Contextualizing trafficking in women and children in Africa

Benjamin N. Lawrance, Richard L. Roberts

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingForeword/postscript

15 Scopus citations


THE FALL OF the Berlin Wall, in 1989, and the subsequent unraveling of the Soviet Union catapulted the problem of trafficking in women onto the world stage as impoverished Eastern European women were duped by recruiters into the sex trade and trafficked to Western Europe and throughout the world. But trafficking in women and children has a much longer history, and Eastern Europe was only one part of a much bigger and messier worldwide process of the exploitation of women and children. Africa is a central part of this story but one that has not equally captured the world's attention. Trafficking in women and children is linked to the history of Africa's involvement in the global trade in slaves. But it persists because of demand for unfree women and children both in Africa and abroad. Women and children are trafficked for the sex trade but also for a host of other domestic, agricultural, and commercial purposes. In September 2001 a group of sixty-eight children, between eighteen months and eighteen years old, were rescued from a foundering ship off the coast of Cameroon and returned to Togo.1 In April of the same year, a larger group of children from several West African countries were rescued from a vessel off the Nigerian coast and brought to the headquarters of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Cotonou, Benin.2 Scholars and activists can point to numerous incidents involving the trafficking of children almost every year over the past two decades.3 While various reports by UNICEF and the International Labor Organization (ILO) have previously estimated that as many as two hundred thousand West African children may be bought and sold by professional dealers each year, there is very little reliable data.4 rafficking in women and children affects all countries in Africa. Indeed trafficking in Africa has become such big business that vendors often operate hubs in Europe, North America, and Southeast Asia and feed their human cargo into a much larger international network for trafficking women and children.5 A 2006 report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that "the market for smuggling human beings from Africa to Europe in⋯ transfer fees alone could be on the order of $300 million each year."6 Gail Wannenberg of the South African Institute of International Affairs views human trafficking as the second most lucrative form of organized crime in sub-Saharan Africa, after narcotics.7 This collection of essays is designed to stimulate a conversation between historians, anthropologists, sociologists, legal scholars, practitioners, and activists, who too often work in relative isolation, and thus to enrich our understandings of this historical and contemporary social-justice issue. Women and children have been bartered, pawned, bought, and sold within and beyond Africa for longer than records have existed.8 This collection examines the changing modalities of the traffic in women and children in the aftermath of the "end of slavery" in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the present. The formal end of the slave trade and slavery did not end the demand for servile women and children. Slavery and the many forms of bondage, coercion, and subordination that have operated in Africa in the past are often juxtaposed with the nature of trafficking once slavery and the slave trade were made illegal. Contemporary traffic in women is increasingly conflated with prostitution; and descriptions of child trafficking often merge with critiques of child labor practices. Human trafficking is rapidly emerging as a core human rights issue for the twenty-first century.9 Scholars, human rights activists, and criminologists need to be mindful of the long history of trafficking in order to better assess and confront its contemporary forms. In this collection we are interested in the connections between the legacies of colonial conquest, the legal systems that undergirded domination, and the development of international, regional, and domestic legal instruments to address the persistence of trafficking in women and children. Each of the chapters identifies modes of trafficking of subordinate women or children (both boys and girls) and explores how formal and informal legal regimes and weak states contribute to human trafficking in Africa. Collectively the chapters presented here examine governmental and nongovernmental efforts to end trafficking at the local, subregional, and global levels. Several chapters also examine the pressures exerted by international legal conventions on traf-ficking-dating from the interwar period of the League of Nations and the ILO but continuing in the present day with the United Nations, the US Department of State (USDOS), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and UNICEF, among others. The incidents of 2001 narrated above are frequently characterized as part of a broader "humanitarian crisis" gripping sub-Saharan Africa. 10 But they are also part of a set of deeper historical processes throughout Africa. Crafty entrepreneurs have not suddenly turned to trafficking in women and children, but rather, as Beverly Grier has argued, the trade itself is built on antecedents reaching deep into the precolonial and colonial periods that created a dependence on household labor, child labor, and coercion. 11 Our interests reflect a desire to understand the historical context undergirding the structure and currents in the contemporary traffic of women and children in Africa. Any historical analysis of trafficking in dependent laborers-women and children-into economic conditions not of their choosing must be situated within the wider literature on slavery, the transformations in and decline of slavery, the rise of pawnship and bonding of women and children, and the deeper economic transformations wrought by expanding colonialism and globalization. Indeed, economic transformations during the twentieth century, including the growth of industrial production, actually increased the demand for coerced labor.12 A number of types of trafficking have been identified in Africa, ranging from abduction, placement for sale, transfers of pawns, forced marriages, and bonded placement, to kidnapping of children to become soldiers and sex slaves for armed conflicts.13 Yet it is important to distinguish between the traffic in children and women and what has been referred to variously as "cultural placement" (the placement of subordinates with family members in better social and economic standing and marriages).14 The enslavement of children and women has deep historical roots in and beyond Africa15.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationTrafficking in Slavery's Wake
Subtitle of host publicationLaw and the Experience of Women and Children
PublisherOhio University Press
Number of pages25
ISBN (Print)9780821420027
StatePublished - 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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