High number of Sierra Leonean children trafficked before their 18th birthday

UN Photo/Martine Perret

According to a new collaborative report from the University of Liverpool and the University of Georgia, an estimated 33% of children aged 5-17 in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone have been victims of child trafficking and 36% have been victims of child labor.

The report – Child Trafficking and the Worst Forms of Child Labor in Sierra Leone – represents the largest household survey on the subject ever undertaken in Sierra Leone. Produced by an international consortium of anti-slavery researchers, the report includes context-specific recommendations for programs and policies that can improve how government agencies and communities can address child trafficking and labor injustices. children in this West African country.

“Our research into child trafficking in Sierra Leone has given us insight into service and policy gaps,” said Helen Bryant, Liverpool-based policy officer with the African Programming and Research Initiative. to End Slavery (APRIES) at the University of Georgia Center for Study. Human Trafficking Research and Awareness (CenHTRO). Bryant and Alex Balch, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool, made policy recommendations informed by the research findings.

Bryant added, “Our recommendations reflect observations on these gaps and offer ways to support prevention and protection services to reduce the prevalence of child trafficking and exploitation.”

The report specifically describes child trafficking and child labor in three hotspot areas of Eastern Province – Kono, Kenema and Kailahun – which are among the poorest regions in what is considered one of the country’s the poorest in the world. The nature of trafficking in Sierra Leone means that children from the Eastern Province are taken out of the region, often to more urban areas. The insights and recommendations in the report have the potential to improve the lives of children across the country.

“Without reliable estimates of child trafficking and child labor prevalence, government and NGOs cannot have a baseline to work from, making it impossible to know if we are making progress in reducing the problem,” said CenHTRO Director David Okech, lead researcher for the report. . “The high number of child victims of trafficking and labor is quite significant and our goal is to join in prevention, prosecution and protection efforts to reduce the problem over time.”

To begin to combat trafficking in the country, the government of Sierra Leone passed anti-trafficking legislation in 2005. It also launched the Free Quality School Education Program to improve access to school and created the Hands Off Our Girls campaign to raise awareness of gender equality. grounded violence. But the report recommends that much more be done in response to child trafficking and child labor in the country.

The report’s recommendations include greater safeguards for children placed in informal care; increased access to educational opportunities, especially for children living without one or both parents; and, overall, increased collaboration and cooperation across Sierra Leonean society – between government agencies, families, community leaders and all non-government stakeholders – to prevent trafficking and support survivors.

Between 2019 and 2020, researchers conducted more than 3,000 household surveys, interviewed survivors, relatives and key stakeholders, and conducted 23 focus groups. Conflict Management and Development Associates, a research agency based in Sierra Leone, and ResilientAfrica Network, a research organization at Makerere University in Uganda, collected the data under immense pressure from the Covid-19 pandemic. The US State Department’s Program to End Modern Slavery funded the research.

Among other findings, the report summarizes community perspectives on child trafficking and child labour. It also identifies the populations most vulnerable to trafficking: children aged 12 to 17, children who have lost one or both parents and children who have not attended school.

Sierra Leone and Eastern Province

The districts of Kenema, Kailahun and Kono form the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone. Of a population of more than 1.6 million people, about 54% are under 19 years old. Agriculture – particularly subsistence rice farming – is the most important occupation in the province, with cocoa and coffee production notable in Kailahun. Diamond mining, a practice known to have fueled civil strife in the country, occurs in all three districts. APRIES selected the Eastern Province on the advice of its partners in the Government of Sierra Leone and local NGOs.

Over the past 30 years, Sierra Leone has experienced a series of man-made and natural disasters that have made the country’s children vulnerable to trafficking. A civil war from 1991 to 2002 and the Ebola epidemic increased poverty and malnutrition in the country. These traumatic events have exacerbated the number of orphaned or abandoned children in Sierra Leone. Data from the report suggests that children who have lost one or both parents have a higher rate of victimization. The current Covid-19 pandemic has also made life more difficult for children in Sierra Leone, increasing their vulnerability to trafficking and affecting effective responses to the problem.

A unique aspect of the challenges facing children in Sierra Leone is the reliance of families on informal fostering arrangements known as menpikin, in which children reside in households separate from their biological parents. The practice predates the civil war, is common in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and is seen as a way for parents to improve the lives of their children.

But the report, informed by survivors and key stakeholders, proposes that bad actors can abuse the menpikin.

“We were poor and my mother couldn’t support me, so she saw an opportunity in my trafficker’s request to take me away. [The trafficker] promised [my mother] to give me a better education,” one survivor said in an interview.

Go forward

Following this report, APRIES and CenHTRO have planned a final study, starting in 2022, which will assess changes in the prevalence of child trafficking and measure the impact of current anti-trafficking initiatives. Other research projects that extend or expand the report are in development or underway.

APRIES is also working with implementing partners, such as World Hope International, to apply the report’s findings to improve anti-trafficking efforts in Sierra Leone. For example, to address the high prevalence of trafficking in out-of-school children found in the report, APRIES partners are developing new strategies for community outreach and engagement of young people, caregivers and community groups.

“This baseline report is the result of the considerable collective effort of the APRIES team, Sierra Leonean government officials, APRIES research and NGO partners and research participants,” said Claire Bolton, Director associated with CenHTRO. “We spent thousands of hours designing the project with invaluable contextual detail that ensured safe and accurate data collection in remote locations during a global pandemic.”

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