The United Nations Children's Fund estimates that over 120 million children between the ages of five and fourteen work full time in the world today.1 The situations of at least eight million of these children fit even conservative definitions of slavery.2 Everyday, millions of kids that have either been kidnapped or sold into slavery go to work in mines, fight and are killed in wars, are tied to machines in sweatshops, or are forced into prostitution. In 1990, the UN estimated that "human trafficking"(which encompasses the slave trade) was a $1.5 to $2 billion dollar a year business. Today it estimates that the number is somewhere closer to thirty.3 Just let that one simmer for a second. I suppose there will come a day when the world will stop astonishing me, but that day is a speck on the horizon right now. You think slavery was something that ended in 1865? Wrong. Today there are more people enslaved than ever. Anti-Slavery International puts this number at around 27 million, the vast majority of whom are young women and children -- more than double the number of people that were ever taken from Africa for use in the Americas.4 An estimated 15 million children are in debt bondage in India alone. Known as the "children of the looms", they are removed from school and work long hours, sometimes while chained to the machines they operate, to repay the debts of their parents.
The largest child slavery problem is that of young girls being sold into domestic and sexual servitude. Every year traffickers ship over a million girls, generally from war torn and impoverished countries, to brothels in nations all over the world, including the US, the UK, and mainland Western Europe. The CIA estimates that 25,000 young women, most underage, are shipped into this country every year solely for use in prostitution. Girls from Thailand are shipped to Japan, Nepali and Pakistani girls go to India, Chinese girls are sent to the US, Indian girls to the Middle East, Burmese girls to Thailand, Central African girls to Europe, and Russian girls pretty much everywhere.
Central African is one of the epicenters of child slavery, as the problem is greatly exacerbated by AIDS, war and poverty. Twelve million children have either lost a parent or are orphaned right now in Africa because of the mushrooming AIDS epidemic, with that number rising dramatically every year.5 Children whose parents die of AIDS or who are otherwise without parents to protect them are much more vulnerable to this form of exploitation. In war, children are often stolen for use as soldiers or are sold on the market for as little as $100 each. Even children lucky enough to have both parents are often sold into slavery due to poverty. Families sell their children to traffickers because they are unable to provide for them, they are unable to pay debts, and because they are fed stories of the wonderful lives their kids will lead abroad with the traffickers. While much of Africa is plagued with these problems, it is especially prevalent in the war-torn Great Lakes region of Central Africa, where conflicts in Congo, Angola, Rwanda and Sudan have claimed the lives of many millions over the past 20 years.
Many of the slaves in Central Africa are child soldiers. Child soldiers are estimated to number 300,000 worldwide, half of them in Central Africa. Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka, Uganda and Sierra Leone, among others, have all been chastised the UN for "recruiting" child soldiers as young as five to fight in their wars.6 These kids are often put on the buddy system at first so they don't run away; then, after a time, many are manipulated and brainwashed so that they are transformed into ruthless killers, having been stripped of any respect for human life.
Earlier this year the UN called on Sudan to stop its enslavement of up to 100,000 people. Many of these are children forced into the military or are used through trafficking to raise funds to fight their civil war. Horror stories coming form this situation range from children having their limbs amputated to being shot by soldiers if they cry too much. As you may remember, Christian Solidarity International was criticized for going in and buying thousands of kids out of bondage, but thereby funding the war and expanding the market for the slave trade. They took this action because they saw thousands of children getting beaten, shot and gang raped. Short-sighted as they might be, I can't really say I blame them.
The Ivory Coast has recently come under international criticism for the use of child slavery on its cocoa farms. The West African nation produces 43% of the world's cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate. The UN has condemned the Ivory Cost for the working conditions of some 300,000 young children on the farms, at least 6,000 of whom are "unpaid workers with no family relations".7 One child name Drissa, recently liberated from one of the farms, when asked about other people eating chocolate, responded, "When [people] eat chocolate, they are eating my flesh." Hershey, Toblerone, Mars (Twix, Snickers, M&Ms), Cadbury, Ben & Jerry's and Nestle have all been connected with these farms. Think about that the next time you buy a chocolate bar in the checkout line; little morbid, eh? A good bet with this one is to go with organic chocolates, as none of those apparently come form the Ivory Coast.
AS activists in the US we are used to taking on the finer, higher echelon rights in life, so it's hard to image a place where human life and human freedom are meaningless concepts, especially for five year old children. Let's try to use some of our luxuries to be socially responsible with both our product consumption and our diplomacy. There is no good reason why it can't stop faster than it began. At the same time we need to keep in mind the underlying causes when we fight this sort of thing. Child slavery is one of those symptoms of deeper problems; it manifests itself wherever poverty and political apathy or corruption festers. Any changes we can help to enact are doomed to be somewhat cosmetic as long as sixty percent of the world lives below the poverty line. As long as these deeper causes persist, human rights violations of this kind will occur regardless of our bitching about it.
1 Bauer, Scott. Single mothers protest child care budget cut. Associated Press. May 29, 2002.
2 Mary Cunneen. No logo for sweatshops. The guardian ( London). June 15, 2002.
3 M2 PRESSWIRE. Secretary General calls human trafficking 'one of the greatest human rights violations of today'. August 2, 2002.
5 Lawrence K Altman. By 2010, AIDS May Leave 20 Million African Orphans. The New York Times. July 11, 2002.
6 Ann Scott Tyson. Tough calls in child-soldier encounters. The Christian Science Monitor. June 27, 2002.
7 Sumana Chatterjee. Chocolate makers establish foundation to fight child slavery on cocoa farms. Knight Rider/Tribune News Service. July 2, 2002.