WASHINGTON, December 16, 2011 – Poor families in Benin subscribe to Vidomegon, a common social practice that places children of the poor with wealthier families. The child exchanges labor for food and lodging. Beninese girls are much more vulnerable to slavery because of economic, cultural, and social factors than boys.
Traditionally, the practice allows a poor family to live with a wealthy family, providing labor in exchange for food, lodging and, sometimes, education. Unfortunately the reality of the placements is often grim as the practice is now being used, often the child’s parents, to exploit children for financial gains.
Young girls are more vulnerable to the abuse as 95% of Vidomegon victims are female according to a Crime and Society report. The research shows that poverty pushes families to place their daughters in wealthy house holds as the parents are unable to care for the child. Vidomegon is one of the few ways to bring income to support their family members.
But the lives their children are forced to live are often horrific.
Nadia, an eleven-year-old Vidomegon girl, worked for a 30-year-old woman that denied the child food, leading her to steal from her employer. When the was discovered, the employer beat Nadia. A few days later when Nadia once again stole food to appease her hunger, her employer began to beat her – a beating that the young girl endured through out the night until the police came and rescued her.
Estelle’s parents sold their daughter to a food vendor. The child was expected to work and in exchange Estelle’s father received $50 annually. The woman forced the girl to work excessively long hours, allowing only two hours a day for sleep. Estelle’s father refused his child’s pleas to come home.
Beninese cultural expectations impress upon the girls that it is their responsibility to take care of their family members. According to UNODC, many Beninese value girls less than boys and expect girls to sacrifice their education, and youth, to manual labor for which the family is paid.
Culturally, boys are responsible for taking care of their aging parents, while girls become their husband’s property marriage. Hence, many parents see educating their sons as a better investment than educating their daughters
School is also expensive, and the families cannot bear the cost of educating their daughters. They cannot bear the cost of tuition, uniforms, and textbooks for a child whose value to the family is limited by marriage.
When given the choice of educating their children, parents are more likely to choose educating their sons than their daughters.
Girls also face more obstacles as adult earners as males are traditionally paid higher wages even if they are similarly educated. A Social Institutions & Gender Index study shows that it is practically impossible for women to own any land or gain access to bank loan to start up a business.
Women hold only 25% of the jobs in public sector, and those positions are concentrated in the lower paid sectors. And they only hold 8.4% of the jobs in the formal private sector.
Beninese authority have abolished the polygamy laws allowing men to take multiple wives and have began steps towards equal rights for women a few years ago. It is one step in the right direction to improve the rights of women and girls, however it is still insufficient to affect the lives of women and girls.
The authority must proactively work towards abolishing cultural misconception towards women and girls. They also need to remove obstacles hindering women from becoming successful role models to younger generation.
Youngbee Dale is a freelance writer, researcher, and human rights advocate. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.