Aichatou's story: New skills protect a former street vendor from exploitation in Niger

By Sandra Bisin

The World Congress III against the Sexual Exploitation of Children, set for 25-28 November 2008 in Brazil, aims to promote international cooperation for more effective action on sexual exploitation. Here is one in a series of related stories.

MARADI, Niger, 17 November 2008 - A respected tailor within her community, Aichatou has a life today that is a far cry from the one she was living just over two years ago. Back then, she worked as a street vendor in the busy town of Maradi, eastern Niger, on the border with Nigeria.

"I had been working in the streets of Maradi, selling sweet potatoes and sugar cane, since I was five or six years old," she recalls. "In our Muslim society, girls are not supposed to wander around the streets. Men would look at me as if I were a prostitute, and I felt very ill-at-ease and shameful."

Working at home

At that time, Aichatou was working up to 12 hours a day to earn just 60 cents or so.

Now she spends her days making colourful traditional dresses on her brand new sewing machine, which has become the centrepiece of the wooden hut she shares with her parents and her eight brothers and sisters.

Thus far, business has been good. "These days, I have a lot of customers," she says proudly.

Vulnerable to exploitation

Niger is one of the world's poorest nations, with few resources available to meet basic needs. Children and young people under the age of 15 account for more than half of the country's population. Nearly 40 per cent of children between the ages of 5 and 14 are involved in some form of labour.

The percentage of female child labourers is also high; many girls engage in street trading from an early age. In the streets, they are exposed to harassment and sexual abuse, and most lack the knowledge and means to protect themselves from AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases.

They are also extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Many turn to prostitution to earn the money that they are expected to bring home each day.

'My dream has come true'

With help from UNICEF, Aichatou was able to leave street trading behind and start her own tailoring business. Two years ago, along with 24 other young girls, she joined a UNICEF-supported training programme conducted by the Ministry for Women's Empowerment and Child Protection. For a year, she was trained in tailoring, sewing, hand-knitting and hooking.

"By supporting training programmes for former street vendors, UNICEF's objective is not only to provide them with professional skills, but also with non-formal education that will help them stay away from the dangers of the streets, develop their own income-generating activities and earn a good living," says UNICEF Representative in Niger Akhil Iyer.

At the end of the training, each of the girls was given a sewing machine, a table, a chair and fabric - everything needed to start a small business.

Aichatou is now earning around $11 per week. "This is so much more than what I was earning as a street vendor," she says. "I would never have imagined I could reach this position. Today, I have a wonderful job and I can support my family. My dream has come true."