In an interview with BBC News in 2007, Arek Anyiel Deng, from Sudan, told how, aged ten, she was seized from her home by Arab militias. Having had her life threatened, she was enslaved and two years later raped by her ‘master’. The Sudanese government has always rejected accusations that slavery is still practised, although admitting that thousands were abducted during the Civil War. The government claimed it was an ancient tradition of hostage-taking by rival ethnic groups.
Despite the existence of various international documents condemning human trafficking, there has been a failure to develop a new dimension to these documents which addresses the issue of global high demand. In Niger, for example, the practice of slavery was criminalised in 2003. However, ABC News reported in 2005 that there were more than 800,000 slaves in Niger - more than 7% of the total population. In the same year, the International Labour Organisation reported that 12.3 million people were enslaved worldwide and pushed for a global agreement to improve laws and raise awareness on forced labour.
Although slavery was banned in Africa in the 1880s, UNICEF published a report in 2004 which estimated that 200,000 children from West and Central Africa are sold into slavery each year, mostly into the domestic, agricultural, and sex industries of wealthier countries, such as Gabon and Nigeria. It was also reported in February 2011 that estimations associated with child trafficking are outdated and have "vastly underestimated the true scope of the abuse".
With a demand-driven global business thriving at the expense of innocent persons who are exploited, it is arguably impossible to cure this scourge. Difficulties include the almost untraceable trivial trading among certain reclusive African societies, and the threatening large-scale transnational commercial opportunities which seem to have almost always found a way to restore human trafficking despite international condemnation based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
There are several factors that feed the hunger of this ruthless industry. Many patriarchal African societies and tribes glorify the status of men, putting them at the top of a social hierarchy. Due to their subordinate positions, women and young girls become vulnerable in their own societies and are exposed to being sold into marriage. Cases like these are rarely publicised in the international media on account of their being a domestic issue concerning remote societies and tribes in Africa.
Often these women and young girls are sold without their consent to places far away from home. Fearing for their own health and lives, they remain silent despite being ill-treated and raped by their "owners". They are further suppressed due to a lack of knowledge and education concerning their basic human rights, and left to feel that their presence in society is merely to serve, since there are limited job opportunities for women. Even if they knew how to, and wished to, fight back against such discrimination, they do not have the opportunity and courage to come forward as they fear for their family’s lives. Ironically, if they did report such incidents, they would most likely be shunned by their parents due to having dishonoured the dignity of the family.
In parts of Africa, there is a belief that due to their 'purity' and 'cleanliness', sexual intercourse with virgins can cure HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Hence, women and young girls are sold to brothels and tagged as ‘virgins’ to draw in customers. This often occurs in neglected rural areas where a high proportion of people live with limited funds. The failure of local governments to stabilise these areas not only allows human trafficking to flourish, but also contributes to widespread criminal acts, including rape and torture.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) suggests that between 700,000 and 2 million women are trafficked across international borders annually. Women and children are often bought from poverty-stricken societies and forced to work in brothels or as agricultural labourers. Due to low prices and economic pressure within families, their lives become disposable, placing them in more danger should they retaliate against their owners.
Domestic violence at home could lead to women and children being trafficked. Abusers often think that violence can solve issues as, in patriarchal families, women are expected to be subordinate and submissive. The exploitation at home could be a cause for women and children to leave their families and live on the streets, only to be found by traffickers who offer empty promises. Sojourners Magazine reported in 2005 that ‘Susannah’ was raped by her stepfather when she was 11-years-old. She ran away but was recruited by traffickers in South Africa, managed by Nigerian organised-crime syndicates. She was introduced to drugs and was repeatedly raped by the gang members.
Internationally, the UDHR underlines the prohibition of slavery. Transnational human trafficking often occurs due to high demand in neighbouring countries that prosper with sex tourism. With a lack of political will and police enforcement to combat this issue, it seems as though local governments have given up or even just do not care enough to right this unfortunate trend. It is, however, unfair to wholly blame governments. Several West African countries have recently formed a network to overcome human trafficking in Africa, though UNFPA criticises the parties for failing to work in concert with each other within the network to achieve a more effective outcome in this ‘high profit, low risk’ industry.
Women and children who are trafficked into another country often face constant vulnerability due to their under-the-radar status in a foreign country. This consequently instils fear as they may face deportation and can only depend on their ‘agents’ for help and medical care. The pressure of working in order to stay alive increases the negative mental effect on women who are normally kept in a constrained area and forced to abide by the rules set by their owners. Due to their ignorance, children are often manipulated and lured into child prostitution. This leaves both mental and physical scars, while they are repeatedly exposed to the risk of sexually transmitted diseases due to poor hygiene regulations in brothels. Once infected with diseases, they are neither cared for nor supported by their traffickers or owners. They are kept in fear and bad living conditions so that they gradually perceive themselves as subordinates. Furthermore, the lack of access to legal redress contributes to the demand for increasing numbers of child prostitutes.
It might seem impossible to rectify the issue of women and children trafficking in African societies with discriminatory cultural practices. International frameworks have provided the laws to condemn human trafficking, but in rural tribes, the failure of local enforcement authorities in containing this problem seems to affect and contribute to the increasing numbers of trafficking victims. Hence, campaigns for the awareness of human trafficking, combined with the power of local authorities, could immensely curtail human trafficking.
Though it seems as though these small scale operations would not affect the transnational industry, such misconceptions must be negated since, as mentioned above, women and children are often taken from rural areas in Africa and trafficked into neighbouring countries. National legislative reforms should clearly define the crime of trafficking and provide proportional penalties, including the liability to compensate the victims. Furthermore, victims of trafficking must be provided with some form of rights and protection, including the right to return to the country where they were trafficked from if their deportation would not present significant security risks.
Trafficking victims are increasing in Africa every year. Countries at both ends of the trade must strive to curb and restrain transnational human trafficking. However, unless women attain equal status to men and are valued without discrimination, such issues will continue to thrive in societies where women and young girls are seen as property, and their economic value is the central significance of their being.