Child trafficking: hallmark of modern day slavery

Joseph was once a goat header
Joseph was once a goat header

Malawi joins the world in commemorating World Slavery Day today. But what relevance does the day have to a country where children continue to be trafficked—the mark of modern slavery?

Joseph Banda, 12, from Mchinji, has, for two years now, been working as a goat herder about 50 kilometres from his village and playmates. For two years, the friends he has talked to are mainly goats, and his fellow child goat herders here and there.

His grandfather, purged with poverty, sold him off to a man with hundreds of goats—quite a rich man. But for all his hard work, Joseph could only get K5 000 (about $12.50) per year, which translates to K400 ($1) per month.

The life and condition the little and innocent Joseph was subjected to is nothing different from that which was at the heart of slave trade in the 17th and 18th century.

Forced labour

Millions of Africans that were shipped from the continent to work in sugar plantations in the Caribbean toiled for hours without being paid, could be whipped, denied every form of human right—they lived like dogs, history shows.

It was in deeper appal of the conditions that anti-slavery campaigners, spearheaded by missionary David Livingstone, bared their fangs to slavers and waged war against the practice.

Though history indicates the triumph of Livingstone’s anti-slavery campaign in the 19th century, the story of Joseph proves the contrary.

It is a story that substantiates the views that slavery, wearing new coats called human trafficking, continues to ravage our societies just as before.

In fact, the worst human trafficking in the country comes in the form of selling and buying of the under-aged, like Joseph, in what is known as child trafficking.

Haswell Jim, programme manager for the Salvation Army Anti-Child-Trafficking Rehabilitation Centre in Mchinji—an organisation that rescued Joseph from slavery—says despite the absence of figures, child trafficking is rife in Malawi.

“It’s happening. A lot of children are being trafficked within Malawi and across the border. Mostly, boys are trafficked for labour while girls are for sexual exploitation,” says Jim.

According to 2008 data from Centre for Social Research, between 500 and 1 500 women and children are trafficked within the borders of Malawi annually.

Out of this, 30 percent are children aged between 14 and 18 years, and about 400 women and 50 children are trafficked outside the country every year.

But what causes and fuels it?

Underlining that there has been an increase in cases of child trafficking in the country, human trafficking activist and lawyer Habiba Osman argues that poverty and gender inequality are two of the main underlying causes of trafficking recruitment.

Traffickers are clever, notes Jim.

“They trick the poor families saying their children will work and still go to school and promise them up to K15 000 (about $37.50) and give a deposit of K5 000 which parents, given their poverty, easily fall for,” he says.

He adds that in the case of Mchinji, a district said to be a notorious corridor of child trafficking—it is being fuelled by bicycle taxi operators who are used by traffickers to ferry the children in and around Mchinji and Zambia using uncharted routes.

But beyond poverty, other analysts point to laxity of the law which fails to deter the practice.

Section 79 of the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act is used to prosecute perpetrators of child trafficking and the Act gives a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for child traffickers.

Laws on human trafficking

However, as argued by Maxwell Matewere—executive director of Eye of the Child—delay in enacting the law on human trafficking is frustrating efforts and the fight against the practice.

The delay, concurs Osman, means “we have a country without a comprehensive law on human trafficking”.

According to data from police, in 2012, Mchinji Police dealt with 13 cases of child trafficking which involved 36 suspects, of these only 12 were convicted.

Child protection officer in the Malawi Police Service, Alexander Ngwala, told parliamentarians in Lilongwe in July this year that most perpetrators now get light sentences unlike in the past.

“Overruling and discharges by High Courts are giving Magistrates laxity to impose custodial sentences. As such they just impose fines sometimes as low as K15 000. They then order the trafficker to repatriate the victims to their homes,” said Ngwala.

Jim says Joseph Phiri’s employer is likely to be ordered to pay the survivor an amount equal to a daily minimum wage of two years and likely to get fined K15 000.

The employer is unlikely to be jailed as he is not considered a trafficker by the current law and he is likely going to be tried using the Labour Act.

With funding from the Norwegian Church Aid, Salvation Army—which has rescued almost 400 children since 2007—has been sensitising the public to the dangers of the practice.

In 2009, using a grant from DfID, a programme was rolled out to try to arrest the problem in some districts by sensitising parents and giving families income-generating activities such as rearing pigs to dissuade them from selling off their children.

Beyond economically empowering the parent, Salvation Army also uses a psychological approach.

“When we rescue the children we rehabilitate them and counsel them to remove the trauma. Then we train them in vocational skills. We keep them for a maximum of three months,” says Jim.

Another hurdle that needs to be addressed, as some analysts have observed, is revisiting the law. However, with the draft Human Trafficking Bill still at Cabinet, Attorney General Anthony Kamanga says the challenge is when it will finally be presented to Parliament for debate and passed into law.

Otherwise as the bill is still in consideration, child trafficking continue to rear its ugly head on the country, enslaving vulnerable children.

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