Togo's trafficked ‘Cinderellas’ tell tales of modern slavery

by Jane Labous | @janelabous | Plan International
Tuesday, 31 March 2015 09:36 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It was the promise of school that persuaded Bella, now 16, to accompany her big sister to Togo’s capital, Lomé.

Bella had just turned ten, and her sister swore that the big city would be a fairy tale compared to the poverty of home, where their single mother, a trader of manioc paste, struggled to support the family of seven.

But a few weeks after arriving in Lomé, her sister left Bella with first one ‘boss’, then another.

Bella was put to work like Cinderella, labouring at the household’s domestic work from 5am until past midnight every day.

“I was the one washing the dishes, cleaning the floors, cooking and taking care of the children,” recalls Bella.

“The boss used to beat me; she would make me kneel down and whip me on my back. I was 11 at that time.”

After four years, Bella escaped via a friend of her sister who, sympathising, agreed to take her back to the village.

“When I came back, I said to myself that I wouldn’t suffer again,” says the teenager, who is now training as a hairdresser in a salon near her home. “But when I think of what happened in Lomé, I become very sad.”

Every year in Togo, thousands of young girls like Bella are trafficked from rural villages to work as unpaid domestic servants in the city.

Girls as young as seven are taken to Lomé or across the border into neighbouring Nigeria or Benin by traffickers known as ogas, who are more often than not close female relatives such as aunts or older sisters.

Most girls go willingly, lured by promises of schooling, a holiday, a better life and most of all – money.

But when they arrive, the girls are abandoned by the ogas and put to work in households, where they perform laborious domestic work for their bosses such as washing, cooking, cleaning and caring for children.

Meanwhile, their wages are taken by the‘ogas’ as an income. In a year, ogas can earn CFA150,000 (approximately £168) if they have a number of girls working for them.

“Trafficking of children is not a phenomenon where children are taken by people who are external to the community,” says Tcha Berei, an Education Specialist at Plan Togo.

“It thrives on the complicity of parents and the unscrupulous people who facilitate this displacement of children – people whom we call ogas.”

Ogas take the children from their communities to places where they will work and earn money. They manage the child’s life in the place where they are taken.

“It’s a situation where the children decide to leave their families, and go on an adventure to make their lives better. But when the child leaves and goes to another town, or to another country, she doesn’t decide alone – it’s always facilitated by adults from the same community and in many cases -it never surprises us - with the agreement of the parents.”

All the girls miss out on school, and many experience physical violence, are not fed, or are raped and abused by men in the household.

In general, girls in Togo are trafficked by women who find them work in the cities, while boys are trafficked by male ogas.

“Work for girls is domestic work, while boys are put to work mainly in fields or in small factories where physical force is needed,” explains Berei.

“That’s why women facilitate work for girls, and men facilitate work for boys.”

Last year Esther, now 14, was trafficked from her sleepy village in the north of the country to Lomé, after being persuaded by an aunt that she was being taken on holiday.

There, her new female boss hit and starved her, refusing to let her go home.

“I washed the clothes, the plates and looked after the baby,” said Esther. “I used to cry, and I dreamt of returning to the village.”

Esther was eventually rescued and put back in school by staff from Plan Togo’s anti-trafficking project.

The project works in the central Sotouboua and Sokodé regions of Togo to reintegrate trafficked children back into school, and provide vocational training for those teenagers who are too old to return to the classroom.

“The aim of the project is to confront child trafficking through education and professional training,” says Ouro Gbeleou, Project Manager of Plan Togo’s Anti-Trafficking Project.

“The project has the specific aim of putting children who are vulnerable to or have been victims of trafficking back in school, or to help them learn a trade.”

Project leaders like Gbeleou are even working with traffickers themselves to mediate change. Former oga Moussilia Attiyédé now works with Plan in the community of Bago to increase awareness around the risks of trafficking.

Attiyédé says she became an oga because she herself was trafficked at the age of nine. The only way to break this cycle, she believes, is to offer other employment opportunities for young women.

“The children I trafficked were aged between 12 and 18 - the first time I went, the youngest child was 15, and the second time, the youngest child was 12 years old.

“What made me stop this job is that I took a child abroad and she felt seriously ill. Fortunately she didn’t die, because I would bear her death on my conscience if she had died. I also realised that my friends who are working here in the village were living a better life than me.

“I opened my own work shop in 2002 with one sewing machine, and now I have six girl apprentices. I have also trained four girls who were sent to me by Plan Togo, and I helped them pass their final tailoring exams.”

Community members say poverty is the major factor driving trafficking, as well as deeply engrained social beliefs.

Plan believes increasing families’ earning power, increasing education and apprenticeship opportunities, and changing attitudes will help combat the problem in the long term.

Berei laughs when asked how long it will take to beat child trafficking.

“That’s a bit like asking how long it would take to eat during our lifetimes!

'Poverty is like a hunger, and as long as this hunger is felt, and the economic power of families does not allow them to meet this hunger, the idea of children going on these journeys will always happen.

“In Togo we also have a society where the rights of the child are not sufficiently integrated into our culture, and where the weight of tradition is a constant pressure on everyday life.

“These girls cannot say no, because that will be interpreted as the child rebelling against parental authority. Plan is raising awareness about the rights of the child, and we'd like to reach the situation where a parent, whatever their level, could recognise the rights of their child.”

In the peaceful tin-roofed hair salon where she now works, Bella is putting a lady’s hair into curlers.

“Yes,” she says, looking up with a solemn expression. “Sometimes when I think of what happened in Lomé, I become very sad.”

Then she smiles, and pats her customer’s head proudly. “But now I’m now learning a trade, I think I can build my future. I will open a shop and make money; take care of myself.”    

Jane Labous is a press officer at Plan International, an international development organisation that promotes and protects the rights of children