FOR A FLEETING moment, the issue of child slavery surfaced this month, as West African officials searched for a ship suspected of carrying 180 enslaved children. But once the vessel turned up in Benin with fewer children on board than was thought, the immediacy of the problem faded.
Yet the abhorrent practice of child slavery has not vanished. Today, there are 27 million people enslaved worldwide, according to Kevin Bales, author of the book "Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy." Millions of these are children, says Beth Herzfeld of Anti-Slavery International, a group based in London.
In West and Central Africa, 200,000 children are slaves, according to official UNICEF estimates. However, this number is "probably low," says Nicholas Pron, a UNICEF official in Benin. Boys are usually sold to cotton and cocoa plantations; girls tend to end up as domestic workers and are vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
But child enslavement is not limited to Africa. One form of child slavery is bonded labor, which is extensive in South Asia. In this practice, parents pledge their children's labor as payment or collateral on a debt. But because of high interest rates charged by the lender, the child is unable to work off the debt and the family cannot raise enough money to buy the child back. In many cases, bondage is intergenerational, with children becoming bonded workers when their parents become too old or too weak to work themselves.
There are 15 million bonded child laborers in India alone, according to Human Rights Watch. Indian children do a variety of work, such as weaving carpets, rolling beedi cigarettes and soldering jewelry. As a result, they have health problems, including eyestrain from working long hours and lung ailments from inhaling tobacco dust and chemical fumes.
Many children worldwide are also forced into prostitution -- about 1 million each year, according to UNICEF. In Southeast Asia, the sex industry has grown so quickly in recent years that it has "assumed the dimensions of a commercial sector, one that contributes substantially to employment and national income in the region," according to a 1998 report by the International Labor Organization. There are 60,000 children in the sex industry in the Philippines alone, noted a 1999 human-rights report by the U.S. Department of Labor.
To end child slavery will take a concerted effort. Fighting world poverty is one fundamental step. A child's work is often essential to an entire family's survival, contributing up to a quarter of the household income, according to UNICEF.
If we are serious about ending child slavery, we have to get serious about raising family incomes. Wealthy nations, including the United States, need to cancel Third World debts and enable developing nations to spend more of their budgets on the basic needs of their citizens.
Education is also crucial. Compulsory education laws would keep children in school and away from the workplace. Families often agree to bonded labor because they are told their children will have the opportunity to learn valuable work skills. But with free schooling as an alternative, parents will be less likely to let their children leave home to work.
In India, for example, the state of Kerala has largely eliminated the use of full-time child labor by implementing a universal education system, while the problem persists in other states with comparable or even higher income levels, according to UNICEF.
The United States is lagging in the worldwide effort to end child enslavement. The Bush administration can start to catch up by signing the U.N. Convention on Children's Rights, which protects children from economic exploitation and work that threatens their health or development.
It also calls for free and compulsory primary education. The United States is one of only two U.N. member nations (the other is Somalia) that have not yet ratified the convention.
The United States should also insist that countries ban child enslavement as a condition of receipt for U.S. funds. Under the Clinton administration, the U.S. Bureau of International Labor Affairs, which is part of the Department of Labor, allocated $82 million for the 2001 fiscal year to support international efforts at eliminating child labor. This is a good, if modest, beginning. But it is not nearly enough to free the millions of child slaves.
Let's not wait for another slave ship to surface. We must act immediately to eradicate the blight of child enslavement.
Chen is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an intern with the Progressive Media Project.
© 2001 Contra Costa Newspapers Inc