The International Labour Organisation says onemillion children are sold into servitude in Africa, Asia and Latin America every year

Sharon LaFraniere

Sharon LaFraniere

KETE KRACHI, Ghana - Just before 5am, with the sky still dark over Lake Volta, Mark Kwadwo was rousted from his spot on the damp dirt floor. It was time for work.

Shivering in the pre-dawn chill, he helped paddle a canoe a mile out from shore. For five more hours, as his co-workers yanked up a fishing net, inch by inch, Mark bailed water to keep the canoe from becoming swamped.

He had last eaten the day before. His broken wooden paddle was so heavy he could barely lift it. But he raptly followed each command from Kwadwo Takyi, the powerfully built 31-year-old in the back of the canoe who freely deals out beatings.

"I don't like it here," he whispered, out of Takyi's earshot.

Mark Kwadwo is six.

About 12kg, dressed in a pair of blue and red underpants and a Little Mermaid T-shirt, he looks more like an oversized toddler than a boat-hand.

He is too young to understand why he has ended up in this fishing village, a two-day trek from his home.

But the three older boys who work with him know the reason.

Like Mark, they are indentured servants, leased by their parents to Takyi for as little as R160a year.

Until their servitude ends in three or four years, they are as trapped as the fish in their nets, forced to work up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, in a trade that even local adult fishermen call punishing and, at times, dangerous.

Takyi's boys - conscripts in a miniature labour camp, deprived of schooling, basic necessities and freedom - are part of a vast traffic in children that supports West and Central African fisheries, quarries, cocoa and rice plantations and street markets. The girls are domestic servants, bread bakers and prostitutes. The boys are field workers, cart pushers and scavengers in abandoned gem and gold mines.

By no means is the child trafficking trade uniquely African. Children are forced to race camels in the Middle East, weave carpets in India and fill brothels all over the developing world.

The UN's International Labour Organisation estimates that 1,2million children are sold into servitude every year in an illicit trade that generates as much as R80billion yearly.

Studies show they are most vulnerable in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Africa's children, the world's poorest, account for about one-sixth of the trade, according to the organisation.

Data is scarce, but it suggests victimisation of African children on a huge scale.

A 2002 study supervised by the organisation estimated that nearly 12000 trafficked children toiled in the cocoa fields of Ivory Coast alone. The children, who had no relatives in the area, cleared fields with machetes, applied pesticides and sliced open cocoa pods for beans.

In an analysis in February, the UN said child trafficking was growing in West and Central Africa, driven by huge profits and partly controlled by organised networks that transport children both within and between countries.

"We know it is a huge problem throughout Africa," said Pamela Shifman, a UN child protection officer at its New York headquarters.

"A lot of it is visible. You see the kids being exploited. You watch it happen. Somebody brought the kids to the place where they are. Somebody exploited their vulnerability."

Otherwise, she asked: "How did they get there?"

John Miller, the director of the US state department office to monitor and combat trafficking in persons, said the term trafficking failed to convey the brutality of what was occurring.

"A child does not consent," Miller said.

"The loss of choice, the deception, the use of fraud, the keeping of someone at work with little or no pay, the threats if they leave - it is slavery."

Some West African families see it more as a survival strategy. In a region where nearly two-thirds of the population lives on less than R8 a day, the compensation for the temporary loss of a child keeps the rest of the family from going hungry.

Some parents argue that their children are better off learning a trade than starving at home.

Indeed, the notion that children should be in the care of their parents is not a given in much of African society.

Parents frequently hand off children to even distant relatives if it appears they will have a chance at education and more opportunity.

Only in the past six years or so has it become clear how traffickers take advantage of this custom to buy and sell children, sometimes with no more ceremony than a goat deal.

In 2001 35 children, half of them under the age of 15, were discovered aboard a vessel in a Benin port. They said they were being shipped to Gabon to work.

In 2003 Nigerian police rescued 194 malnourished children from stone quarries north of Lagos. At least 13 others had died and been buried near the pits, the police said.

Last year Nigerian police stumbled upon 64 girls, aged 14 and younger, packed inside a refrigerated truck built to haul frozen fish. They had travelled hundreds of kilometres from central Nigeria, the police said, and were destined for work as housemaids in Lagos.

In response to such reports, African nations have passed a raft of legislation against trafficking, adopting or strengthening a dozen laws last year alone.

There were nearly 200 prosecutions of traffickers on the continent last year, four times as many as in 2003, according to the US state department's office that deals with trafficking. - New York Times