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Article 4: Freedom from slavery

  • The past decade has witnessed a resurgence in the illegal trafficking of child slaves, particularly in the western African countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Nigeria and Togo.
  • The UN has reported that at least 200,000 children are trafficked annually in the west and central African slave trade.


Although slavery is illegal everywhere, it continues to exist in some parts of the world. Its existence is rarely acknowledged by citizens of advanced industrialised countries, despite the fact that is a part of the global economy.

The term 'slavery' is rarely used anymore. Instead, slavery is usually referred to as 'bonded labour' or 'human trafficking.'

The slavery that exists today is wholly different from the form which existed two centuries ago.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the new slavery. In 2002, the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) estimated that of the 246 million child labourers in the world, 8.4 million are bonded or forced labourers.

The Life of a Child Slave

How are children enslaved in West Africa? Traffickers usually approach impoverished families and offer them as little as U.S. $15 to hand their son or daughter over to an employer. Many of the families who agree to sell their children hope that their child's employment will lead them to a better life filled with more opportunities.

After the children are purchased from their parents, they are secretly transported to nearby countries. The journey is often treacherous and many children perish in transit.

The trafficker then places the children in 'employment' with a host family, but he or she receives the children's wages. The children receive no money for their labour. Trafficked children work in both commercial and domestic sectors. Many toil on coffee and cocoa plantations. They are also sold as prostitutes.

The children are bonded to the traffickers or to the person to whom they are sold. It is nearly impossible for them to work off the debt they owe to the trafficker and the childrens' families rarely have the means to raise enough money to buy them back.

Child slaves work between 10 and 20 hours per day, often seven days a week. They are given little to no time for rest, play or education. Often, the children are not given adequate food, clothing or healthcare. Furthermore, the enslaved children run a high risk of being physically or sexually abused.

Some child slaves successfully escape from slaveholders, but the majority are unable to return to their families.

Growing Awareness

The problem of child-trafficking in western Africa has become more visible in the Western media due to several high-profile incidents involving the discovery of boats or buses transporting enslaved children.

In April 2001, a boat was impounded off the coast of West Africa following allegations of child-trafficking. The story made headline news in much of the West. It was later revealed that at least a dozen of the forty-three children and young adults removed from the boat were slaves who were being trafficked from Benin to Gabon.

Although human trafficking and slavery are officially illegal in Benin, human rights workers report that they are still widespread.

Working to End Slavery

There are numerous organisations working to end the trafficking of children worldwide, though they are hindered by widespread ignorance and denial of the problem.

In 1999, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations (UN) teamed up to form the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC).

With the financial support of the US Department of Labour, IPEC launched a programme entitled "Combating the trafficking in children for labour exploitation in West and Central Africa." Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Togo are participating in the initiative.

Local African nongovernmental organisations such as Enfant Solidaire d'Afrique et du Monde, and transnational organisations such as Anti-Slavery International and Human Rights Watch are also working to combat the problem of child slavery.

There are signs that the efforts of anti-slavery activists are making a difference.

The government of Benin has recently taken new steps to ensure that children are no longer trafficked and enslaved. A new law has made it mandatory to have a certificate in order to travel outside the country with children below the age of 15.

Prohibited by International Law

Slavery is prohibited in article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and numerous other international human rights treaties.

The trafficking of children is specifically prohibited under several international conventions, including the 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and of Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery; the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child; the Organisation of African Unity's African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child; and the International Labour Organisation Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour.

Although these conventions are widely ratified, slavery and child-trafficking continue to exist.