- Despite government efforts to prohibit forced marriages of young girls, in Benin's rural areas the practice prevails. Now, safe havens are provided for Beninese children suffering from abuse.
Sophie, 13, was promised into an arranged marriage by her older brother. When she refused, he physically abused her. "He beat me up and told me he was going to kill me," Sophie said. She escaped and hid on the outskirts of the village. A policeman found her three days later, tired and scared.
Sophie was taken to St Joseph's Home in Parakou – a safe haven for child victims of trafficking and forced early marriage who have nowhere else to go. The home, here in Benin's second largest city, is designed to accommodate 30 children but usually has more, reports UNICEF's Shantha Bloeman from Parakou.
"Most of the time, we have 40 children. Sometimes it can be as many as 70," explains Sister Ines Germaine Gomis, who helped set up the refuge in 2006.
Very often, children are particularly unprotected in their own families or extended families. Despite legal efforts to prevent marriage before the age of 18, for instance, it has proven difficult to enforce this prohibition in rural areas, where many families see the practice as a means of alleviating poverty.
"Safe havens like St Joseph's Home are especially critical for Beninese children," according to UNICEF Benin. Typically, says Sister Gomis, boys stay at St Joseph's for about three months. However, she adds, "The girls are often under threat of forced marriage and rape, so we cannot return them to their families."
Despite the difficulties, children like Sophie are benefitting from increased awareness of children's right to protection and education across Benin. The girls attend informal schools, many sponsored by UNICEF, five days a week.
Child abuse remains widespread in Benin, as in most West African countries. In addition to forced children marriages, main problems consist of child labour and trafficking.
Almost half of all Beninese children aged 5 to 14 are child labourers. "Some work in lime mines. Others are exploited in the markets and small workshops," says UNICEF's chief of office in Parakou, Bertin Danvide. Trafficking to forced labour in neighbouring Nigeria is another major problem, which government now is trying to address.
The Beninese government, with support from donors and UN agencies, indeed since 2006 has had an active policy to protect children's rights. The national police force and local government has been strongly engaged to address child abuse and trafficking, while safe havens like St Joseph's Home in Parakou have become a welcome alternative.
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