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Fighting child sex trafficking in Tanzania

Poverty, broken families and social attitudes make it difficult to fight exploitation.

Child sex trafficking is a social problem being tackled in Tanzania. Here Tanzanian girls, who are not involved in sex trafficking, play a game by picking up small stones on Dec. 2, 2007. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Say “child trafficking,” and you’re likely to conjure up images of organized crime and international smuggling rings.

But sexual exploitation of children is often the result of more ordinary pressures: poverty, disease and social disintegration.

In Tanzania, where trafficking of poor girls from rural to urban areas is a serious problem, these are the complex social issues that anti-child trafficking workers are trying to disentangle.

Desperation and families broken by AIDS are often more dangerous enemies than gangsters, says one of the most prominent groups trying to end child exploitation in the country, the Kiota Women Health and Development Organization (Kiwohede).

“The rings of the pimps are not coordinated in this country,” said Justa Mwaituka, Kiwohede’s executive director. That means individual trafficking rackets are relatively easy to break up. The underlying causes, however, appear harder to root out.

Consider Fatuma’s story. A slight Tanzanian girl who looks much younger than her 16 years, Fatuma sat on a battered wooden chair wearing a T-shirt and skirt in a Kiwohede office in Dar es Salaam this January. Through an interpreter, she told her tale.

Three years ago, Fatuma (not her real name) lost both her parents. A poor orphan, she moved from the country to Dar es Salaam to live with an aunt, a small-time trader and single mother who made ends meet selling food on the streets. The aunt already had two boys to feed — and to put through school.

So one day she came to Fatuma. “If a man wants you for sex, just agree, so we can get money for education,” Fatuma recalls her aunt saying.

The girl, just 13, accepted. Before long, she had found a man willing to pay for sex. But sometimes he only gave her $1, so she needed more customers. She started helping her aunt sell cassava on the street, and soon there were always men hanging around her stall.

That was what tipped off an outreach worker in the neighborhood — a girl who was already working with Kiwohede. The girl tried to convince Fatuma to visit the center and find help. It wasn’t easy.