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In Benin, UNICEF-supported education and child rights programmes offer children a way out of exploitation

By Alex Duval Smith

DJOUGOU, Benin, 3 April 2012 – Kabirou Sayo is only 15 years old, yet his life story could fill a book.

VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Suzanne Beukes reports on UNICEF's efforts to improve education in Benin.  Watch in RealPlayer


“It happened at the end of a school day,” he explained when asked how he came to be a victim of child trafficking. ''I met a man called Baba who traffics in children. He tried to tell me the advantages of leaving for Nigeria.''

Kabirou, then just 12 years old, was eager to leave his home in Bandessar, a tiny village in northern Benin, and Baba bribed him with the promise of a brand new motorcycle and “several luxury goods.”

Kabirou did not know he would be forced to labour for long hours on a farm once he arrived in Nigeria.

Waiting to go home

“After three months, I wanted to come back to my mother and father, but Baba would not bring me,” said Kabirou.

Meanwhile, his father was working to bring him home.

In Djougou, Benin, students from play a UNICEF-distributed board game teaching children about their rights, including their right to education and protection from exploitation.

“There was not much I could do to get the boy back,” said Kabirou's father, Sidi Sayo. “I waited for the man who had taken him, Baba, to return. I spoke to him; I was angry. I called Baba to come before the elders… Baba said he had done wrong and would not do it again,” said Mr. Sayo.

Under pressure from the elders, Baba eventually brought the boy back.

“I spent two years over there,” Kabirou said.

Going back to school

Back in Bandassar, Kabirou asked to go back to school.

School is an important alternative to child labour, and it offers children a long-term path out of poverty. Education is also a right belonging to all children, one guaranteed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most endorsed human rights treaty in the world.

Djougou is one of 18 target communes where UNICEF is working to help the government increase the primary school enrollment and completion rates. But the challenges are manifold, says Abiba Orou-Tokpo, UNICEF Education Project Officer. “The cotton sector is in crisis and production has fallen. When families lack resources, they are forced to establish priorities, and education is not at the top of the list.”

UNICEF is working to improve education completion rates, and is teaching communities the importance of education and child protection.

The problems are not just economic, says Parfait Houssou, the head teacher at Bandessar's primary school. “Many of our schools are short of buildings and equipment. We also suffer from a chronic lack of qualified teachers. The national teacher training college was closed down in 1986 and only recently re-opened. I am quite lucky to have five teachers for six classes. In many schools, children enroll and then sit there, without a teacher. The next year, they just don't come back.”

UNICEF is working to improve education, approaching the challenges from a variety of angles, including establishing partnerships with community and religious leaders; providing furniture and school supplies; and upgrading schools through the provision of latrines and safe drinking water. A special programme also aims to keep girls in school beyond primary school.

Teaching children their rights

UNICEF is also distributing a board game teaching children about their rights. Based on the CRC, the ‘Analyse en boîte’ game uses elements of Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit to help children understand that they have a right to education, to protection from exploitation, and to grow up to be happy and healthy.

In Djougou, pupils in 21 primary schools play the game, and competitions are organized between the top teams. Prizes include pens, copybooks and geometry sets. While judging a play-off at Bandessar Primary School, Deputy Mayor Djibril Amadou commended the initiative. “The game teaches children their rights and prepares them for adult life. You also find that those children in Djougou's schools who have come into contact with the game are better prepared for secondary school.”

Kabirou now attends secondary school, and is grateful for the education he receives. He says he wants to be the Education Minister of Benin when he grows up.

In the meantime, he would like to do some educating of his own. “I would like to tell Baba that if he wants to take people to Nigeria, he should choose grown up villagers, not children,” he said.



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