The tall, shy young boy came up to me and asked simply to shake my hand. He had been beaten so badly by employers that he had lost part of his hearing. Today he bravely endures the embarrassment of attending classes with children much younger and smaller than himself – to get an education at the U.S.-funded school for trafficked children in Kokrobite, a small village in Ghana.
I heard many stories like this one during my recent trip to Africa, where I launched U.S.-backed projects to combat the worst forms of child labor. While there are many cultural and economic obstacles to eliminating the worst forms of child labor, there are also many Africans who recognize the time has come to put an end to these exploitative practices.
In West and Central Africa, trafficking in children is a perversion of the ancient custom of sending children away to live with better-off relatives in order to go to school or learn a trade. Today organized opportunists looking for a cheap, compliant labor force for domestic service, agriculture, mining and other industries convince parents to entrust children as young as 6 to them. The children work long hours for little or no pay and are provided with only the barest necessities of life.
As a result, many trafficked children have “lost their child’s soul,” as one psychologist told me at a school that rescues street children in Cotonou, Benin. Another social worker said trafficked children had to be taught how to play by the street children, who were actually healthier psychologically because they had taken the initiative and run away from abusive situations. Seeing the beautiful, smiling faces of these rescued children, it was difficult to believe that anyone would want to harm them.
Perhaps the most poignant experience of all, however, was in the Congo, where I met young men and women who had been forcibly recruited into militias as child soldiers. Nonprofit organizations working to eliminate child soldiers estimate that as many as 20,000 to 30,000 troops – or 12 percent – of the armed militias in the Congo were composed of children, sometimes as young as 6 and 8.
I met two such boys – now teenagers – at a center in Kinshasa, where they had drawn huge posters on the wall of their experiences as child soldiers. They showed off their drawings of tanks, machine guns, bombs, grenades, explosions and dead bodies that took on a heartbreaking reality because they were actual depictions of how they had lived and what they had seen.
One picture caught my attention in particular: a drawing of two African lions sitting contentedly by a stream, while a decapitated human body floated past them in the water.
The human tragedy of child soldiers was even more apparent in the shattered lives of two young women I met who had been forcibly conscripted into Congo militias. They had been abducted from a Catholic boarding school when they were in the sixth grade. They described how they had been put on airplanes and taken to army camps to work as domestics and passed around as concubines for the soldiers. When their “units” were “decommissioned,” they had been turned out on the streets – along with their babies – with no food, medicine or means of supports.
They had come to the Red Cross, seeking medicine and help in learning a trade, so they could support themselves. Their plight is one of the reasons why this administration is demanding that the needs of young women pressed into service as child soldiers must be a priority of the militia demobilization program in the Congo.
What can we do to help these children, who have been forced into combat or trafficked? Here are some of the key steps this administration is taking, under the president’s comprehensive strategy to eliminate trafficking in children and the worst forms of child labor:
* The U.S. Department of Labor works with international organizations to raise awareness about the exploitation of trafficked children among Africans themselves, and supports these organizations in their efforts to provide services to children removed from exploitive labor.
* This administration and its partners are strengthening local African school systems, so parents know there is another way for their children to advance within society. In many African countries, parents must pay for tuition, books, uniforms and school supplies even at “public” schools, which puts education out of reach for families.
* The Labor Department supports a massive international effort to decommission child soldiers and educate, rehabilitate and reintegrate these young men and women into their communities.
But there is one more thing that must be done to eliminate – in the words of President George W. Bush – the special evil of child trafficking: Create effective legal deterrents against the exploitation of children.
Many of these children have seen the worst life has to offer at a very young age. Yet everywhere I went, I was impressed by their courage and the dedication of the professionals who were trying to help them. We cannot give these children back their childhood, but we can help them have a future – one step at a time.