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The XVII International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2008)
  
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The Sad Tale of Child Trafficking in Togo

An Interview With Alice Behrendt

August 5, 2008

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Hello, my name is Ms. Alice Behrendt from Plan West Africa. I'm a project manager for psychosocial support interventions for vulnerable children.

We have conducted an almost two-year study covering five countries in West Africa. These were Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Togo and Cameroon. In Togo, we are working in areas of high prevalence of child trafficking. A lot of children are trafficked by intermediaries to Nigeria, to Benin, and exploited for house domestic labor or working in markets or restaurants.

Alice Behrendt
Alice Behrendt
For us, this work is really important because in West Africa we are not reeling under an orphan crisis like some countries in East Africa. Our context is different. When we work with children affected by AIDS, we have to look at those that are more vulnerable to the disease because of their living situations.

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During our work with trafficked girls in Togo, we found out that the incidence of rape among the girls is very, very high. Very often they are abused sexually at a very young age, starting at nine or 11, because they are leaving their houses by themselves with an intermediary and are handed over to their new mistresses. Very often they are sexually abused or raped by the sons of the mistress or the husband or other family relatives. Often they work on market situations where they are really not protected, and they get abused by clients.

We also felt that it's very important to draw attention to this issue because in Togo, up to now in the areas where we work, there has been very little treatment coverage and there's absolutely no NGO [non-governmental organization] supporting trafficked girls returning to their villages. A lot of them are HIV positive or have other STIs [sexually transmitted infections] that make them vulnerable to HIV infection.

As they get abused at a very young age, we found out that they're also very likely to have a sexually modified behavior. Even when they get back to their village and they haven't been infected yet, they're very likely to get infected because they are likely to engage in transactional sex in order to continue surviving.

This is the message we're trying to promote. Our advocacy here is really to put away the focus on the orphans only, and to work with children that are exposed to high HIV infection risk because of their living situations. The trafficked girls in Togo are one of these groups. Other high-risk groups in West Africa are: former girl-child soldiers in Liberia and Sierra Leone; girl war orphans, because they have very little community support; or children that have come back from the war with kids that are not accepted by the community. The only way they can survive is through prostitution.

We feel that there are a lot of particular groups in West Africa that need more support, but we are still focusing -- trying to focus -- on AIDS orphans, and we are completely missing the point.

Do we know how many girls are trafficked in this area? Are there any numbers?

It's very difficult because there is a law against child trafficking in Togo and it's really taking place clandestinely, so we don't have numbers. There have been studies and there are estimations, but they are not reliable at all.

All we know is that, in our project areas, the children are disappearing out of school because they're being trafficked. This is how we came in touch with the problem. Very often, all of a sudden, out of a class of 30 children, there are 15 missing. It is a huge issue, especially since we have some villages that are focal points for trafficking, where children are gathered before they are brought over the border.

Although we don't have numbers, like 20,000 or 12,000, we know from our educational project that a significant number of children are disappearing during the school year and are never coming back, or are coming back severely harmed or not in a very good physical and emotional state.

Do they call it child trafficking there, or do they just call it a norm -- little kids getting employed as "housemaids"? Is there a part of the culture that says, "They need the money, we need someone to wash the dishes, what's the problem"?

At the community level, they wouldn't call it child trafficking. They know that we call it that, because there has been a dissemination of the law. Actually, what we see in Togo is a transition from a cultural tradition to a catalyst for child abuse.

Togo is a very small and narrow country. It is impossible to stay in the country and to survive, so people always travel to Nigeria, to Benin, and they have ethnic group affiliations with these countries. So in former times, children always traveled, but along with their ethnic groups and parents. They were in a protected environment.

Very often what is happening now is that the intermediary is saying, "Listen, I know your parents are in Nigeria. I'm going to bring the child there. They told me they have money to put her in school, so why can't we bring her to Nigeria? She can get a better education there."

But all this is not true. The intermediary is bringing her to a mistress and he is getting the money from the mistress. The child is not even paid directly. It's all getting into the pockets of the intermediary. We feel that it's a really slow transition from a cultural tradition that has now become a catalyst for child abuse.

Togo has a severe economic crisis, so the survival opportunities for families are very low. If you have six children -- for mothers, they have the choice either to sacrifice all or to sacrifice one child. Very often they pick the strongest, to send this child away.

What is your organization trying to do for this group of girls?

Our attention came to this issue due to our educational projects, but we have seen that education does not keep children in Togo because, if you don't eat, education will not feed you. They have to go. We have even seen that a lot of children want to be trafficked, so they can earn money for their school fees and come back and pay them.

We even have children that show this pattern that they go one year to Nigeria, then one year to school, then another year to Nigeria. It is a survival strategy for many children to have education.

What we are trying to do is to raise economic alternatives for families, which is a long-term project, and it is very difficult. We are also trying to set up a project now, as we are getting an idea about the magnitude of the issue -- especially now that we have data on sexual abuse, on domestic violence, and on the number of girls that don't get reintegrated into their society once they return from the countries because they got pregnant. They bring back a bastard, however they call it, instead of the marriage gifts.

What we are trying to do is to offer psychosocial support. We had a pilot project offering and reintegrating psychosocial support to girls and boys returning from child trafficking who had been rejected from the community. The project was offering individual psychosocial support to the children. We also did a lot of collective work with the communities, and sometimes cleansing rituals, so these children would get reintegrated.

We had really amazing situations: When we wanted to accompany the youth for treatment to hospitals, the taxi drivers would refuse to take them to the hospital because they're so stigmatized. People know that they have been raped and they have brought a bastard child home, and this should not be happening.

Communities really ostracize the children up to where they cannot access public health treatment because they cannot even take a taxi, because the taxi drivers are refusing to take them on.

We have worked a lot with traditional leaders and other stakeholders in the communities to help us not to abandon these girls. Very often in West Africa we are facing this problem that the communities take a decision for the best of the community and not for the individual.

Are there other groups working to help these girls, or are you one of the few groups in this area?

In that area we are partnering with local partners, but most organizations work in the capital. In the rural areas where we work there is very, very little coverage. There are just local NGOs. I'm not aware of any international NGO at the present time providing support to these children.

Is there anything that anyone reading to this can do? Is there money that could be donated to help these girls, or anything that anyone could do?

Yes. I think they could get directly in touch. Plan International has Web sites and Plan Togo has a particular Web site for projects on child trafficking. This would be a great help, especially because we're trying to scale up.

In this project, we had only 30 children and this was only those that we had covered in the research. We found them in such bad states that we could not close our eyes, but we know there are many, many others out there. We really want to have constant mobile units available for the children, and to help them, and to mediate in cases of domestic violence, and to give them the psychosocial support they need to have a new start in their communities after the long experience of the trafficking.

What percentage of these girls become HIV positive? Are you looking at that as well?

The problem in Togo and the areas where we work is that there is no treatment available. We cannot really encourage testing because it is very difficult for a person to know that they're positive and that there is no treatment available.

In our projects we did not encourage testing unless the girls really wanted to know it, which is also why it is extremely difficult to accompany the process and not be able to help. In some cases we did facilitate transport to the capital so treatment could be made available, but I think before we do a lot of HIV testing, we need to make sure that we also have treatment available to help these girls. All we know is that, since it's a cross-border area and there are a lot of migrating populations, it is an area of high prevalence for Togo.

Tell me about this picture.

The picture is one of the girls that we assisted after the research project, because she was one of the most difficult cases that we met in the field. She had been in Nigeria for working on a market and she was staying there, supervised by an intermediary in a house, working on a market every day. The intermediary would collect the money. They were allowed to keep some small percentages.

One night she got home from the market and she was kidnapped by a gang of young men and older men. She said it was about seven, but she did not have a very clear memory of it. What happened was that they took her to a house and she was gang raped, but they also did some very bad satanical practices on her. They introduced objects, candles and other things, into her body.

Vaginally?

Yes. Also, they put a burning candle into her body and they put their hand into her vagina and she said, "They took something out of my body and burned it in front of my eyes."

What is the source of this practice? Why would somebody do this?

This is a question I cannot answer, but we know that these practices exist.

Why was she, particularly, victimized? Was it something about her that, for some reason, they thought that she needed something satanic done to her? Or was she just randomly picked?

We assume that she was randomly picked. She told us there were other people in the room with her who also had to undergo these practices, although they did different things to them. She told me she had to watch how other people got peed on and other things. It seemed to be kind of a ritual. They simply kidnap people and do very bad things to them.

There were other women in the room with her?

She said there was one more woman that was kidnapped, and one young boy. It was an extremely traumatizing experience for her and what you see on the picture is that it is like the biggest stone in her life. It's the most difficult experience that she ever had.

It was even worse for her once they released her. They asked her, "Do you have money?" She didn't dare to say no. She said, "Yes, I do have some money at my house." They said, "You have to give it to us, otherwise we have to do the procedure again." She gave them all the money, including the money of all the other girls.

She went home with them.

Yes. Afterwards she got very ill for a long time, so she couldn't work anymore. The intermediary brought her back home and told her father that she stole all the money and that she had to pay it back.

This girl got home to her community with a big debt. She had to pay back an amount of money that's about equivalent to $500, which is impossible for a girl in a rural setting to ever gain. At the same time, she was still severely ill and had severe gynecological complications. When we started working with her, we first got her medical treatment. Then we discovered also that the gang rape made her pregnant.

How many men had raped her?

Seven.

How old was she when this happened?

When it happened she was 16. When she got back home she was four months pregnant. When we interviewed her and when we started the intense work with her, she was already seven months pregnant.

For this girl, before we could actually do the medical treatment, it took a long time for her to tell this. It's not something that you simply speak out about. I think it was a process of six weeks for us to get all this information, and especially what happened to her in that room -- it came back in pieces. Her memory was very scattered. But she could talk about it finally and, although it was very hard for her to look back at this terrible experience, it was important for us so we could facilitate medical treatment and also give her all the support she needed during the pregnancy.

Another support that we provided to this girl was to help her with her financial problems. The problem was that when we started working with her, she was basically only lying in bed all day. People kept coming, putting pressure on the family that they needed to pay the money back. Actually, three weeks before we interviewed her, she tried to commit suicide. When we met her she was lying on her back, still having the aftermath from the agricultural chemical products that she tried to swallow to kill herself. It was really one of the worst cases we had to work with.

Out of the interviewed children we had in Togo -- out of the interviewed girls -- there were about 20 percent that were so severely affected that we really had to provide an immediate support intervention to them afterwards. She was one of the cases that we worked with for a long time.

Is this kind of thing reported to the police? Do the police do anything about it?

The problem is that legal aid is something that we have tried to work with, but it's not something that really works in rural areas in West Africa. There's a traditional law system that is stronger than the modern law system. If you bring such a case to court, it may take four years to get attention. Even after the four years, the judge might not be informed or sensitized about rape and sexual violence towards women. He might say, "Oh, she got a baby and now she's even pregnant again. She probably wanted all of this." So we have had a lot of cases where we tried to work with legal interventions, but we have not had any good experience with that.

What we'd rather try for these children is to build up a protective environment: To reintegrate them into their families, to make the families understand what these children need and to give support to the families, so that they can be of significant assistance to the children.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.


  
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