The curse of child slavery

The World
Congress of Families
recently held its annual conference in the
Nigerian capital, Abuja. One speaker, Don
, an American journalist, told his largely African audience
“Everything the West asks you to do, please do the opposite”. He
praised the rich family values that he had observed here.

I agree. Nigerian families
are largely intact; divorce is rare; children live with their
parents; intergenerational ties are strong. The other side of the
coin is that people without a family are at sea without a lifejacket;
they will receive almost nothing from the government.

We have to struggle hard not
to become infected with an insatiable desire for a higher standard of
living without strong human values. Because in Nigerian society the
combination of an educated class with a yuppie lifestyle and the
possibility of exploiting a poor underclass leads to terrible abuses.

One of these is curse of
child slavery. Traditionally, as in much of Africa, domestic work
used to be the duty of a family’s own children. But if a couple was
wealthy, poorer relations would sometimes lend a hand. An older
cousin from the country would live in and care for the toddlers.
This, however, obliged the parents to pay for the schooling of the

help is more necessary than ever for educated couples, as often both
parents work outside the home in professional jobs -- just as they do
in London or New York. But relatives are expensive, so many families
prefer to buy children in order to work in their homes. They are
cheaper to maintain and there are fewer family complications.

to the Child Welfare League of Nigeria, Nigeria may have the largest
number of child domestic workers in the world, since nearly every
household has a child domestic servant – at least the households of
every government employee. Most of these children end up being
physically, emotionally, and if they are girls, sexually abused.

day slavery

journalism is weak in Nigeria and it took the New
York Times
to document what everyone here knows as a brutal fact
of life. A State Department official commented that the word
“trafficking” failed to convey the brutality of what was
happening. “A child does not consent,” he said. “The loss of
choice, the deception, the use of frauds, the keeping of someone at
work with little or no pay, the threats if they leave — it is

year, according to a report in the Times, Nigerian police
stumbled upon 64 girls aged 14 and younger packed inside a
refrigerated truck built to haul frozen fish. They had traveled
hundreds of miles from central Nigeria and were destined for work as
housemaids in Lagos.

was scandalous, but not unusual. Dealers buy 5 or 6-year-olds from
their parents in poor countries such as Togo and Benin and take them
to work at quarry sites where they break stones or they as farmhands
until they are about 13. This purges the children’s minds of
memories of family and homeland. Without these, they work better as
house-help. “The best house-helps are those without father or
mother; without a past to which they can return” says one of the
slave dealers, since they are entirely dependent on their masters.

to the Times, in 2003 Nigerian police rescued 194 malnourished
children from stone quarries north of Lagos. Police claimed that at
least 13 other children had been buried in graves near the pits.

dealers sell the slaves to busy working mothers in Lagos who remit
about 3,500 Niara monthly to the dealer’s bank account. Although
women may know that the children have been trafficked, they excuse
themselves by saying that if they do not hire these children someone
else will. As Naija Pundit wrote last year in

“Even some of our most
affluent and educated ‘leaders’ see nothing wrong with getting
some small boy or small girl from the village and using them for
nothing but menial labor, sure it can be argued that living in Lagos,
Abuja or Port-Harcourt beats living in some hamlet in the middle of
Ogun state, but do economics trump a person’s inherent right to

from other countries are preferred in Lagos because they are
completely docile. A local house-help might have relations and could
be unruly and demand rights such as schooling. Generally dealers
insist that the children should not be enrolled at school.

before purchase

Busy professional women
usually demand tests for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and pregnancy before
purchasing a child to ensure that they have made a good bargain and
to protect their own kids from infections.

Back at home, the busy
mothers often act as if their homes were too good for their help. I remember while living in Lagos that one of the slave children
used to take her bath hurriedly in the public taps hoping that no one
was looking. The neighborhood boys enjoyed peeping at her. “My
master would not allow me to take my bath in the bathrooms. I am too
dirty to wash myself in the same place where his children bathe,”
she told me between sobs.

Family convenience trumps
everything. One of my friends remembers a woman who fell pregnant and
yanked her child-slave out of school just before final-year exams.
The slave had to wait nine months before resuming her education.

A doctor friend, Ambrose
Anegbe, told me about his encounter with a child-slave in the
teaching hospital in the city of Ibadan:

“The child-slave was 13
years old and was owned by a busy mom with two daughters. The slave
was withdrawn, spoke in a low voice, and shied away from me. The
woman brought the child-slave to hospital because she suspected her
of transmitting flu to her daughters. The slave had been coughing for
three weeks but she took no notice until her daughters began to
cough. In my presence, the woman accused this child-slave of
deliberately infecting her daughters. The child-slave smiled, in a
lovely way. I tried to imagine how much torture she must have
undergone to react this way. I also watched as the daughters of the
woman used the child-slave for sport. They would hit her hard and in
response she would smile.”

“Many of them are treated
like animals,” a United Nations official told the Times.
“They are second-class citizens, little slaves. You feed them a
little and they clean your house for nothing.”

Why would a mother treat a
child like this? Perhaps the adults vent their frustrations from a
day at the office on these children who have no formal training in
home management and are often very clumsy. Besides, a child-slave is
still a child. Every child can tell when it is not accepted and
treated like the other children, and thus becomes emotional and gives
in into sulking and other anti-social behavior, which further
irritates their employers.

The rising numbers of
nannies in Nigeria are the result of parent’s misplaced priorities
caused by ambition to earn more, to climb up corporate ladder and to
give their own children everything, including freedom from household

What the Nigerian experience
shows is that it is naive to think that modernisation and a rising
standard of living will eliminate exploitation and abuse. It can even
spread it further and make it worse. That’s why we Africans have to
be alert to keep our spiritual values from being eroded by Western
secularisation. They are our only firm protection against the defects
in our own societies.

Chinwuba Iyizoba is an
electrical engineer in Enugu, Nigeria 


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