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A second chance at childhood for exploited and vulnerable children in Benin

By Alex Duval Smith

UNICEF’s flagship report, ‘The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’, will launch on 28 February, focusing attention on children in urban areas. One billion children live in urban areas, a number that is growing rapidly. Yet disparities within cities reveal that many lack access to schools, health care and sanitation, despite living alongside these services. This story is part of a series highlighting the needs of these children.

COTONOU, Benin, 24 February 2012 – Bread seller Honorine Noudjèmèdji, 14, zigzags deftly through Dantokpa, one of the biggest markets in Benin's commercial capital. Loaves are piled high on a tray on her head, at customers’ eye-level.

VIDEO: 4 February 2012 - UNICEF correspondent Suzanne Beukes reports on how UNICEF is helping vulnerable children in Benin.  Watch in RealPlayer


Honorine is like millions of children around the world who find themselves surviving in slums and other harsh urban environments. Evidence indicates that urbanization is speeding up, meaning more and more vulnerable children will be growing up in towns and cities, in plain view of health and educational services that they, too often, are unable to access.

Benin – a country with a weak economy and porous borders – sees thousands of children trafficked and many more exploited in labour. Around 600,000 children are believed to be involved in child labour within the country, many of them in urban areas like Cotonou and other cities.

A respite for child labourers

If Honorine sells two full trays in a day, the baker will pay her 600 CFA (US$1.20), which is 10 per cent of the sale price. But lately, Honorine has been selling only one tray a day, skiving off work to learn.

She goes to a nearby centre run by the Salesiane Sisters. Honorine enters and rests her bread tray on a stool, then sits down to study near a blackboard covered in verbs. There, she is learning to read and write, and is picking up useful skills like sewing and beadwork.

“I have never been to school but I would like to,” she says. “I know of children who go to school. I don't know what they do there, but it seems good – a bit like here. Here, I have learnt to read, to sew.”

The classes take place in a simple shipping container – one of three such drop-in havens in Benin supported by UNICEF. Children who work or live on the streets can simply wander in to learn, play or sleep. As UNICEF Child Protection Officer in Benin Mary Chabi said, it is “a second chance to return to childhood.”

© UNICEF video
In Porto Novo, Benin, UNICEF supports the work of organizations like Don Bosco and the Salesiane Sisters, which aim to assist children living on the streets, survivors of abuse and victims of child trafficking.

Children have rights

Child labourers are often deprived of their rights – and many are not aware they have rights in the first place. The drop-in centre aims to change this.

“They do not know that they have a right to go to school, to food, to protection,” said Ms. Chabi. “When they come to the centre, they begin to realize that they are missing a lot, that they have the right to plan their future, that they needn't just be people who are exploited by other people in their lives.”

And parents must be educated about children’s rights as well.

“Many parents also do not know that their children have rights,” Ms. Chabi continued. “They take a child as their property. They do not realize a child needs to learn.”

Outreach worker Claudine Bohissou has known Honorine for two years. “She first came with her older sister, then I did not see her for a while... Some time after that, she was accused of thieving at home and ran here to escape being beaten up by her brothers. Now she comes here most days. But she never stays long because she has to sell bread.”

Ms. Bohissou has tried to convince Honorine to bring her mother to the centre.

''Whenever we can, we speak to the parents, guardians or bosses, and try to convince them of the advantages of a little education or training... But there are disappointments, too. Recently, one girl who had been coming regularly just disappeared from sight. I learnt that she had been sent back to a village for marriage. She was only 12.”

Realizing the importance of education

As Ms. Bohissou prepares for a beadwork class, an angry woman enters the centre. It is Honorine's mother, Jeanette Olègbèyè.

It is the first time Ms. Bohissou has met Honorine's mother, and, judging from Ms. Olègbèyè’s expression, she expects the girl will be marched back into the market with her tray of bread.

But Ms. Olègbèyè's anger dissolves when she is complimented on the beaded necklace and bracelet she is wearing. Honorine had made them for her at the centre.

She acknowledges, “Honorine's behaviour has greatly improved since she started coming here... She is much more careful with her money. She also now can write ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5’ and even further... When I ask her where she learnt those things she says 'at that place I go to'. So I must admit it seems a good thing.”



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