The announcement by the lunatic who claims to lead Boko Haram that he’s going to sell hundreds of captured Nigerian schoolgirls into slavery shocked most of the world. I say “most” because what he’s proposing isn’t in fact unusual. In Nigeria and across the border in Niger, young girls are sold to men who’ve used up their authorised quota of four wives or who simply want slaves to advertise their prestige. A report by Anti-Slavery International and Association Timidria explains: “‘Wahaya’ are girls and women bought and exploited as property by many dignitaries (mostly religious leaders or wealthy men who bear the title ‘Elhadji’). The women are used for free labour and for the sexual gratification of their masters, who assault them at will when they are not with their legitimate wives.”
A wahaya costs $300 to $800, and 43% of the girls interviewed for the report were sold between the age of 9 and 11 years old, 83% before the age of 15. The girls say it is common for the “master” to force sexual relations on them as soon as they reach puberty. They receive no pay, and are never allowed to leave their family home except to work. Many are also forced to wear a heavy brass ankle ring to signify their slave status.
Tabass Aborak for example was sold three times to three different masters over 12 years, the first time when she was just seven years old. “We had to carry out orders from the master and his wives. Night and day were just the same; each moment that passes brought more work. Only speed and skill in carrying out orders allowed us to avoid the master’s punishments, especially if he was angry at us because of the tales his legitimate wives had been telling him. When this happened we’d be called ‘chegiya’, which means ‘bastard’, or ‘bouzoua’ – ‘useless slave.’” When the family travelled to visit relatives, Tabass followed the horses on foot, carrying the children on her back.
West Africa isn’t the only place where slavery still exists. The 2013 Global Slavery Index estimates that 29.8 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking, forced labour, slavery or slavery-like practices (debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, sale or exploitation of children, including in armed conflict). Over three-quarters of the slaves live in just ten countries, mainly in Asia and Africa (in descending order: India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, DRC, Myanmar, Bangladesh) but it’s a problem everywhere – nearly 2% of those 29.8 million are in Europe for example.
According to the FBI, an estimated 293,000 American youths are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. The children generally come from homes where they have been abused or from families who have abandoned them. The girls first become victims of prostitution at age 12 to 14 on average, while for boys and transgender youth, it’s at age 11 and 13 on average.
The modern slave trade takes advantage of the increased mobility, cheaper travel and the ease of organising international networks that technology and globalisation make possible. It is reinforced by economic misery and absence or removal of social protection, and the illusions engendered by images of a better life elsewhere. How can it be fought?
The “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons” is the leading international instrument. It goes beyond trafficking for forced prostitution and takes into account forced domestic work and commercial marriage. It recommends that governments allow victims to remain in the destination country, temporarily or permanently, ensure their safety and protect their privacy and identity. It also recommends that governments establish legal measures to award victims compensation. The authorities can help victims by protecting them even if they are not prepared to help the investigation of trafficking networks, and they can help migrant victims by not deporting them back to the country they were trafficked from.
The OECD is trying to play a part too. In 2001 already, Trends in International Migration warned that “Organised prostitution networks and illicit immigration rackets are at the root of a modern form of slavery, affecting women in particular. International measures of co-operation need to be stepped up to counter and prevent such exploitation.” However, every study into trafficking (of people, drugs, arms or anything else) states how hard it is to evaluate the scale of the problem. The OECD Task Force on Charting Illicit Trade (TF-CIT) was set up to “co-ordinate international expertise in the quantification and mapping of illicit markets”. This year the TF-CIT is focusing on three areas: mapping the economic activities of transnational criminal networks; examining the conditions and policies that encourage or inhibit different sectors of illegal trades, whether at the level of production, transit or consumption; and developing visualisation tools to help decision makers better target prevention and mitigation efforts.
In the meantime, here’s how one of the slave owners interviewed by Timidria sees things: “To be honest, because I had bought them, I strongly felt that they were slaves that I had paid for and that it was their duty to obey my orders under all circumstances. They are always visible because they are always busy, while my legal wives are housed at the back of my compound and are not accessible to just anyone, as our religion prescribes. No one is surprised by this, and everyone was happy with their situation.”