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Image: DAVID LABRADOR

ALTHOUGH ESCAPED SLAVE GIRLS are often morose and uncommunicative when they arrive at a rehabilitation center in Gabon, they quickly return to high spirits.

Two girls sat in a cloistered convent garden last April and told an inquisitive guest how they had journeyed to Gabon. "We had to do like so," said 11-year-old Soueba of Togo as she kneeled and folded her hands behind her head, "and they beat, beat, beat us. They weren't police, they were bandits, and they caned us." As proof of her own travails, eight-year-old Alice from Benin displayed a back covered with dozens of scars, each thicker than her childish fingers. Recently, with the help of their home countries embassies, these girls were separated from the people who had enslaved them and then taken here to recuperate and return home.

When it comes to slavery, mental bonds are at least as strong as physical force, argues Kevin Bales, a sociologist at the University of Surrey Roehampton in London, in Scientific American [see "The Social Psychology of Modern Slavery," April 2002]. The relatively recent rise and much-anticipated fall of child slavery in Gabon provides a chilling case study in how difficult it can be to extricate a culture from those bonds.

Rise of the Slave Trade

The child-slavery industry of Gabon came into existence only a generation ago. Although estimates vary, Franck Okry of the Gabonese Religious Union, an antislavery organization, says that today there are some 5,000 to 6,000 child slaves in Gabon. Paving the way for the rise of the local slave trade were a pair of cultural and economic factors. First, in that area of West Africa exists a generations-old tradition of relatives or trusted others helping to raise the children of overburdened parents. The tradition "is a cultural fact in my land," explains M. Lassissi Adebo, the ambassador of Benin to Gabon. "If I have enough to eat, I will help my brother out, who has a lot of children." In Europe, a similar practice was called apprenticeship. Known variously among West African peoples as Mbidaan, Trocosi or Vidomegon, the custom served a valuable and healthy function for centuries. The system began to break down, however, when modern transportation allowed adults to take children far from their parents, to areas with high wages.

Per capita income in Gabon is now 10 times as high as it is in Nigeria, Togo or Benin, the main sources of Gabonese child slaves. A huge urban middle class vies with the petroleum and mining industries to attract immigrant labor. Along the way, some of those immigrants realized that they could profit by putting a child to work in Gabon and confiscating his or her wages. In five months, such a child would earn the average annual income of a person in Nigeria, Togo or Benin.

"People leave here and go to Togo," explains Apoudjac Baba, a Togolese schoolteacher and antislavery activist. "They go into the countryside and say, 'We need children to work with us.'"

But they aren't just offering to raise needy children. The slavers offer cash, usually about the equivalent of $10 or $20 dollars down. Says Baba, "They say to the parents, 'At the end of each month, I will send you 10,000 francs [about $13]." That sum, though only about one quarter of what the slaver will keep for himself, is about half the average annual income of a Togolese. In some cases, the slavers deceive the parents about where their child is going or even resort to abduction.

Compounding the problem is broad local acceptance of the notion of child labor. Ambassador Adebo explains: "In other countries, school is free; here it's not. So a person who can't afford school for a child teaches him to be a mechanic. It's a good decision. A trade must be learned, so they [the children] start learning. UNICEF acts as though the children are used for their labor. It's not so."

Growing Awareness

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Image: DAVID LABRADOR

THIS CHILD and others like her are a rich source of revenue for increasingly organized slave-trafficking groups.

Few people took any notice of the Gabonese slave trade until 1992, when sporadic accounts of slavery began appearing in the press. Then in 1998, a regional workshop organized by UNICEF and attended by representatives of 17 nations resolved to look into the situation. The conference began with the premise that the custom of apprenticeship had changed "into an abusive use of cheap and readily available labor, fostering the development of internal and cross-border placement networks which have turned into full-blown child-trafficking activities."

The following years saw the release of several scientific studies that exploded the myth of benign apprenticeship in the Gabonese child-labor market, including studies by the United Nations, Anti-Slavery International, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the U.S. State Department, the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour and the University of Librevilles sociology department.

In a study of 264 Togolese and Beninois children in Libreville, the University of Libreville came to the following conclusions: 61 percent of the children received no pay for their work; 26 percent of them reported being beaten and nearly one quarter of them either had run away, tried to run away or were planning to run away; and 42 percent said that if they managed to escape, they would try to flee the country. All but eight of the 264 children were girls; more than half of them were younger than 15.

Despite the flood of distressing data--and two subsequent conferences in Libreville to discuss the problem--movement toward actual solutions stalled. In a report on human trafficking released in July 2001, the U.S. State Department characterized the situation in Gabon: "The Government does not actively investigate cases of trafficking and has not prosecuted any cases against traffickers. The Government does not support programs aimed at the prevention of trafficking, and has neither a policy nor resources to provide assistance to trafficking victims." Not only did the government not provide assistance to victims of child slavery, it imposed on them what amounts to a fine--a $170 fee paid on repatriation--for being illegal immigrants. Gabonese resistance to the increasingly organized slave trade was restricted to nongovernmental organizations, academics and private individuals.

Break in the Cycle

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Image: DAVID LABRADOR

GIRLS WHO HAVE ESCAPED the slave trade await repatriation in a Gabonese center run by Carmelite nuns that is funded in part by the U.S.

Then something happened to help break the awful cycle. In early April 2001, the world press learned about a ship carrying 250 child slaves from Benin. The ship had been turned away from Libreville and was searching for a port that would accept it. The international press descended on the region, and coverage of the "slave ship" became a prime-time debut for the slavery topic. When the ship finally returned to Benin, there were fewer child slaves than expected, but the humiliation of the nations involved in the slave trade was already complete. A Nigerian newspaper observed bitterly that "the story of a shipload of child slaves fits perfectly into the Western image of Africa as a backward, sub-human continent where cannibalism and slavery thrive." The effect on the slave trade was electrifying.

In the months afterward, bills banning child trafficking and slavery were introduced in the parliaments of Nigeria and Gabon. The government of Benin instituted a free but mandatory certification program for anyone leaving the country with a child under the age of 15 and began a parliamentary investigation--even proposing to send a delegation to Gabon. The Union of Traditional Chiefs of Togo, in conjunction with the Ministry of Social Affairs, resolved to establish watchdog committees and conduct awareness campaigns against child trafficking. The government of Gabon enacted two presidential decrees establishing fines and jail terms for those who coerce children younger than 16 to work under "forced conditions" and authorizing the authorities to take custody of such children and place them in shelters. Most important, on October 27, 2001, the government broke a decade of official silence. The Ministry of Labor--in conjunction with UNICEF and several nongovernmental organizations--launched a four-month publicity campaign. Particularly directed at the child slaves themselves, the campaign aims to let them know that their suffering is not normal, that it is illegal and that they can get help. The campaign uses billboards, pamphlets, flyers, radio and television and is conducted in both French and Yoruba, the lingua franca of West Africa.

Sister Teo Corral, for one, believes that public education can help. "The more talk there is, the more possibility exists that the situation will change. The more general opinion there is," she says "the more people will reflect and stop this practice." Sister Teo and her Carmelite order maintain the rehabilitation center where Alice and Soueba found sanctuary. She says that "the girls know each other, and when they hear about a runaway, they will run away also."

With luck, she is right. Alice and Soueba, for instance, will never be fooled again. As they sat talking in the convent garden, a slaver like the ones they had escaped crossed the lawn and confronted their chaperone, M. Apoudjac Baba. The children grew quiet as the adults faced each other with flashing eyes. After a furious exchange in Cotocoli, one of the languages of Togo, the slave trafficker passed Baba a wad of bills and stalked out. The money, related to the expenses of repatriating her victim, was at that time the only penalty a slaver in Gabon ever had to pay.

Alice and Soueba recognized a slaver in their garden long before their visitor, tensing visibly as soon as she appeared. After she had left, they slowly began to laugh and joke. Finally they abandoned themselves to childish things and sang, happily, into a tape recorder.