Note: I just saw that this article I wrote, reported from Dar es Salaam in January, had been published here on Global Post this last weekend.
DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Say “child trafficking,” and you’re likely to conjure up images of organized crime and international smuggling rings.
But sexual exploitation of children is often the result of more ordinary pressures: poverty, disease and social disintegration.
In Tanzania, where trafficking of poor girls from rural to urban areas is a serious problem, these are the complex social issues that anti-child trafficking workers are trying to disentangle.
Desperation and families broken by AIDS are often more dangerous enemies than gangsters, says one of the most prominent groups trying to end child exploitation in the country, the Kiota Women Health and Development Organization (Kiwohede).
“The rings of the pimps are not coordinated in this country,” said Justa Mwaituka, Kiwohede’s executive director. That means individual trafficking rackets are relatively easy to break up. The underlying causes, however, appear harder to root out.
Consider Fatuma’s story. A slight Tanzanian girl who looks much younger than her 16 years, Fatuma sat on a battered wooden chair wearing a T-shirt and skirt in a Kiwohede office in Dar es Salaam this January. Through an interpreter, she told her tale.
Three years ago, Fatuma (not her real name) lost both her parents. A poor orphan, she moved from the country to Dar es Salaam to live with an aunt, a small-time trader and single mother who made ends meet selling food on the streets. The aunt already had two boys to feed — and to put through school.
So one day she came to Fatuma. “If a man wants you for sex, just agree, so we can get money for education,” Fatuma recalls her aunt saying.
The girl, just 13, accepted. Before long, she had found a man willing to pay for sex. But sometimes he only gave her $1, so she needed more customers. She started helping her aunt sell cassava on the street, and soon there were always men hanging around her stall.
That was what tipped off an outreach worker in the neighborhood — a girl who was already working with Kiwohede. The girl tried to convince Fatuma to visit the center and find help. It wasn’t easy.
“Kids are resilient, but they are protective of pimps,” Mwaituka explained. And superficially, some victims’ circumstances improve, making an exit more difficult. In Tanzania, a country with a mostly rural population, 96 percent of which lives on less than $2 a day, even a small sum can mean substantial differences in a poor person’s life.
After being trafficked, a girl who had been barefoot in the village might have better clothes and a secondhand pair of shoes, disguising her suffering, Mwaituka said. “But mentally, they are tortured and traumatized.”
Eventually, Fatuma relented and came into the center, where she received counseling, vocational training and remedial education. She recently gained entrance to a top secondary school, which she’ll attend with a scholarship.
“When I heard about it, I cried because of joy,” Fatuma said, cracking a smile.
Many exploited children in Tanzania are unluckier. They end up in cities after traffickers trick their parents into handing them over, promising education or an improved life.
“When they come to the city either they make the girl work or they give her to someone else,” Mwaituka said. Such girls can get disoriented and forget where they came from. Often between 12 and 15 years old, if they are not pushed into sex work, they may be forced to work 16 hours a day without pay. Mwaituka calls it “completely traumatizing.”
Kiwohede estimates it has rehabilitated some 40,000 exploited young people around Tanzania since it was founded in 1998. With its head office on a dusty, rutted road in the working-class Dar es Salaam neighborhood of Buguruni — some other centers throughout the country are also in slums or struggling neighborhoods — the group stays close to the communities it serves.
That’s part of the strategy — Kiwohede says that child exploitation is a problem of communities, not simply criminality.
So in addition to providing education, a safe haven, counseling and voluntary family reunification, Kiwohede has established “community children’s rights committees,” composed of two children, authorities, religious leaders and businesspeople.
Other organizations that work with migrants praise Kiwohede; in 2002 the International Labour Organization contracted the Tanzanian group to write a definitive report on child prostitution in Tanzania. And Mwaituka says that activists have made headway.
But she also allows that there is much work to do. For example, UNICEF says that stopping “users” — men — is crucial to ending exploitation.
In Tanzania, as elsewhere, Mwaituka said, many people don’t see buying sex from a teenager as a serious crime.
“Nobody sees the man as bad in sexuality,” Mwaituka said. “This is the same all over the world.”