Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Benin: The plight of Benin's Vidomègon children

Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey

The plight of Benin's Vidomègon children

Not surprisingly, the name "Vidomègon" will probably only raise an eyebrow among readers who find the word strange, not because it describes the plight of over one hundred thousand children, mainly girls, sold into slavery, prostitution and child pornography rings from Western Africa, undergoing rape, mutilation and murder.

Vidomègon, in the Fon (Gbe) language, means "the child at one's side" and the practice of Vidomègon is an ancient tradition in Benin through which a child is leased, for a sum of money, to another (usually wealthier) family which raises him or (usually) her. Originally carried out for the benefit of children from poorer agricultural families, the idea being that the child would have more options and possibly an education under this scheme, today it has been perverted into a cheap supply line for slave labour, prostitution, child pornography both from inside Benin and also through Benin, using it as a hub for trafficking from the wider area.

The United Nations Organization raises the alert through Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, Najat Maalla M'jid, who claims that "It is unacceptable that so many - too many - children in Benin are victims of violence, abuse or exploitation on the pretext of traditions, customs or poverty". She explains: "The phenomenon of 'vidomegon' children, which was traditionally a practice of foster placement, has been diverted for the purpose of exploitation and profits. Numerous children are victims of sale or trafficking, labour or sexual exploitation, mainly in markets, quarries or fields."

The scale of the question is so great that it is causing "serious concern" in the UNO because apart from being a source of slave labour and free material for sexual predators, many of these girls are murdered because they are considered as "witches" or "sorcerers", they are placed in voodoo convents, they are forced into marrying older men, they are subjected to corporal punishment, to rape and to female genital mutilation, where their clitoris is cut off with a blade so that they will not experience an orgasm and would therefore be less likely to "misbehave". Typically, the luckier Vidomègon children work up to eighteen hours a day without rest, in domestic activities or as street vendors. Those who run away are at the mercy of street gangs.

Najat Maalla M'jid refers to the "alarming numbers" of incidence of violence and exploitation, mainly of girls. The Ministry of Social protection of Benin estimates that there over 100,000 Vidomègon children, many bearing the scars of their mistreatment and virtually all of them living at the mercy of those who contracted their "services", many of whom are (extended) family members.

Benin's justice system has severe penalties for those caught mistreating children and has protection centres set up in many cities across the southern region of the country, where Vidomègon proliferates. However, one thing is having the machinery, another is putting it into practice, because the voice of the child is rarely heard, if ever, and out-of-court settlements between families rarely, if ever, take the child's interests into account. Corruption is rife, impunity is the rule and not the exception.

The typical Vidomègon child comes from a family of over six children, in which the father has several polygamous relationships, is a fisherman or a farmer and cannot afford to support all his wives and children. The money is more welcome than the child's welfare although to be fair, the intention of placing the child into (paid) foster care is, or was originally, to provide a better future.

Somewhere along the way, the practice has been perverted into the horror we see today. Surely this cannot be seen as a localized cultural issue in which outside interference is seen as moral imperialism. If common human values exist, then so must common human rights. While the international community is busy spending over one thousand billion dollars a year on machines to kill each other, where does it stand on the Vidomègon children of West Africa?

Needless to say, it has never even heard that they exist.