Gabon moves to tackle child exploitation
17 July 2013, 16:04
Libreville - At the sprawling Mont-Bouet market in Libreville, dozens of
children heave bags of cement on their shoulders. Others wander around for
hours, desperately trying to sell dried fish or cakes.
Their parents are nowhere to be seen: these children are virtual slaves
illegally lured from west African states to oil-rich, equatorial Gabon.
Lari, now 22, was only 11 when she was taken from her native Togo by a
stranger who claimed to be her uncle.
She was told that she would be reunited with her mother, who had abandoned
her at birth, and was taken by boat to Gabon.
But Lari had been tricked, and she was sent to work for a rich Togolese
family living in Gabon, placed there by her "uncle".
So began her gruelling new life as a house maid: up every day at dawn,
preparing the meals, acting as a nanny for the family's baby, and when all that
was done, shopping every evening for food.
During her time working for the family, Lari said she never received any money.
Instead it was taken by her so-called guardian.
"I never earned a cent," Lari told AFP. Her guardian would visit
"to take money at the end of each month, he never told me how much",
"Wherever I worked, it was the same."
Lari calculated that the family owed her 2.6 million CFA francs (almost €4 000),
money that she has never been given.
In 10 years, more than 700 children have been rescued from exploitation as
virtual slaves and repatriated, according to the UN Children's Fund.
However, "nobody knows how many are exploited because they have no
travel papers, they don't have formal jobs... Everything is informal,"
said UNICEF representative in Gabon, Michel Ikamba.
To bring children to Gabon, a country of 1.6 million people seen as an El
Dorado in other parts of Africa, child traffickers use the "channels of
clandestine immigration", Ikamba explained.
Overloaded boats full of west Africans fleeing poverty and unemployment in
Benin, Togo, Nigeria or Mali land on beaches near the coastal capital
Libreville after nightfall.
The Gabonese navy intercepted one such vessel in 2009 which was carrying 300
illegal immigrants, including 34 children destined for exploitation who were
handed over to UNICEF.
Parents given promises
The children arriving in Gabon have no idea what awaits them.
Young girls often end up as domestic servants or prostitutes and the boys
are given manual labour, toiling from morning to night in sweltering heat.
Their parents back in the home country were won over by vain promises and a
fistful of money.
"They tell them that their children will go to school and then they
give them 20 000 CFA francs (€30) to encourage them," said Sister
Marguerite Bwandala, who runs two centres in Libreville opened by the Roman
Catholic charity Caritas.
"The networks are well organised. The trafficker places them, often
with people from their home country, to take up jobs such as vulcanising rubber
[to give it greater strength and elasticity] or selling groundnuts, and he collects
their wages," Sister Marguerite said.
But it does not stop at financial exploitation: according to Unicef,
children are often subject to violence, including sexual abuse by the father in
the family that takes them in.
For teenager Sonia, who was just six years old when she arrived from Ketou,
a village in southern Benin, violence was the norm.
After each day at work, "I was tired, the old woman beat me very hard.
She hit me across the face. They said that I was their daughter, but it wasn't
true", said Sonia. Finally, she fled.
Rare are the children though who manage to break free of the grip of their
new families, who are their only reference point in a nation where they are
foreigners and have no papers.
As she grew up, Lari was passed from employer to employer.
She says her final job, which lasted eight years, was the worst. "I was
made mistress of the house. I had to look after the husband all the time, I
couldn't go to bed until he came home, even if it was at four in the
"His wife accused me of things that weren't true. When she lost money,
it was always my fault. She searched my things and when she found nothing, she
tortured me, she beat me to make me confess," she added.
Much worse was to follow.
"She accused me of sleeping with her husband's brother. Three times she
took me to the doctor to prove that I was still a virgin."
Gabon has started taking steps to crackdown on the trafficking of children.
It has joined Unicef in launching a training programme in five towns to unite magistrates,
army officers, police and social workers in fighting against such exploitation.
Closer co-operation will also make it easier to repatriate children, said Unicef's
Lari has at last found a way out, with paid employment as a nanny in Gabon.
She is hoping to save up enough to open a business back home.
At a Caritas-run centre, there is also hope. Edith, 14, is training to be a
hairdresser. The nuns hope that she can qualify in Gabon and avoid further
"She's doing well," said Sister Marguerite. "She has even
learned to read and write here."