g]overnments that are making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards.” So, Guinea gets a C for effort.

Taking a look at the country narratives from the report, the problem in Guinea is severe:

Guinea is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation. Guinean children are trafficked within the country mainly from impoverished rural areas of Upper and Middle Guinea; girls are trafficked for domestic servitude and sexual exploitation and boys are trafficked for forced labor as street vendors, shoe shiners, beggars, and for forced mine and agricultural labor

The Government of Guinea does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so, despite limited resources. To strengthen its response to trafficking, Guinea should pass legislation prohibiting all forms of trafficking, increase efforts to investigate and prosecute traffickers and rescue victims, with a focus on children subjected to sexual exploitation.

The Government of Guinea continued solid efforts to raise awareness about trafficking during the reporting period. The government contributed funding for some costs associated with an ILO study on the number of children in domestic labor, mining, and street vending, or who are associated with drug or arms sales. The National Committee to Combat Trafficking hosted a workshop in July 2006 to evaluate whether Guinea's national action plan is in compliance with ECOWAS' trafficking guidelines, concluding that it does comply. The government has integrated trafficking-related issues into the primary school curriculum. The Ministry of Defense, through its own child protection office, has developed a 2007 plan to combat child trafficking. The government continued to contribute personnel, vehicles and other travel resources to an intensive national media campaign against trafficking that it launched jointly with UNICEF in 2005.

As harrowing as these descriptions can be, you should try reading through the rest of West Africa’s country reports. I am not trying to belittle the problem of human trafficking, but is it as grave as this story portrays? Even in a chaotic country like Guinea, where the members of Lasnane Conté’s government seem to spend more time keeping their pockets filled – and in power – than tending to the needs of everyday people.

I take you and you and you for my wives
Oh, the story does provide proof of the increase in children trafficking, by lamely blaming the practice of polygamy and a lack of family planning. As for family planning, Guinea does have a high population rate, but less than other fast-growing countries in the neighborhood: Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. The culpability of polygamy is also complicated. A few years ago, George Packer wrote a great piece about the collapse of Cote d’Ivoire that investigated why so many people from West Africa immigrated to the country. He found that young people from large, often polygamous families came looking for work because their parents could no longer afford to take care of them. It is a valid argument, although extremely anecdotal.)

AIDS, which creates orphans and puts extreme financial pressure on families, is fingered as another culprit. It would be a more compelling argument if it were not due to Guinea’s relatively low AIDS prevalence and orphan rate.

Of course, Guinea’s economy could be facing shocks from years of government neglect and last year’s general strikes (and violent government reaction) that rocked the entire country. This economic malaise could provide a tipping point for parents on the edge who are forced to make the horrific choice of letting go of their children so they themselves can stay afloat. Traffickers, of course, prey on exactly these situations by making empty promises that they’ll find good jobs for their children. All of this could happen. It’s unlikely to happen at the rate this story suggests.

To be sure, child trafficking is a problem throughout West Africa. However, blowing another one of Africa’s social issues out of proportion is also problematic. It not only perpetuates the stereotype of a helpless continent where life is nasty, brutish and short. Fabricating misery also deters foreign businesses from investing in these countries, providing economies with the essential capital to continue growing.

If this were just a major metropolitan daily newspaper spewing its regular parade of stories on AIDS widows, witch hunts and the like, I would just shrug. But for the United Nations to be so carefree with facts, I have to ask what is more important: Portraying a perplexing issue with some reason and nuance or making sure those development checks from guilty Westerners keep rolling in?

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