When the leader of the Boko Haram extremist group threatened to sellhundreds of kidnapped Nigerian girls “in the market” in a rambling online video posted this week, he was not necessarily making an irrational boast.
Doing just that is entirely possible in parts of Nigeria and elsewhere in the developing world, human rights investigators and researchers of child trafficking, sexual slavery and forced marriage said. However egregious it may sound, in some areas the buying and selling of women and children, particularly young girls, has long been an underlying problem.
“It is very well documented,” said Benjamin N. Lawrance, a scholar at the Rochester Institute of Technology who has spent much of his academic career studying and writing about human trafficking. In Africa in particular, he said Tuesday in a telephone interview, “there has never been a period of time where child slavery didn’t take place.”
Professor Lawrance said that if he were to visit any number of West African countries, for example, “I would have no difficulty, within a matter of hours, in finding a place to procure children.”
While the imagery of a slave market conveyed by the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, may have been aimed partly at attracting attention, Professor Lawrance said, “it is not a stretch of the truth to imagine where you could buy children, sitting and waiting to be sold.”
Child trafficking is considered such an insidious problem that the United Nations Human Rights Council has assigned special rapporteurs to investigate it for nearly 25 years.
The last rapporteur, Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid, a Moroccan pediatrician who specializes in the protection of vulnerable children, said in a report to the council in March that they were more at risk than ever to sexual slavery. “Millions of girls and boys worldwide are victims of sexual exploitation, even though this issue in recent years has gained increased visibility,” she said.
In a report she issued in December, Dr. Maalla M’jid said that cases of child trafficking represented 27 percent of all detected human trafficking in 2007-10, up from 20 percent in 2003-6, according to statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In recent years, the increase has been greater for girls. In Africa and the Middle East, the report said, more than two-thirds of the detected victims of trafficking were children, and globally, trafficking for sexual exploitation represented 58 percent of the total of detected cases.
Rights advocates say many cases go undetected. Susan Bissell, the chief of child protection at Unicef, said Wednesday in a phone interview that there were 1.2 million known cases a year of child trafficking globally, “and that’s a gross underestimate, because of situations in this context; it’s totally clandestine.”
Ms. Bissell also said that for every 800 victims, one person is convicted, a powerful indicator of why traffickers often operate with impunity. Groups like Boko Haram, she said, “are functioning in a part of the country where there just doesn’t seem to be any rules.”
Rights groups have conducted numerous studies documenting the trafficking of girls and women in Africa, which is often done through deceptive means. In a 2010 report, for example, Human Rights Watch found networks in Ivory Coast and Nigeria that systematically trafficked in Nigerian women who had thought they were being recruited as apprentice hairdressers or tailors. The report said that many were minors, and that victims “said repeatedly that ‘bad things’ would happen to them or their families if they escaped, but were too afraid to provide further details regarding the precise threats or the person who would hurt them.”
Free the Slaves, a Washington-based advocacy group, documented systematic forced marriage in the Democratic Republic of Congo in a report issued last June, which broke the practice down to four classifications: “marriage by rape, marriage by sale, marriage by kidnapping and child marriage.”
Ms. Bissell said part of the enforcement problem lay in many victims’ lack of official identities — 230 million children do not have birth certificates, which makes them virtually impossible to trace. “This is 2014, and we have the technological capacity and we’re interconnected, and yet we can’t seem to protect our children,” she said.