The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) included the goal of combating child labor and human trafficking, but regional variations complicate efforts to address these problems. In Sierra Leone, the government has taken steps to address these issues, but challenges remain, particularly in relation to access to education, in rural areas, and for young girls. This article examines local stakeholder understandings of child trafficking, and the distinction between child labor and child work in Sierra Leone. Participants included community leaders and those with lived experience of exploitation. Findings identify complex intersections and overlaps in understandings of these terms, and the ways these connect with norms and expectations impacting children and childhood in Sierra Leone. Lessons are drawn out for local and international policy and programming to incorporate structural factors within a wider lens of child protection, reframing anti-trafficking to focus on positive aspects of recovery and resilience.
- There are complex intersections and overlaps in the ways the terms “child trafficking” and “child labor” are understood by stakeholders in Sierra Leone in the context of children, work, and education. For anti-trafficking policies to be effective, they must engage with embedded norms and expectations impacting children and childhood.
- Use of the term “child trafficking” or describing someone as having been “trafficked” has mixed implications for the young people and communities affected. It can be effective in raising the profile of child protection but also risks painting a hopeless picture for community members, resulting in overly negative views, or “othering” of children who have lived experience.
- Policy, programming, and advocacy on trafficking should avoid focusing on the harms and negative impacts and shift the focus toward promoting more positive messages: of individual agency in overcoming situations of exploitation; of recovery and empowerment for children in seeking a better future for themselves and their families; and of strengths-based perspectives from survivors, acknowledging their resilience.
- Findings support an approach to anti-trafficking focused on prevention that is embedded in the wider political priorities for children, linking protection, education, and work, and incorporating understanding of the systematic and structural conditions which drive and sustain exploitation.
- Progress in achieving the SDGs would be enhanced by adopting an evidence-based approach including local communities to integrate anti-child trafficking with understandings of relevant local challenges.
- Anti-trafficking efforts should take a flexible and adaptive approach to terminology, informed by local perspectives and the voices of those directly impacted to improve policy and programming.
Photo by Robin McPherson