Arouna stands shirtless in a cocoa field in Côte d’Ivoire. The 12-year-old holds a hoe and his ribs are clearly visible under his skin. He says, “I have to get up very early each day to be the first in the field with my younger brother to start clearing (the land). I’m so tired.”
Arouna was born across the border in Burkina Faso. Eight months ago, he was sent to the Ivoirian village of Sassandra to join his father. He thought he would be continuing his studies in Côte d’Ivoire. Instead, he was taken straight to the forest and now works hard every day in the cocoa fields. He is yet to set foot inside a classroom.
A political crisis in 2010-11 killed 3,000 people and displaced half a million in Cote d’Ivoire. But with peace and security returning to the country, many displaced Ivorians are also willing to return — and send their children to work in the cocoa fields.
Maxime M’bra is head of Stop Child Trafficking, a local NGO that fights against child labour. He says many people have migrated from neighbouring countries, including Burkina Faso, in recent years.
Côte d’Ivoire and neighbouring Ghana produce more than 70 per cent of the world’s cocoa. But, because the market price for cocoa beans has fallen sharply, local farmers have increasingly turned to children to work the fields.
There are an estimated 1-1/2 million child labourers in Cote d’Ivoire, according to a joint investigation by UNICEF and the Ivorian government.
Forced child labour is illegal in Côte d’Ivoire. Penalties range from one to five years in jail and between US$800 and US$2,200 in fines. But the law is rarely enforced and prosecutions are almost unheard of.
Since 2013, Côte d’Ivoire has invested an estimated US$40 million to reduce child labour and create a tracking system to identify and investigate at-risk children.
Martin N’Guetta is the national co-ordinator for Operation Akoma, which fights against child trafficking. He says this investment will make little difference unless the culture of legal impunity changes.
Mr. N’Guetta adds: “Prevention and protection cannot eradicate… child labour without vigorous… prosecution and punishment against the perpetrators of trafficking and exploitation.”
In June 2015, an Interpol operation targeted the trafficking and exploitation of children in Côte d’Ivoire. The operation rescued nearly 50 children not far from Arouna’s village. Interpol agents arrested 22 people, mainly parents.
Most of the rescued children were between five and 16 years old. An Interpol official says, “Some of (the victims) had been employed in the fields for more than a year. (They) told authorities they regularly work long hours without receiving pay or education.”
Many children are too afraid to fully describe the conditions in which they work. Aicha is a 10-year-old girl who toils near the cocoa fields where Arouna works. She says, “In the morning, I help each day in the family farms. Then we pick fruit that I must go and sell before dusk to buy oil and salt. This is what I do every day.”
She would never admit to the authorities that her parents were forcing her to work. Aicha says, “I’m too afraid of being taken away and living alone.”
The names of the children in this story were changed to protect them from reprisal. Barza Wire is a service of the Canadian NGO Farm Radio International.