By ESTHER ONYEGBULA
One of the plights of children that have continued to cause concern is the issue of child trafficking. Recently, Esther Onyegbula spoke with Mrs.Bisi Olateru-Olagbegi, a human rights activist and the Executive Director/President Women’s Consortium of Nigeria (WOCON), and she shed light on the fight against child trafficking, what constitute child trafficking, how it affects the society and other sundry issues.
Several years down the line, how would you score the journey towards curbing child trafficking?
Well, I will say that by and large that we have achieved a lot, though we have had some challenges as well. We are proud to say that in the area of child and women trafficking WOCON is the first organisation to launch a campaign against the scourge in 1997 in Nigeria, when we had workshops to sensitize the public. This was following a research that was done by the United Nations on human trafficking. It was at that time that we realized that the trend was rising in Nigeria.
Before then, we didn’t know that something like that was happening in Nigeria, because we thought it was only Asians and Latin Americans that had that challenge. But even as at that time the main focus was on trafficking for prostitution and commercial sex; we didn’t know that some of those transactions that we saw in the past in which children from neighbouring villages were taken to work as domestic servants, were trafficking transactions.
What exactly constitutes child trafficking?
After building our capacity to recognise and identify child trafficking as a human rights issue and a violation of the rights, we were able to recognize the components that constituted human trafficking. That was when we realized that it was actually going on here; when people get housemaids from the hinterlands to come and work in the urban centers in middle class and high class homes, they were actually victims of trafficking because half of those children are subjected to domestic slavery.
The people who bring them will collect their wages in advance, sometimes one year, sometimes two years and they never came back to enquire after their welfare. You also find out that in many homes, they were really abused, they were over-worked and they had no one to talk to.
Some of them lost their identity, as some families will change the original names of these children to English names because they feel that the name is too complex or not suitable. Most times they change their religion from Islam to Christianity or Christianity to Islam, depending on the religious affiliation of the family they work for. This made a lot of them to lose their identity and self-esteem, which are part of the mental health problems that were outcomes of these abuses on these children.
Apart from child trafficking, what has your organization done to address the issue of human trafficking as it affects young girls?
Our organisation was the first to bring the issue of human trafficking to international focus, especially concerning Nigeria. We collaborated with an American organisation and we did a study and conducted an interview with the returnee victims of trafficking, which we thereafter disseminated.
So, it has been the subject of our interest and we have looked for ways to put an end to the scourge. We have had a lot of sensitization programme in places like Uromi in Edo State where we found out that most of the girls were sourced from.
The traffickers moved from the cities to the rural areas to play on the ignorance and the vulnerability of the poor people who saw the exercise as a big opportunity of coming out of poverty ; not knowing what they were going into or what sort of violence they were going to encounter.
We have also done that in Delta and we have targeted young girls when we found out that they were recruiting girls from schools, and we had to train them. We have also had trainings in places like Ebonyi
What are your areas of intervention?
Apart from having open air, market rallies, outreaches and street to street campaigns, we also have consultative forums with strategic people in communities. Like community leaders, traditional rulers, teachers, religious leaders and women.
We try to explain to them that child trafficking results in recycling of poverty. They felt that when they gave out one child, it is one mouth less to feed, but we made them realize that most of those children were not sent to schools, they were not allowed to acquire a skill and as soon as they grew old enough, they were sent back; that is if they are not sexually abused by all the males in the house. So we made them realize that it was a dead end because after several years of slavery, they neither have a certificate nor a skill to show for it.
How did you feel, rescuing those helpless children that were trafficked from Benin Republic to Nigeria some years back?
When we found the incidence of children trafficked from Benin Republic to Nigeria, it was so terrible; those children were living wild in the bushes and would use their bare hands to till the ground. They had no shelter and they were as young as six years old. They were also engaged in making granite.
The men will come with the lorry to load the granite and what do they gave them in return was “a one day meal”. If it is raining, they would have to look for polythene bags to cover themselves. Unfortunately the people in the area felt unconcerned because the kids were not from their areas.
We had to make them understand that we have young Nigerians as well in some countries, working on cocoa farms like slaves. We have Nigerian children all over North Africa, who are being used as domestic servants and for prostitution.
What measures are you putting in place to curb child trafficking?
We have over the years tried to build the capacity of parents, because we found out that poverty is the root cause of trafficking. In Ebonyi State for instance, we encourage them to form cooperatives and then we train them in income generating skills that appeal to them in Ebonyi state; for in stance a lot of them wanted to learn soap making. Some learned how to make body creams and petroleum jelly. In Ogun state we trained them on tie &dye. We also taught them business management skills.