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Safe havens protect children from abuse and exploitation in Benin

© UNICEF Benin/2010
A young girl attends a class at St. Joseph’s Home in Parakou, Benin, a safe haven for child victims of trafficking and forced marriage.

By Shantha Bloeman

PARAKOU, Benin, 24 May 2010 – Sophie, 13, was promised into an arranged marriage by her older brother. When she refused, he physically abused her. “He beat me up and told me he was going to kill me,” Sophie said. She escaped and hid on the outskirts of the village. A policeman found her three days later, tired and scared.

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Sophie was taken to St. Joseph’s Home in Parakou – a safe haven for child victims of trafficking and forced early marriage who have nowhere else to go. The home, here in Benin’s second largest city, is designed to accommodate 30 children but usually has more.

“Most of the time, we have 40 children. Sometimes it can be as many as 70,” explains Sister Ines Germaine Gomis, who helped set up the refuge in 2006.

Children unprotected

Impoverished conditions and traditional cultural practices often combine to force children into situations of abuse and exploitation in Benin.

© UNICEF Benin/2010
Designed to accommodate 30 residents, St. Joseph’s Home in Parakou, Benin sometimes has more than twice that number of young people seeking a safe haven.

Too often, children are particularly unprotected in their own families or extended families. Despite legal efforts to prevent marriage before the age of 18, for instance, it is difficult to enforce this prohibition in rural areas, where many families see the practice as a means of alleviating poverty.

Meanwhile, almost half of all Beninese children aged 5 to 14 are child labourers. “Some work in lime mines. Others are exploited in the markets and small workshops,” says UNICEF’s Chief of Sub-office in Parakou, Bertin Danvide.

Many children go overland into Nigeria looking for work – or are trafficked there. Five teenage boys arrived at St. Joseph’s Home recently, looking shocked and confused. They had been intercepted as a trafficker tried to convince them to cross the border into Nigeria with promises of motorbikes and cash. In fact, he was attempting to entrap the boys into exploitive labour at Nigerian rock quarries.

Following a 2006 UNICEF study of child trafficking, the Government of Benin passed legislation making it illegal to “recruit, transport, transfer, place and host” children under the age of 18 years “for exploitation purposes.” Since then, with the support from UNICEF, awareness of trafficking has been increasing along with co-operation among the police and local and national governments. Still, traffickers are seldom prosecuted.

Rampant abuses

Against this backdrop, safe havens like St. Joseph’s Home are especially critical for Beninese children. Typically, says Sister Gomis, boys stay at St. Joseph’s for about three months. However, she adds, “The girls are often under threat of forced marriage and rape, so we can’t return them to their families.”

© UNICEF video
A girl carries a basket of beads that she sells in the marketplace Parakou, Benin's second largest city.

Sophie, who has been at the home for six months, says she misses her mother. She spends her days learning to read and write, acquiring other new skills and playing games.

Around the city, many teenagers are less protected.

The apprenticeship tradition of ‘vidomegon’ – which means ‘placed child’ in the local fon language – is a common practice here. Once intended to help rural children gain access to education and other opportunities by living with relatives in towns, it has increasingly been used to exploit young people.

The Ministry of Technical and Professional Studies has taken the lead in working with professional associations to clean up their industries and regulate the apprenticeship system. But abuses are rampant. Although the employers provide a small allowance for food and accommodation, the apprentices often become bonded labourers, working long hours with no relief.

Increased awareness

Rose, 14, is one such labourer who works in her uncle’s tailoring shop. She was sent there two years ago from her village 250 km away – partly because there was no school and because her family needed her to learn a skill. As an apprentice, she works long days cutting patterns and embroidering. She lives with her uncle, who also gives her a small allowance for breakfast and lunch.

© UNICEF video
Rose, 14, works as an apprentice in her uncle's tailor shop but has also begun attending an informal UNICEF-supported school.

However, Rose, like Sophie, is benefitting from increased awareness of children’s right to protection and education across Benin. She now attends an informal, UNICEF-supported school run by the non-governmental organization Group for Research and Action in Human Development (GRADH). Classes are held in a community hall four hours a day, five days a week.

If Rose passes the final exam when the three-year course ends, she will have the equivalent of a primary school education.

Opportunity and enforcement

“When I started school, I felt I was forced and thought it was a waste of time,” says Rose. “But now that I have started to read, I realize it is good to go to school.”

Rose’s uncle is supportive of the schooling, even driving her to class on his motorbike. Many other bosses are less accommodating, though. The GRADH social workers who identify working children say it is difficult to convince employers to allow them time for an education – even though the Constitution of Benin provides for compulsory primary education.

For Benin to succeed in better protecting its children, more opportunities for education, along with tougher law enforcement, will be essential.




UNICEF's Shantha Bloeman reports on efforts to protect children from abuse and exploitation in Benin.
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UNICEF's Shantha Bloeman reports on educational opportunities for girls compelled to work in Benin.
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