Children in bondage: It's not only in Sudan

June 23, 1996|By Sara Engram

THE STONY expressions on the faces of Garang Deng Kuot and Akok Deng Kuot were eloquent in their testimony to the toll bondage takes on the human spirit. At an age when the eyes of other boys would show sparks of curiosity at the mission of two foreigners in their midst, these young boys evidently had no emotions to spare.

Bought and freed from slavery by two Sun reporters as a way of proving the existence of slavery in Sudan, these Dinka boys were fortunate to be reunited with their family. But six years of servitude had robbed them of childhood and whatever innocence is left for children in a war-torn, impoverished corner of the world.

The Sun's dramatic account of slavery in Sudan provides proof that traditional slavery still stains parts of the globe. But the bondage of children is not limited to Sudan, nor to traditional slavery.

The International Labor Organization estimates that tens or even hundreds of millions of children are exploited for cheap labor. It defines ''child labor'' to cover all economic activities carried out by persons younger than 15 years old. The term does not include household work performed by children in their parents' home, unless their duties prevent them from attending school.

The system that enslaved the Dinka boys has been fueled by war, but the common thread to the forced labor of children is poverty. Sometimes that poverty is simply the grinding routine of subsistence living, in which families must eke out each day's necessities from meager resources.

Sometimes, however, those conditions reflect misplaced national priorities -- such as focusing on big, showy development projects at the expense of funneling opportunities to the poorest; or funding the military instead of making sure children get an education.

Whatever the reasons for forced child labor, the harsh conditions of these children's lives are tragic. A 1993 report of child labor in Africa in the International Labor Review contained this description of simply watering the herd:

''When the well is deep (40 to 50 meters), water must be drawn up with the help of a team of animals. The child must lead the team to the end of the pumping track and then lead it back to the well, often at a run. Assuming a well depth of 40 meters and a container averaging 30 liters, the child has to travel 27 kilometers back and forth in order to water a herd of 200 camels.''

As the report noted, one effect of this exhausting labor is to drive young people into cities, where even crowded, unsanitary conditions considered unacceptable by most people represent to them a welcome improvement.

If the labor is often backbreaking, it can also break the spirit.

This is especially true for girls, who are forced into lives as concubines for their masters or as captives in the sex trade. The AIDS epidemic has driven up the demand for young girls, who are considered less likely to be carrying the virus.

These children face a particularly sordid form of bondage -- one essentially sanctioned by national authorities and the international tourism agents who specialize in fueling the sex trade. Not surprisingly, in addition to the physical price they pay, their isolation from their families and their confined conditions often produce severe psychological disorders.

Throughout the world

Egregious forms of child labor are not limited to one or two benighted places in the world. The ILO reports evidence of traditional forms of child slavery, like that experienced by the Dinka boys, in South Asia and the sub-Saharan strip of East Africa. Instances have also been found in two Latin American countries.

Equally disturbing are more contemporary forms of bondage, which the ILO says are evolving all over the world. These forms of bondage may make an adult's work contract contingent on the availability of a child. Or they may involve the actual exchange of a child for a sum of money described as an advance on wages.

However the transaction occurs, the result is the same -- a child robbed of opportunity for education and, often, of any chance of growing into a healthy adult.

In many cases, poor children miss out on the chance for a better life by the smallest of margins. A program designed to help Mayan girls in Guatemala attend elementary school provides ''scholarships'' of about $6 a month to pay for necessities like pencils, notebooks and shoes.

In families where the breadwinner brings home about $2 a day for working in the fields, that small amount, about the price of a movie ticket, makes a big difference.

Study after study shows that education significantly raises a family's living standards. In particular, a girl's education will have a direct impact on the health and success of her own children.

Giving children access to education is one way to help end the poverty that fuels child bondage. Another essential ingredient is public awareness -- and outrage -- at every form of bondage.

The world now knows that this evil still thrives. Shall we tolerate it? Or stamp it out?

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/24/96

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