On 17 April 2001, at 2 a.m., a Nigerian-registered ship named the Etireno pulled into the Benin port of Cotonou. Thanks to Esther Guluma, UNICEF Representative in Benin, the world had been expecting it for more than a week. The reason for all the interest was the Etireno's cargo: the ship was carrying children trafficked for labour.
Despite the sensation the story caused, this kind of cargo is not as unusual in this part of the world as most of us assume. Poverty in Benin is such that some desperate parents resort to selling their children, who become trafficked to work for little or no compensation or for sexual exploitation.
"The story of those children on the Etireno allowed me to bring to the attention of the world the phenomenon of the trafficking of children," says Ms. Guluma. "I wanted to show the world that they must do something about the suffering of these children – and they must do it fast."
The furore was productive.
"The acknowledgement of the Benin Government in a statement signed jointly with UNICEF Benin, saying that the traffic in children indeed exists, could not have happened without the media pressure," Ms. Guluma says. "The activities of the police Minors Brigade have since been stepped up, with a number of arrests of traffickers made. Also, the charges against those involved with the Etireno serve as a deterrent in some way."
Ms. Guluma's UNICEF career began in Kenya in 1992.
"In my mind Kenya was the safari land," she says. But she soon became familiar with a side of the country that doesn't feature in the tourist brochures: the slums of Nairobi and the appalling conditions of the children who live and work on the street.
"I also quickly learned about the devastation of HIV/AIDS and the ravages of the repeated draughts in the north of the country," Ms. Guluma continues. "My eyes were opened to the suffering of others through dedicated UNICEF staff members who worked with the poor, the sick, the illiterate. It was satisfying to know that the work we were doing was positively changing people's lives."
Her next posting, to Liberia, was also a revelation.
"I learned the meaning of desperation among the displaced," Ms. Guluma says of her time there. "But I also learned how much a rapid response in sending medicine, water, shelter and clothing means in times of tragedy."
For UNICEF, such emergency measures are always only part of the story, and Ms. Guluma was also closely involved with rebuilding and rehabilitation in Liberia. She worked with former child soldiers, developed a trauma-counselling programme, pressed for the acceptance of education in emergencies and designed and implemented a peace education programme.
Esther Guluma is fortunate that her husband, a medical doctor, is able to accompany her as she moves around the world. And she believes that her itinerant way of life has had advantages for her children. "My work has given them a truly one-world culture," she says.