By Alhaji Haruna Sani
“I was a fish monger in the ‘How for Do Lorry Park’ in Kenema, when a woman persuaded me to trace her home so she can buy all my fish that worth Le 30,000 (1.6 USSD). On our way, I luckily cross path with my uncle who interrogated me and took me home. He tried to apprehend her but she escaped,” Ansu Koroma explained.
With the consent of his guardian, Ansu Koroma, not his real name, narrated how he barely escaped being trafficked by an unknown woman some three years back.
Ansu who is now 12 started selling in the street of Kenema when he was 8. He was brought to Kenema by his aunt who had lied to his grandmother that opportunities await Ansu in Kenema. When he got to Kenema, it was a different story altogether. Instead of the private school that he was promised, he attended a low class school and had to engage in selling immediately he is off from school. Ansu still hawks in the streets of Kenema.
Street trading by children is a common practice in Sierra Leone. Children who engage in the exercise are mostly those living with their foster parents (men pikin- a child adopted by a foster parent) mostly children from low-level income or extremely poor families.
Children that engage in street trading in Kenema share similar stories; most of them are either adopted by close relatives, or are from extremely poor homes and in some cases, one or both of their biological parents are dead.
Like in other parts of the country, street trading is very common in Kenema district. Children, even during school periods are often seen trading along the streets. On holidays, children jumble in different street vending.
According to the United Nations Organisatioin on Drug and Crime (UNDOC) Human Trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, habouring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit. Men, Women and children of all ages and from all backgrounds can become victims of the crime, which occurs in every region of the world.
With the consent of their guardians, some of the kids who trade in the streets of Kenema and in the ‘How For Do Lorry Park’ narrated their ordeal to this medium.
11-year-old Momoh Konneh, not his real name who lives with his maternal grandparent said he had been selling different kind of items in the township of Kenema for over 3 years.
Konneh confirmed he attends school but engaged in street trading as soon as school is over. “In the beginning, I was finding it extremely difficult, but now I am almost getting used to it,” he explained.
According to the grandmother, she could only take care of Momoh and his 9 siblings out of the proceeds realised from their retail. “I am aware of the risk involved but I have no option than to make them sell in order to cater for their livelihoods and school expenses”.
Mohamed Brima and Hawa Brima, 11 and 12 respectively, also not their real names, live with their aunt who sells ginger in the ‘How For do Lorry Park’ in Kenema. Consequently, the two kids sell ginger too. “Our father is dead and our mother is in the village. We live with our father’s elder sister who takes care of us, but we have to fend for ourselves through the trading that we engage on. If our father had been alive we would not have been going through these difficulties,” the kids narrated.
Children who trade in Kenema are highly likely to be trafficked by either their relatives or criminals who could kidnap them while on streets. According to the June 2017 TOYBOX report, one in four people trafficked are children and that ten million children are trafficked and exploited into forced labour including street trading. There is yet no official report on the percentage of children at risk of being trafficked that engage in street trading
Some of the kids hawking in Kenema have either lost one or both of their biological parents. Such children are brought to the city by their relatives on the pretense of admitting them to improved learning institutions.
Child Trafficking is about taking children out of their protective environment and preying on their vulnerability for purpose of exploitation (UN ILO).
UNODC fifth Global Report on Trafficking in person indicates that 75% of human trafficking victims in West Africa are children.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, children have been trafficked to work on plantations, in mines and quarries, on farms, as vendors in markets and on the streets.
John Sevalie, is Vice Chairman of Drivers Union in Kenema and the Eastern Region at large. He said internal trafficking is very common in Kenema, but awareness is low. He claimed that more female children are engaged in street vending than boys.
“A lot of kids trade here on daily basis. Some of them engage in taking drugs and alcohol while others sometimes sleep in the park. With our intervention, no child sleeps in the park anymore,”
Traders around the lorry park debunk Sevalie’s claim that children no longer sleep in the park but confirmed that the Union sometimes interrogate children and take them to police station.
“Children who sleep at the Lorry Park are at high risk of being trafficked. Just last year two kids mysteriously disappeared and there were no family to follow up on their disappearances.”
Prior to 2022, there was no strong law instituted in the country to charge, prosecute and jail offenders of child trafficking in Sierra Leone. But July of 2022, the Anti-Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Act was successfully passed in parliament.
The new Act offers Sierra Leone’s anti-trafficking actors updated legal tools and fresh motivation to tackle the problem of human trafficking. The act also prohibits Migrant smuggling in all its forms and guaranteed witness protection services. More protection is guaranteed for children who are adopted, in foster care and labour exploitation.
Yet, since the institution of the law, not many have been prosecuted. Presently, only three cases are under prosecution in the Magistrate Court in Kenema.
Cases of alleged trafficking are primarily reported to Family Support Unit (FSU) of the Sierra Leone Police.
Detective Inspector of Police, Charles A.B Luseni is the Line Manager of the Family Support Unit (FSU) in Kenema Police Headquarters, Kenema Division. He informed this medium that community awareness on reporting internal child trafficking is low. He said many people are ignorant about reporting internal trafficking issues of all nature.
He went on to state that in the past two years, they have received less than ten reports. He expressed the need for an awareness raising, adding that even with the 2022 Anti-Trafficking Act, it is difficult to prosecute offenders of child trafficking because most of the offenders are related to the victims, hence parents will decline police investigation to avoid their relatives being prosecuted.
“As it was recently done for sexual offense cases, compromise on trafficking matters should be criminalized as well. We are presently working with World Hope International (WHI) to raise awareness in various communities on issues related to trafficking. But more actors need to come on board to collaborate with us in awareness raising. Trafficking matters needed equal attention as sexual penetration matters,” he asserted.
A March 2022, major child trafficking baseline study conducted in March 2022 by the African Programming and Research Initiative to End Slavery (APRIES) through its- Center on Human Trafficking Research & Outreach (CenHTRO) on Child Trafficking and Child Labour in Eastern Province of Sierra Leone an estimated 33% of children aged 5 to 17 have experienced child trafficking.
According to the 2022 APPRIES report on the prevalence of child trafficking and worst form of labour in the Eastern Region of Sierra Leone, Kenema has 28.8% rate of child labour behind Kono (52.3%), Kailahun (34.7%).
According to the 2021 mid-term Population and Housing Census, Kenema district has an exponential growth in population (772,472 residents) than all other districts in the country. The country’s annual population growth is 2.2% while Kenema District recorded an annual 4.0% population growth- 2015 to 2021.
Blama (Small-Bo chiefdom) is the main entry point from the southern region to the heart of Kenema. The town holds weekly market (Luma), which takes place on Fridays and during such times, children flood the street selling different commodities
Children who sell on the streets are highly exposed to traffickers. Local chief in Blam, Daddy Fofanah informed this medium that traffickers have in the last five years (2018 to date) on different occasions attempted to escape with kids that trade on market days. Not even one of those traffickers was jailed because parents of the victims subbed police efforts to do any further probing.
Muniru Abu is the Chairman of the Commercial Bike Riders Association (BRU) in Blama Town. He said cross border trafficking is not as common as internal trafficking in the chiefdom. He asserted that internal child trafficking is very common in and around the town.
“My younger brother was a victim; he was trafficked from the village by a young businessman who promised to give him the best of education only to recruit him as a shepherd for his livestock in another village. That was how my brother’s future was destroyed,” he narrated.
A lot of children flood the streets of Blama on Fridays (during school session) and nobody seems to care about the dangers posed by such unregulated actions.
Mohamed Sheriff is a popular commercial motorbike rider in Blama town. “I have transported a lot of kids to Blama who are brought by foster parents on a fake promise of taking them to school only to see them actively engage in street trading,” he said. Asked whether he reports such matter to the police, he said no.
Sheriff maintained that children who trade in the streets of Blama are not only prone to being stolen for sexual exploitation or other crimes but are also prone to fatal accidents. He said commercial motorbike riders have in a number of occasions, hit-and-run children that trade in the streets.
Police Constable Abdulai Kallon is the Deputy Line Manager at Blama Police Station, he said following their engagement with the World Hope International they have been patrolling the Chiefdom especially in Blama to educate the masses on the hazard of trafficking in person.
“Some of the children who trade on Fridays sometimes get lost but we reunite them with their families after such cases are reported to us. Offences of child trafficking are numerous, but people are reluctant to complain those issues,” he said.
Children that trade experiences are largely characterized by compliance and acceptance, but also internal resistance due to their place in between conflicting perspectives.
Despite some efforts made by government and Non-governmental organization to curb trafficking in persons, the problem still remain rampant in Sierra Leone and in Kenema District.
This story was sponsored by the Journalism Centre on Global Trafficking (JCOGT) with support from the CeNTHRO at University of Georgia (UGA)