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Child sex slavery booms

By ED O'LOUGHLIN, Herald Correspondent in Johannesburg, Sydney Morning Herald, 09/09/2000


Inadequate laws, collapsing families and HIV/AIDS have combined to make South Africa one of the world's worst centres for child abuse and child sex slavery, an international conference in Durban heard this week.

A number of activists speaking at the 13th International Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect told delegates how children as young as four were being traded as sex slaves or prostitutes, often changing hands in what amounted to latter-day slave markets.

According to a report from a Cape Town children's organisation, Molo Songololo (Xhosa slang for "hello luck"), many of the children are smuggled in from other African states while some are known to come from eastern Europe and Thailand. Many others are South African children orphaned by AIDS, while some are sold into slavery by members of their own families.

Ms Bernadette van Vuuren, of Molo Songololo, told the conference that children as young as eight were being smuggled in from Mozambique and sold to South Africans for between 300 and 500 rand a child ($75 to $125).

Leading members of society, including politicians, police and senior professionals were involved in the trade as customers and suppliers.

There was also evidence of growing "sex tourism" by people taking advantage of weak legislation, poor law enforcement and the cheap and abundant supply of vulnerable children.

According to Ms Van Vuuren, international crime syndicates based in Nigeria, China, Israel and Russia have become involved in the South African trade. The United Nations estimates that up to 4million people are traded as slaves each year, the bulk of them children.

The South African organisation Childline told the conference that children as young as eight were being abducted from parts of Durban's rural hinterland and taken to the city. Chained up in shacks, they were eventually sold on to adults.

According to Ms Jacqueline Loffell, of the Johannesburg Child Welfare Society, more than 40,000 cases of child abuse were recorded by police in South Africa last year.

This means that, according to official figures, two children were being raped every hour. The real figure was likely to be even higher, she said, since the police figures do not include the rape of boys.

Experts agree that southern Africa's epidemic of HIV/AIDS is playing a large role in the growing wave of child prostitution, rape and slavery. With up to one adult South African in five carrying the AIDS virus, thousands of newly orphaned children are being abandoned each year - the UN estimates that the total number of AIDS orphans in the country could be as high as 5million by the year 2010.

Many are forced to trade sex for survival.

According to Childline's director, Ms Joan van Niekerk, demand for its welfare services is in turn boosted by a popular superstition that AIDS can be cured by sleeping with a virgin or with a child. "We have definitely come across children whose HIV status can be related to this belief," she told the conference.

Other adults choose to have sex with children because they believe it is less likely that they will already be infected with HIV/AIDS. It is usually the children who become infected as a result.

Ms Van Niekerk said her organisation had encountered children as young as two who had contracted HIV through abuse. She gave the example of one three-year-old boy who contracted HIV during prolonged sexual abuse by a 17-year-old female child minder. No charges could be brought because of gaps in the law.

For many orphaned or abducted children sexual abuse can come hand in hand with slave labour.

Ms Dudu Dlamini, a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand, told the conference that more than 200,000 children as young as eight were working as labourers on South African farms alone, often for no more than food or lodging.

Those who are paid usually receive only about R12 a day for performing the same work as adults.

Most of the children are refugees or illegal immigrants or are themselves the children of agricultural wage slaves. Few are provided with basic education or welfare and their living conditions are often appalling.

According to Ms Dlamini, the system often forces young girls to give themselves as "wives" to older men, or else face expulsion from the farm.

She had spoken to one pregnant 12-year-old who had been forced to work 10 hours a day and then to cook and care for her "husband".

More than 1,000 delegates from more than 60 countries came to share information about ways to combat child abuse, with many calling for tighter laws to prevent and punish the international trade in child labour and sex.

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