LOME, 4 August (IRIN) - Togo's parliament this week unanimously passed a law slapping tough punishment on child traffickers, their accomplices and in some cases the parents of victims.
The move comes some two months after the US State Department warned Togo and a handful of other countries to take action against trafficking or face sanctions.
At present there are no legal means to punish traffickers in Togo, according to aid workers in the country.
Children's rights advocates are praising the legislation, passed on Wednesday, but caution it is only the first step in a long process to protect the country's children.
Under the law, which has yet to be promulgated, child traffickers and their collaborators could face up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to 10 million CFA francs (US $18,875).
Up to now anyone found to be trafficking children is simply let go after one or two days in detention, Delali Kpeglo, child rights advisor with Plan International in Togo, explained.
The child protection law has been a long time in coming. Rights groups say international pressure pushed the Togolese government to finally take action.
The US State Department last month named Togo as one of 14 countries - the only one in West Africa - that are not doing enough to halt international child trafficking. The State Department gave these "worst offenders" 90 days to take action against the scourge or face sanctions.
The Togolese law would punish all those recruiting, transporting, lodging and using children, as well as parents or caretakers who collaborate with traffickers.
"Now that there is a law, they all will be punished," Plan's Kpeglo said by telephone from the capital, Lome.
The law says parents or caretakers travelling out of the country with children must show that they have the legal authorisation to do so.
Children's rights groups said the law is a critical step toward improving conditions for children in the country. But much remains to be done to put the law into practice.
"Children [victims of trafficking] are mistreated and violated. They end up with psychological problems," Kpeglo said. "This law will allow us to protect the childhood of our children."
An official with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Lome said getting the law on the books is only the beginning of a long haul.
Penal codes must be revised, several ministries - including social affairs, interior, foreign affairs and justice - must coordinate and people must be trained, the UNICEF staffer said. "There is a lot of work to be done."
Togo's Justice Minister Tchessa Abi said to government colleagues after the law was passed, "Don't think that the fight is over. It has only just begun and our commitment must continue."
Human Rights Watch defines child trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receiving of a child for sexual or labour exploitation, forced labour or slavery.
Child exploitation is a growing problem in West Africa, where poverty can drive families to sell their children to strangers. The practice is an abuse of the custom by which families place a child with a relative to work or learn a trade, rights experts explain.
About 3,000 children a year are intercepted at Togo's borders as they are being transported into neighbouring countries to work, according to the Togolese Ministry of Social Affairs.
A government statement read over the radio this week pointed to the problem of prostitution as one of the most troublesome elements of child exploitation.
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