Alarm Sounded Over African Slave Trade

Stephen Mbogo | Correspondent | Thursday, May 8, 2003

Alarm Sounded Over African Slave Trade

Nairobi, Kenya ( - Anti-slavery campaigners are calling on the international community to become more active in confronting incidences of the practice still present in parts of Africa and elsewhere.

Global advocacy group Anti-Slavery International claims that an estimated 27 million people around the world are slaves today.

The problem appears to be worst in parts of Africa, where enslavement can blur into cultural practices.

Anti-Slavery International representative Beth Herzfeld said in an interview here that slavery is growing on the continent because of rising poverty and sporadic civil wars in which children are captured and forced to fight.

Herzfeld is in Kenya to train non-governmental organizations concerned with slavery issues on how to increase awareness among Africans through the media, which she believes have a key role to play in anti-slavery efforts.

She said slavery is prevalent across West African nations, which maintain "some form of traditional slavery," and in Sudan.

Herzfeld gave the example of a tribe in Ghana that practices a family cleansing ritual known as Trokosii, requiring young girls be taken by priests into shrines to work as unpaid laborers to do penance for past or current family transgressions.

The bosses of cocoa plantations in West Africa are notorious for recruiting children as cheap laborers.

Child laborers form the bulk of slaves in Africa, and the organization believes there are more than eight million children in slavery around the world.

"The children work as bonded laborers, recruited for armed conflict, prostitution, pornography and other illegal activities," it says.

To supplement family incomes, children are often forced to become hawkers, plantation workers or domestic workers and are even sometimes taken to work in foreign countries.

In Africa, children have been seized by rebel groups and forced to become armed combatants.

Child soldiers are favored because of their zeal to fight, particularly when under the influence of drugs like marijuana.

Slavery is particularly virulent in Sudan, where militias seize black Christian and animist southerners and sell them to Arab Muslim northerners, who use them as domestic workers or concubines.

The slave trade is carried out against the backdrop of a two-decade-old civil war pitting the Islamist regime in Khartoum against the non-Muslim south.

Slavery also continues in another Islamic country in northern Africa, Mauritania, where it has existed since ancient times.

According to the human rights group Amnesty International, 90,000 blacks in Mauritania still live as "the property" of slaveholders, while at least 300,000 freed slaves continue to serve their former masters due to psychological and economic dependence.

Some Western human rights groups have initiated campaigns to buy freedom for slaves, a practice opposed by other organizations, which argue that merely paying to free slaves perpetuates the trade.

Christian Solidarity International, a Swiss-based organization that has helped free tens of thousands of enslaved Sudanese since 1995, says that, apart from loss of freedom, Sudanese slaves face further abuses, including murder, rape, female genital mutilation, beatings and forcible conversion to Islam.

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