"Globally, an estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked each year, within countries as well as across borders," said UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman. "Children are trafficked into prostitution, into armed groups to serve as child soldiers, to provide cheap or unpaid labour, and to work as house servants or beggars."
Trafficking exposes children to violence, sexual abuse, severe neglect, and HIV infection, she pointed out, while violating children's right to be protected, to grow up in a family environment and to have access to education.
UNICEF called for punishing the perpetrators of human trafficking, which generates an estimated $9.5 billion a year and fuels other criminal activities.
Concerted action is also needed to tackle the social and economic factors behind this crime, which has its roots in poverty, UNICEF said. Children are frequently lured with promises of good jobs in other countries or in cities in their own countries. In reality they are "traded like commodities" to work in brutal conditions and many children face beatings and other forms of physical and sexual abuse from their employers.
Also marking the Day, Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, recalled meeting a 13-year old Congolese girl who was abducted on her way to school, gang raped, subject to forced nudity, and used as a sexual slave by a dissident armed group in Eastern Congo for more then two years.
The victim, who became pregnant during her ordeal, is now receiving schooling while her baby receives childcare. But Ms. Coomaraswamy said the girl has no response when asked about her future. "Her silent answer and her whole story is the most heartbreaking one that I have ever heard," said the Special Representative.
Citing another example of the trauma endured by African children in conflict, the Special Representative described the ordeal of a former child soldier in Sierra Leone who left his community because he felt "haunted by bad spirits" and was re-recruited to fight for rebels in Liberia before working as a mercenary in Côte d'Ivoire. He said he left Sierra Leone because there is peace there now, explaining: "What I really know how to do well is fight and be a soldier."
Ms. Coomaraswamy pointed out that courts are now trying Charles Taylor, the former President of Sierra Leone, and Congolese fighter Thomas Lubana. The battle against impunity, she said, is the key to end grave violations against children.
"Children deserve protection. Violations of children's rights must stop, impunity must end," she said.
The Day of the African Child is celebrated on 16 June in recognition of the day when, in 1976, thousands of Black schoolchildren had marched in the streets of Soweto to claim their right to a better education, sparking a two-week revolt in which more than 100 people were killed and thousands were wounded.