Cameroon Steps Up Fight Against Child Labor, Trafficking

Across Cameroon, individuals, the government and nongovernmental organizations are assisting abused workers and bringing to justice violators of the nation’s 2005 child trafficking law.

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Cameroon Steps Up Fight Against Child Labor, Trafficking

An 8-year-old girl washes a pile of dresses in her aunt’s house in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s Northwest region.

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BAMENDA, CAMEROON – When Annette Beri was 13, her parents arranged to have her work as a nanny for a couple in Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital.

Beri and her parents, who lived in a little village in the Donga-Mantung division of Cameroon’s Northwest region, 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Douala, saw the role as an extraordinary opportunity.

“I was happy to go to the city,” she says. “So too were my parents. My parents and I had never left the village – never. So they were happy that I would be the one to make them visit the township someday.”

Beri’s parents, who could not afford to send her to secondary school after she completed seventh grade, struck the deal with a man from their tribe whose wife was pregnant.

Under the agreement, Beri was to work for the family for two years, solely as a nanny. Her employers would then send her to learn a trade of her choice.

Things did not work out that way. Beri worked for the family for five years and took on several demanding roles.

Besides doing domestic work, she was required to hawk foodstuffs. Such traders move around selling goods they transport on their heads or in handcarts.

Ultimately Beri became the family’s home manager, a role that includes baby-sitting, managing the kitchen, and buying and selling foodstuffs.

“During my fourth and fifth year, I worked like a jackass,” she says.

But hard work was the least of her problems, Beri says.

Whenever the woman of the house found the baby crying, she denied Beri food, she says. She also deprived her of food whenever she came home late from the market where she hawked food.

During her first two years with the family, Beri says she was also beaten regularly. She says her bosses assaulted her with their hands or a gas pipe.

The beatings tapered off over the years but still occurred every three months or so, Beri says.

“Many times when my mistress comes home when the baby is crying, she makes sure she beats me up too,” she says through tears. “For five years, they treated me like a real slave.”

Beri’s parents never knew about the abuse, she says. They were too poor to visit her. And because she was never paid for her work, she was not able to visit them.

Beri begged her employer to honor his side of the agreement by sending her to train as a tailor, her dream job, she says.

“For five years, my employer did not pay me a franc,” she says. “They were not even ready to send me to learn a trade, as the agreement stated.”

Frustrated and angry, Beri finally packed her belongings and left.

It has been five years since she left, and her employers have yet to settle the debt, she says.

Since Beri, now 22, already spent her own money on the training the couple had promised to fund, she thinks the couple should settle the debt in cash.

“I cannot be suffering when I have my hard-earned money that is buried somewhere,” Beri says.

In Cameroon, many girls and young women who enter domestic service say their employers mistreat them. What’s more, many of these laborers have been sold, tricked or coerced into bondage, local advocates say. In response to growing demand for action, nongovernmental organizations are fighting for the rights of trafficked domestic servants and working to ensure that employers who abuse their employees are punished under a law enacted in 2005.

That law defines child trafficking as “the act of moving or helping to move a child within or outside Cameroon with a view to directly or indirectly reaping any financial or material benefit therefrom.” The crime is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and fines ranging from 50,000 Central African francs ($100) to 10 million francs ($20,000). Higher sentences and fines are for violators who traffic children under 15.

Cordelia Ndagha, the Mezam divisional delegate for the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family, says the trafficking of children for domestic work still occurs in Cameroon but is becoming less common. She says she does not have statistics to reflect the decrease because she is new in her role.

A 2011 survey by the Center for Human Rights and Peace Advocacy, a Bamenda-based independent organization that promotes the rights of Cameroonians, found that the Northwest region has the highest incidence of child trafficking in the country. And Donga-Mantung, where Beri grew up, is the biggest supplier of trafficked children among the seven divisions of the Northwest region.

This could be because the Northwest region has a large population – more than 1.8 million people as of the 2010 census – and most of the residents are poor, Ndagha says.

Most children trafficked in Cameroon are still in primary school or have just completed primary school, says Ndagha, the officer responsible for all women and family issues in the division. She also mediates in cases of domestic conflict and abuse.

“Female children have been victims of child trafficking and domestic work in Cameroon,” Ndagha says. “This has led to abuse of the rights of these children.”

Trafficked children are commonly taken from villages to big cities, where they are put to work as domestic servants, she says. Agreements typically call for employers to send children to learn a trade after they have worked for at least two years.

But employers often break these agreements, leaving the children with no form of compensation and often further impoverished.

This poverty fuels child trafficking in Cameroon, she says.

Poor rural parents are unable to send their children to school, Ndagha says. Instead, they send them to cities to work as domestic servants. In some cases, a servant’s wages are paid directly to the child’s parents.

In addition to withholding pay and committing physical abuse, there is also evidence of employers sexually abusing their servants.

At age 14, Judith Chi was trafficked from her village in Bui division, in the Northwest region, to work as a domestic servant for a family in Yaoundé, the nation’s capital.

Her parents arranged for Chi to work for a family there. Chi says she quickly became more than a servant.

“I worked during the day like a machine and during the night like a sex assistant,” she says. “At the beginning, I didn’t understand what was really happening because I was only 14.”

Chi is reluctant to talk about the experience, which she says changed her life forever.

When she told her employer’s wife about the sexual abuse, the wife beat her and locked her in a room for a full day without food, water or access to a toilet, she says.

The wife, whom Chi declined to name out of fear of conflict, accused her of making up stories and trying to spoil her marriage.

“She called me a dirty-looking girl that no man would want to sleep with,” she says.

Her employer later fired her without paying for a training course, as promised. She had worked for the family for four years.

Today Chi is a single mother. She runs a small business selling food crops at the Bamenda food market. Saying she was trafficked because her parents were poor and couldn’t afford to educate her, she vows to work hard and spend whatever it takes to give her children an education.

Other former domestic workers and people who were trafficked, like Beri, are still fighting to get their pay years after they left employment.

In 2013, Beri sought assistance from the Center for Human Rights and Peace Advocacy, which agreed to take up her case if she did not reach an agreement with her former employer on her own.

As of August, Beri says she has been unable to come to an amicable agreement with her former employer.

She says she is demanding 1.7 million francs ($3,412), the sum of the legal minimum wage for five years of service.

The minimum wage for domestic service – a form of unclassified work – is 28,400 francs ($57) a month.

Despite her suffering, Beri believes she has a bright future.

“I know that the road to success is very rough,” she says. “I am positive that one day I will come out of my present suffering. I know that somebody somewhere will help me – not necessarily my former employer.”

Ndagha also believes there is hope. She says parents are the key to reducing child trafficking in Cameroon.

“I am appealing that all parents should struggle and send their girl children to school,” she says. “With this, the issue of child trafficking for domestic work will reduce, and these girls will grow up to become financially independent.”

Ndagha says cases of child trafficking and abuse are most often brought to her attention by servants themselves or witnesses, not parents.

Once a claim has been made, she summons the perpetrator and the person making the claim to her office and counsels both parties. If a perpetrator is unwilling to change, Ndagha forwards the case to the state counsel for prosecution. But when a perpetrator acknowledges his or her mistake and voices willingness to change, she counsels the perpetrator and then visits the home regularly to monitor the progress of change.

She refers serious cases to the police or the state counsel for prosecution.

“I frown upon all those who are maltreating domestic workers,” Ndagha says. “I will do anything within my power to ensure that the rights of these category of workers are respected.”

In July 2014, a neighbor reported the abuse of a 17-year-old servant to Ndagha, who summoned her.

The girl, who requested anonymity because she fears reprisals from her employer, was trafficked from a village in the Donga-Mantung division to work as a domestic servant for a high school teacher in Bamenda, Ndagha says.

She says she has endured countless incidents of abuse from her employer in the one year she has worked for the family.

“My madam beats me all the time,” the girl says. “And each time she beats me, she leaves a wound on my body.”

Sometimes she is beaten for forgetting to take her own medication, she says.

“Another time, she beat me because she saw her dress in my room and she considered that I had stolen her dress,” she says.

When she went to the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family to meet with Ndagha, she had scars from beatings and a bite wound, Ndagha says.

When the employer was summoned, she said she had beaten the girl in anger, Ndagha says. She later apologized and promised never to beat her again.

Even though the girl is experiencing abuse, she doesn’t want to leave her employer’s house.

“I don’t want to go back to the village,” she says. “My family is very poor, and if I go back to the village, my parents will marry me off. Please, I don’t want to leave my madam’s house.”

Of course, not all employers of domestic servants abuse their employees.

Pamela Fongang, a Bamenda woman who employed two domestic workers between 2003 and 2010, says she has always honored her agreements with her employees.

“My domestic workers always work with me for two years, after which I send them to learn a trade of their choice,” she says. “I don’t complicate issues.”

She says she sent both of her former domestic servants to learn to be hairdressers.

“Treat a domestic servant as though she is your own child,” she says. “If you treat them with respect and the fear of the Lord, they will treat you back with respect, and God will bless you.”

Others in Cameroon say they oppose all employment of poor children as household servants.

Maryline Ngufor, a mother and homemaker in Bamenda, says she has never hired a domestic worker.

It is common knowledge that many employers mistreat their domestic servants, Ngufor says. She has sympathy for parents who arrange to have their children enter domestic service.

“The government of Cameroon should punish child traffickers and violent employers,” she says. “This way the rights of domestic workers will be respected.”

The Center for Human Rights and Peace Advocacy has set up a vigilance committee that visits bus stops and neighborhoods to identify trafficked children, says Joseph Chongsi Ayeah, executive director and a jurist.

When committee members see someone traveling with a child in a suspicious manner, they confront the person and inquire about his or her relationship with the child, he says. Committee members look for children who are poorly dressed, sit quietly, and look timid or awkward.

Using an alert system, people living in the Bamenda area can also report suspicious activity to the center.

The center started the alert system in 2009 after a woman who was transporting six children from a Northwest region village to Makénéné, a francophone village along the Bamenda-Yaoundé highway, was intercepted at a bus park. Unable to name the children she was with, she was reported to the center, which took custody of the children and returned them to their parents.

The alert system it is still operational, but Ayeah says it is not as strong as when it started because the center lacks resources to reward people for reporting trafficking.

Ayeah says the reluctance of witnesses to testify has hampered prosecution and delayed dispensation of justice.

“That is why nothing seems to have been done,” he says.

Still, the center has handled more than 50 cases of child trafficking and domestic worker abuse since 2009, Ayeah says. It also has organized conferences in the Northwest region to educate the population on the rights of children, the treatment of domestic workers, and the legal consequences of abusing employees.

The center acts as a liaison between children and the legal system, contacting the police and the state counsel when it obtains evidence of criminal activity. When cases go to trial, representatives of the center attend hearings.

Many of the center’s cases are pending in court or moving toward out-of-court settlements.

“The process is slow,” Ayeah says.