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Child Labourer: Photo: Amnesty InternationalChild Labourer: Photo: Amnesty International

Nigerian children are trafficked for sex, labour

"You could see the pain they were going through. They were beaten, bruised and there was nobody to talk to them. We were very silent about all those things. We just feel, ‘okay this is not my child, so why should I give so much attention to that.’

I asked myself, why don’t I try to research and talk to the children themselves, to find out what they are going through? Find out how government and we, as individuals, can also help them."

Interview with Dr. Ifeyinwa Mbakaogu


Dr. Ifeyinwa Mbakaogu Dr. Ifeyinwa Mbakaogu is a doctorate student at School of Social Work, McGill University, Canada. Her area of specialization is child trafficking and child-labour, with focus on Nigeria and Africa.

She spoke with Saturday Sun recently on the menace of child trafficking and child-labour.


Why did you choose child trafficking?

I found that most time, a great deal of focus was placed on human trafficking with emphasis on sex trafficking of women, especially those in Edo State. Then came the alarm raised sometime in the 90’s, especially by the Nigerian ambassador to Italy about the rate of female trafficking of Nigerians to Italy. It was really very embarrassing and so some work started being done about it. But I was more interested that there was so much emphasis on sex trafficking without thinking about children that were trafficked as well. So with my experience with people living in my neighbourhood, around Nigeria, especially in some less-developed places in Lagos State, I found out that so many children were suffering, they didn’t really know where to go to seek help. They were being used as househelp in different households.

You could see the pain they were going through. They were beaten, bruised and there was nobody to talk to them. We were very silent about all those things. We just feel, ‘okay this is not my child, so why should I give so much attention to that.’ I asked myself, why don’t I try to research and talk to the children themselves, to find out what they are going through? Find out how government and we, as individuals, can also help them. And that got me to making out statistics about child trafficking and all that.

The problem we are having is a case of not trying to distinguish between child trafficking and child-labour. Everything seems to be the same thing. When you say child-labour, you don’t really know what you are talking about and you don’t really know whether you are talking about child trafficking because in the first place when you look at the statistics, they always say that Nigeria has about twelve million working children and out of that twelve million about 40 percent are susceptible to trafficking for different reasons. I

It could be for forced labour, which happens, but it is very rare. Then you have children used for sex trafficking, children mostly used as house helps and we have this percentage that are used for sexual reasons and all that which is more rampant and which is what NAPTIP focuses on. NAPTIP was set up initially as a response to the trafficking of women to Italy for sex work and all that. So, actually, that was why I got interested in it, because nothing was being done; we had to look at other aspect of child trafficking, trafficking that children were involved in.

You have differentiated between child trafficking and child labour. Can you elaborate on child labour? What aspects do you consider bad, because in Africa, there is this idea of children helping their parents to run the family so to say by helping in generating more income in their parents’ business?
That is the problem we really have because most people feel that, and even when you check literature, people conducting research and all that, the thing that, people say in Africa is that you really have to distinguish between what is African and what is borrowed from elsewhere because we talk about the socialization of children. We feel that children work with us in our homes. Like, if you go to the villages, children work in the farms along with their parents because it is a way of socialization; the way they learn. By interacting with their parents, they learn how to cultivate, they learn how to do other things that they wouldn’t learn if they hadn’t been with their parents.

We have all worked, I worked as a child in different ways, like helping out in the home: sweeping and doing all sorts of things. But there’s the other exploitative means of labour, where you give children work that is beyond their age. It is a different thing if you are saying a child should work, and then you find a 14-year-old child carrying heavy blocks from morning till about ten at night. So, of the children I have worked with, there were some that barely managed to go to school; coming back from school, they are working until 1a.m. That becomes exploitative and we have this case where they say, if you are working with your child, your parents or something its okay. But children, when they are trafficked from a different locality, a kind of movement from a different locality, you are moving from Anambra State, and you are being taken away from your parents to a different location and then there is that aspect of being exploited, in the sense that maybe what you were told you were going to do is not actually what you are doing. Or you are exploited sexually, emotionally, physically, or somewhere, that is when the trafficking aspect comes in – the movement and then the exploitation; working beyond your age and all that.

But some parents will not agree that, that is trafficking?
Yes. When you tell them that they are trafficking their children they ask you: ‘did we sale our child?’ Because, to them, trafficking is an insult because they feel that they have sold their child, which defeats the aim of being a parent in the first instance. Then they tell you that their child was not sold, that they were actually trying to help the child, rescue the child from poverty, put the child in a place where the child will have better opportunities. But what happens along the line is what the problem is. The child and the parents may be exploited in the course of taking them to a different locality. So, that is why some children say that they are not trafficked when you tell them that they were migrating. So, it’s a very complicated thing, but the main thing in trafficking is that aspect of exploitation. You might be migrating for work, but you might not be exploited because you know where you are going. But for trafficking, there is no guarantee.
There is an agent involved in all these cases, you don’t really know the people and so you might be trafficked, which is different from child-labour as a form of socialization. In most of the literature, when you talk about child-labour, they always tell you about fostering, because we used to have this history of fostering, where the rich family takes care of another child. I might be getting married, I might take my little cousin or little nephew to stay with me in the house. Most instances, she helps you around with the baby, when the baby comes, and then sometimes the people in that household actually marries her later but she is not exploited. She is with her aunty, she is being taking care of; she is part of the family and all that.

But the fostering thing has even gone wrong also. You take your cousin from the village and there is even no guarantee. She might be used for something else when she gets to the city. So the main thing is exploitation.

But there’s this other aspect of it – sex trafficking. What have you discovered in the course of your assignment?
In the course of my assignment, I found out that, no matter what NAPTIP might say, most of the time, their work is concentrated on the sexual aspect of trafficking because whether we like it or not, that was why they were established. They were established as a massive response to the trafficking of women and children to Italy and that was what the Act that set them up in 2003 says. It was again reviewed in 2005 to include so many other things like child-labour and all other aspects. Sexual aspect of trafficking is still rampant. It is a very complicated and difficult process because so many people could be agents for trafficking children.

I found a case where a girl of about 19 actually was the one that trafficked her own friends, people that were under age like herself. It all depends on who you associate with. When you talk about causes of trafficking, it is very difficult to actually narrow them down to certain causes because they change. There is always this issue of peer pressure that is why we have to be careful. It all comes down to children, parents and families to know who their children relate with. Monitor them all the time, because their friends could actually be agents, someone that may lead them astray in some cases. You don’t know who these children are associating with, and then there’s all kinds of things in the society that make children so susceptible to trafficking – they want to belong to a certain group, a certain class, they want to dress in a certain way and they need money to do all those things. So they are all difficult processes.

What age bracket would you say is vulnerable?
I believe that any kid under the age of 18 is vulnerable to trafficking. We always say that children under the age of 18 are malleable, you can mould them to certain things. That is part of the reason why women that are looking for house help, look for children under certain age, because they tell you ‘oh, we can train them to behave the way we want. They are not really as informed as other people in the society. So, their opinion can be shaped in different ways; they can be influenced, they can be told do this. And then they could also have this fear, when you tell them that they are going to swear to a god, things like oath. They have this fear they are binding, unlike adults that will tell you ‘no no, we can’t do this.’ So that age bracket is very susceptible, and we also know that children of that age want certain things. They want to go to school; they need certain things that their parents cannot provide for them, and when they see other people having access to all those things, they begin to wonder ‘why me, why should I go through all this.’ And so they are more vulnerable.

In this instance, is it right to say that some voluntarily enter into it or some are forced into it?
I always avoid answering that question because in some cases, like some of the children that I worked with recently, some of them voluntarily were trafficked but they would still tell you that they were not trafficked because they knew the person that was taking them. May be someone that had taken their uncle to Lagos from the village or something like that. So, they felt they were in the safest hands or something. But we in the society would say that they were trafficked. Some children voluntarily go into it because they made them certain promises. Thy told them that they were going to go to school and so they wanted to go to school. And they told them they would be working while going to school, but when they got to Lagos, things changed. So some children went into it voluntarily but some went into it not really knowing what would happen. Because in the first place, they didn’t really know the person, and then they bring them to Lagos, take them outside the country probably for other things – sex trafficking. And so, some of them didn’t really know what was happening.

Is it safe to say we have internal and external trafficking
Yes. We have internal like within all the states of the federation. In most cases, people like to recruit children from the villages and bringing them to the cities – all those industrial areas: Port Harcourt, Lagos, Abuja, etc Most times they recruit people from Akwa Ibom etc to work as househelps, to work in shop, beer parlours and then they recruit some again across the border, for all sorts of things to other richer Africa countries. It is a difficult thing. Nigeria is in a difficult situation because Nigeria is the provider of children for trafficking. It also uses children and so it is in a difficult position itself.

Often we discover homes (aka baby factories) were pregnant girls go to deliver babies and then these babies are sold to childless couples or whatever. Is that part of trafficking?
I haven’t really done any work on this baby factory kind of thing. So, I wouldn’t really say, but we wouldn’t really call this prostitution right. But it’s some how related to it, in the sense that they are exploited and made to produce children that could be used for adoption and all that. It is actually an aspect of trafficking but international communities are not really familiar with this, but the thing is that these children are put in an unfamiliar environment and they are exploited. NAPTIP should be involved in it and it should be tagged as trafficking and exploitation of children

What about the role of parents, do you see them as being involved in this business, so to say?

In some cases, parents would say that they are not involved but parents’ involvement in the sense that they were lacking in providing for their children. So when they were lacking, they were looking for alternative means of income. Some times you find it so difficult blaming the parents because, in a way, they are trying to take care of their children to make up for their inadequacies, taking them off to other places where they felt they would be better cared for. In such cases, both the children and their parents are exploited. We have so many cases where parents know about it. Like some of the children I worked with told me that they were the ones that even pressured their parents into allowing them to be trafficked, to go and work in another place because they were frustrated. They were tired of being out of school. They were tired of just moving from one farm to another, and not doing anything while their other colleagues were in school. But it is no longer a case of poverty when children are consciously trafficked for prostitution by parents. I mean nobody would excuse them. There’ve been so many instances, where people say that parents knew what was happening.

So many people that have done research, and worked with parents in Edo State say that everybody knows a family by the next street, next house or something, where someone had trafficked and they build massive structure for the family etc., and then the parents would also send their children along. We have to address poverty, the political situation, the social-cultural things that affect women. Most of the time, the children that are victims of prostitution are the female children. There are so many things in the society that make a female child susceptible to prostitution and parents cannot really do much about this. That doesn’t mean it makes it an easy way. So, what I am saying is that, sometimes parents know, they are not as ignorant as we say that they are.