UNICEF this year marks the Day of the African Child, 16 June, by supporting the African Union's call to end child trafficking. Here is a look at the situation in the West African nation of Niger.
NIAMEY, Niger, 15 June 2007 - The sight of children toiling in the streets is part of the daily landscape here in Niger's capital. In one of the poorest countries in the world, two-thirds of children under the age of 14 work.
They come from all over the country and sometimes from other countries in the region - especially Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana. Some of these children are trafficked, and many end up in the capital's central bus station. From there, they are hired out for menial tasks such as washing dishes and selling and transporting various wares.
Across the African continent, children are trafficked into prostitution and recruited into armed groups as child soldiers or porters; they provide cheap or even unpaid labour and often work as domestics or beggars.
These children typically are between 7 and 14 years of age. In most cases, they have families - but very poor families.
New skills for former child labourers
Zakika Hamidou, 14, used to work as a maid. Her story is typical of child labourers in Niger. "My aunt came to get me at our village near Loga and she took me away to work here in Niamey," she explains.
Zakika managed to leave domestic work and is now attending a UNICEF-supported training centre operated by the non-governmental organization Action Against the Use of Child Workers (AFETEN). Along with about 50 other girls at the centre, Zakika learns skills such as henna painting and sowing.
"We organize professional training adapted to local realities to address the exploitation of young girls in particular," says the head of the AFETEN training centre, Soumaila Katan. "There is a significant number of girls who leave their villages to their own detriment to work as maids in the city."
Poverty is at the root of the problem: It fuels child labour and trafficking. The exploitation of children deprives them of their right to an education. Once rehabilitated, they are often too old to return to school.
Providing these youths with useful skills and making them aware of their rights helps them improve their lives and enhances their well-being.
Enforcing laws, protecting rights
Much of Niger's trafficking takes place in the north of the country, in the area around Agadez. Internal procedures for law enforcement are lax; traffickers who are caught typically spend just a few weeks in jail. So UNICEF and its partners have been working with the government to reinforce laws protecting children from trafficking, abuse and exploitation.
"Right now UNICEF has a big project against human trafficking, especially [trafficking of] women and children," says UNICEF Niger Child Protection Officer Hassia Issa. "We are also supporting the government to elaborate laws and sign bilateral as well as multilateral agreements within the framework of West Africa."
In addition, UNICEF has been working with the Niger Human Rights Association to train police, border guards and customs agents on identification of trafficking rings, case investigation and victim assistance.
UNICEF is also helping children get off the streets and return to their homes by providing them with special training to ease their reintegration into the community.
Child labour and trafficking expose children to violence and other forms of abuse and deprive them of their fundamental rights. In Africa and around the world, the practice must be stopped to restore children's dignity and to foster their growth and development.