CALLOUS boatmen are demanding sex from desperate and penniless children fleeing crippling drought and poverty in Zimbabwe to ferry them across a crocodile-infested river border to South Africa.
Aid workers say that school girls as young as 11 – many of who have walked for days to reach the banks of the vast Limpopo river – are facing the stark choice of agreeing to what they term the ‘transport for sex’ ultimatum or trying to swim across the dangerous waters.
Some terrified girls have been held at knifepoint as men demand sex while others have been kept prisoner or faced sexual demands even after successfully making it to South Africa.
Aliysha was sexually assaulted at knifepoint as she made the crossing from Zimbabwe. She had spent time living on the streets and eating from bins in her own country after fleeing an abusive step-father
But for many, the chance to reach South Africa is worth the risk – Zimbabwe is in the grip of a drought, with tens of thousands facing malnutrition, while others are escaping poverty or abuse at home.
This bridge is the legal way into the country – but most do not have the papers to allow them to pass through border controls, with the most desperate children risking their lives and swimming across the river
Crocodiles are not the only danger. Hippos are also known to attack and kill people on the river
Officials say the aid community will make commitments to tackle the exploitation of children such as those crossing the Limpopo, reduce suffering from conflicts and disasters, and deliver emergency relief more efficiently.
An estimated 350 to 400 Zimbabwean children are fleeing drought, poverty and abuse at home – even from their own families – illegally crossing the border each day with passing official checkpoints as they seek a new life in South Africa.
A state of disaster has been declared in Zimbabwe after El Nino droughts led to failed harvests and critical food shortages, while an estimated 42 000 children are suffering severe malnutrition and are at risk of starving to death.
Tracy Manners, of the British charity Save the Children, which runs a shelter on the border, said : ‘Very young children are crossing from Zimbabwe to South Africa, which entails crossing the crocodile infested Limpopo River.
The smugglers prey on young girls trying to cross the river, offering to take them to the other side in return for sex – a better option for many than risking the crocodiles in the Limpopo
‘One choice is to pay smugglers to cross on a boat, but most have no money. Some will try to swim, if they know how, one eye on the nearest crocodile, older children carrying a brother or sister on their back. So the smugglers have spotted an opportunity, especially when young girls are travelling alone, preying on their desperation.
‘In any country in the world, sadly little girls travelling without adults are easy pickings. They are hungry, desperate and too young to understand the dangers of being coerced by adults who prey in their vulnerability. If a friendly man offers them biscuits and juice on a bus, too often they lack the experience to realise he may have an appalling agenda.
Says Tracy Manners, of Save the Children: “These unscrupulous men offer to help the girls to cross the river and say there’s a safe place to sleep the night on the other side.’
She added : ‘We heard the disturbing story of three 11-year-old girls who were exhausted, vulnerable and confronted with the stark proposal that they should provide sex in exchange for help to cross the border.
‘This is transport for sex and it is utterly outrageous that these children are preyed on because they have no means to get themselves across safely. Sadly stories like these are not uncommon.
‘These girls are leaving behind terribly tragic lives in Zimbabwe. Their tales are of living on the streets alone or in such abject poverty that they’re forced to beg or and in many cases have suffered physical violence. They have an idea of South Africa as a country of opportunity, where the streets are paved with gold.
‘Regionally, South Africa is held up as a mecca of success because it’s subscribed to a children’s act, where children have the right to healthcare, education and protection. Of course that’s all meaningless if you don’t have the support to access services and have proper paperwork in place. But their dream is simple – they want to go to school.’
But South Africa is not the mecca they believe it to be, with rising xenophobia making life difficult for those who make it across the river. Zimbabweans are dubbed ‘cockroaches’ by locals.
Many children will end up living on the streets, like Grace. She was just 11 when she made the crossing with other unaccompanied minors, and a man on the bus tried to coer ce her into sexual activity
Dubbed ‘cockroaches’ by locals, the ordeal of the children does not end there even after reaching South Africa as they often have to live rough on the streets, forced to beg to survive.
Such is the resentment towards some from Zimbabwe that children talk of their homes being torched with people inside. Disturbingly, thousands are unable to go to school.
The charity say at least 3.5million refugee children around the world are currently out of school, leaving them increasingly vulnerable to discrimination and potential abuse, as well as exploitation by traffickers or the pressure of entering into early marriage.
Refugee children are five times less likely to attend school than other children, with 50 per cent of primary school-aged refugee children and 75 per cent of secondary school-aged children completely left out of the education system, with none of the safe-guards that school environments provide, it adds.
Former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Save the Children’s chief executive, said : ‘It’s a scandal that children are being denied the chance of a decent future because they are out of school.
‘Without an education, these children face a bleak future. They are more likely to undertake perilous journeys to Europe and other parts of the world, and are also more likely to be married early, exploited, trafficked, and forced into work.
‘Education sets children up for success. It provides refugee children with hope for the future in the places they are currently living as well as providing a sense of stability and normality for children who have lived through traumatic and stressful events. – This article was originally published on the Daily mail online