Child prostitution goes unchecked in Togo

In downtown Lome there is an area known locally as “The Child Market,” where girls as young as nine are offered for sex, sometimes for less than a dollar.

Child welfare groups complain that Togo lacks strong laws to punish the pimps who ruthlessly exploit these children. And the kids themselves complain that the police who patrol the district and are supposed to protect them, simply demand sex for free.

Adjo is 11 years old and tries hard to look sexy in her black mini-skirt and skin-tight blue swimsuit top.

She told IRIN over a drink in a bar filled with cigarette smoke and drug dealers lurking in the background that she likes foreign customers best. They pay better and treat her more respectfully than Togolese men.

“The Ghanaians, the Ibos from Nigeria, the Senegalese and the other foreigners pay 5,000 CFA (US$10) and sometimes with a bit of luck they’ll pay 10,000 CFA (US$20) - and despite that they treat us well,” Adjo said.

“The Togolese maybe give us 1000 or 1500 CFA (US$2 or $3) and then want to rape us violently. They often hurt and insult us,” the small girl said, visibly upset as she recalled such unpleasant memories.

Adjo’s 13-year-old friend Amivi meanwhile complained that the security forces did nothing to help the girls by day and simply demanded freebies from them at night.

“The soldiers, who are supposed to protect us when they are on patrol want to have sexual relations with us without paying and we’re too frightened to say no, so we have to accept without turning a hair,” she explained.

Adjo says she never knew her real parents. But she and Amivi hand over all the money they earn to a woman whom they call “Mama”.

If the girls give this woman too little cash at the end of a shift, they run the risk of a severe beating.

“At the end of every day I have to give the money to a woman called ‘Mama.’ If I don’t have enough money to give her, I get beaten,” Adjo said.

Besides Adjo and Amivi, there are several hundred other young girls aged between nine and 15 who can openly be bought for sex in the downtown area of Lome called Devissime. The name means “Child Market” in the local Mina language.

Many of these girls have been separated from their families. Others have simply been abandoned. Most are illiterate. Being alone in the world all of them are highly vulnerable to exploitation by pimps and brothel keepers such as ‘Mama.’

“I never knew my parents,” explained Adjo, “I was abandoned and I’ve always had to manage on my own.”

Sometimes the girls sell themselves for as little as 200 CFA (40 cents). Only the better looking ones such as Adjo, can persuade their Togolese male clients to pay as much as 1500 CFA (US$3).

Adjo’s said her own punters were a mixed bunch. She said they varied from high school pupils and apprentice mechanics to wealthy members of Togo’s ruling elite, who had children of their own back at home. These older men tend to be infatuated with the youngest girls, she added.

There are no reliable statistics about the sexual abuse of children in Togo, but there is a general perception among social workers and child protection volunteers that the phenomenon has increased alarmingly in recent years.

The issue came up for discussion earlier this month at a seminar in Lome on the trafficking and social exploitation of women and children in Togo.

The meeting was organised by two non-governmental organisations: the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) and the Africa branch of the World Association of Orphans (WAO-Africa).

Both organisations want to see more research undertaken to evaluate the extent of these problems.

“There is no documentation about this phenomenon that would enable us to gain a better grasp of the situation” said Cleophas Mally from WAO-Africa.

“We have launched an investigation which should give us more reliable figures that would enable us to deal with this scourge more easily,” he added.

Mally noted that although many of the exploited children came from very poor backgrounds, some of them had drifted into the life of a child hooker from quite affluent homes.

The seminar brought together journalists, hoteliers, traditional chiefs and religious leaders in a bid to talk openly about the sexual abuse of children, which is still a taboo subject in Togolese society.

Mally said it was still virtually impossible to charge and convict those who fill their pockets from the sexual exploitation of children, because the country’s present laws do not provide young people with adequate protection.

However, he noted that a new child protection bill had recently been tabled in parliament.

Investigations carried out by Human Rights Watch (HRW), have shown that many vulnerable children in Togo fall victim to traffickers who supply children as cheap labour or sex slaves throughout West Africa.

The New York-based organisation recommended in a report published in March 2003 that Togo revise its laws to provide better protection to the victims of child trafficking and more help for them to be reinstated back into the community.

It accused the government of failing to make any headway in tackling the problem.

Meanwhile, the pimps are continuing to fill their pockets and little Adjo, frightened of another beating, has to concentrate on earning more money.

She told IRIN that it was worth spending some of her hard earned cash at the second hand clothes market to buy new outfits as she needs sexy gear to attract new clients.

“With 500 CFA (US$1) I can get two sexy outfits!” she said, bursting into laughter.