LOME, Togo – In Togo, thousands of young girls trafficked from villages are living in poverty on the streets of Lome. Many of them have escaped a life of domestic servitude, sex work or other forms of manual labor, after being taken from their homes to neighboring countries such as Nigeria, facilitated by traffickers known as ogas – often older female relatives or family friends.
Those who escape often have no choice but to return to Togo, where they are forced to take work as pineapple sellers or porters in the capital city.
Fourteen-year-old Dede is among them. When she was 10 years old, a friend’s mother persuaded her to travel to the oil state of Odjo in Nigeria. There she was brought to a prostitute, who asked her to become a sex worker. When Dede refused, the prostitute forced her to sell petrol illegally.
“We used to go to the bush in order to steal petrol from the pipelines,” she said. “The place was very dangerous, they can just shoot you dead with a gun – I saw that with my own eyes. I didn’t like this work, but my employer forced me to do it.”
Dede managed to escape from Nigeria and return to Togo. She now works as a pineapple seller and portefaix, or porter, in Lome’s markets. She lives in amaison des portefaix, a shelter for hundreds of porter women, where the risk of disease, abuse, violence and sexual assault runs high.
“I pay for the place to sleep,” Dédé said. “I pay to pee and for the bath. I only have CFA500 ($0.90) left that I can save, sometimes nothing.”
Hanou, another porter, was trafficked to Nigeria when she was nine.
“My parents sent me to Nigeria,” she said. “I was a servant; I cooked rice, bread, yam and beans to sell near the road. [Now] I live in a porter house. I don’t like the place, but I have nowhere else to live.”
There are scant official statistics on trafficking in Togo. The last official government figures are from 2012, citing 2,609 children trafficked from Togo to Nigeria and Benin.
Of these, 49 percent were girls. Some 1,869 children were trafficked inside Togo that same year, of which 67 percent were girls.
But aid agencies say there may be thousands more children trafficked every year. The practice is often an accepted part of life in village communities, driven by poverty.
In 2005, the Togolese government introduced a law criminalizing trafficking, with considerable fines for anyone found taking children. But according to Tcha Berei, an education specialist at development organization Plan International Togo, legal measures alone cannot solve the problem. Plan International works to educate families about the dangers of trafficking in some of the most affected villages.
“The real work exists at the family level,” Berei said. “The law only comes into play at a national level, so traffickers escape the authorities when the families are accomplices.”
Many ogas have been trafficked themselves, lured into continuing the cycle by the prospect of earning money from the girls’ wages. Social workers and some parents believe increasing the economic power of families and changing cultural attitudes are more powerful ways to combat the problem in the long term.
“When you send your child away, it’s because of poverty,” said Djibril, a man whose 13-year-old daughter was trafficked by his own sister. “We’re now aware of child trafficking, whereas before ignorance drove us, and we thought the children could help us.”
The National Catholic Bureau of Togo works with Lomé’s porter girls to educate them about their rights, and offers other support services.
“For a human, these are insupportable conditions,” said Abdoulaye Ilnouawa, one of the organization’s social workers, speaking about the porter houses. “You see lots of children sleeping like sardines. There are all sorts of health risks. It’s a place where there is no respect for human beings. It’s no place for a child.”
Former oga Moussilia Attiyede was trafficked at the age of nine, and later earned around CFA150,000 per year ($260) as an oga. Now she believes the only way to break the cycle of poverty is to ensure there are employment opportunities for young people. She helps educate children about the dangers of trafficking, personally sponsoring places as apprentices in her hairdressing salon.
“I think it’s possible to fight together against child trafficking and talk to the traffickers about it, since I myself was one of them,” she said. “I also talk to children, telling them my story. Now I have three children and I will never allow anybody to take them abroad.”