Can Boko Haram follow through on its threat to sell kidnapped girls into slavery? Maybe

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Boko Haram has threatened to sell the kidnapped girls into slavery. That would suggest there's a market for slaves in Africa's Sahel region, which you might be surprised to hear actually does exist. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has campaigned to highlight the issue of modern day slavery in Africa. You focused your attention on Sudan and South Sudan but just tell us how far slavery extends across the entire Sahel region, which goes from Senegal almost all the way to Ethiopia.

Nicholas Kristof: There's human trafficking across not only the Sahel but in West Africa itself, in countries like Benin, Ghana and so on, so there is certainly a market. It tends to be for younger children and one of the constraints that Boko Haram would face in this case is that people are willing to buy a small child because that child is not going to be able to escape. If you buy an educated 17-year-old girl and pay money for her, then she is going to be much more of a flight risk. That's why it tends to be illiterate peasant boys and girls who are quite young who tend to get kidnapped and sold.

Werman: Can you generalize a bit about how this market works? Literally, the market. We think of slavery in the south and pre-Civil War and people being sold off. Is that what happens in this part of the Sahel?

Kristof: Yes, it tends to be somewhat less sexual slavery than it is in some other parts in the world and more kind of labor trafficking. It'll be somebody who needs workers and they will buy a small child, for example, for fishing or something else. In other cases, it's for a wife. They will literally shell out money and there's usually an intermediary. In some cases, the parents know about it and they're desperate for money. In other cases, the child is just kidnapped or the parents have been promised the child will get some kind of a more promising opportunity and everybody is tricked.

Werman: What is driving this? Is it economic? Is it power?

Kristof: It's both, and it's also a lack of education, a lack of literacy, a lack of knowledge a bout the world, an indifference on the part of police. When a child is kidnapped and sent off to work in inhumane conditions in some village, then that child — if he or she is uneducated — may not realize that this is illegal; they may not speak the local language. It may be very difficult to get away, and even if they do get away, they don’t know where to go; they don’t know how to get home. They become prisoners of circumstances.

If it’s a girl who’s been married off, they might feel that once they have been raped by their new ‘husband’ that they no longer will be able to find a husband or partner ever again; that they have been shamed for life, and that all their other opportunities are destroyed. All of these ways of thinking, if you will, imprison people and make the system vaguely enforceable.

Werman: Slavery, as a practice, is centuries old in this part of the world. I was in Mali a number of years ago with two musicians, fairly modern thinking people. One of them was from the north of Mali, the other from the south. The one from the north said "You, you're my slave." He was joking, but that's this old cultural thing. Do you think the cultural link to slavery is going to be a tough one to erase?

Kristof: I think that the cultural one in most of the region is easier to erase than the economic and other forces. People don't necessarily think of it as slavery but women are devalued, wives are devalued, peasants, especially from some social classes, are completely devalued and are seen as not having rights. The legal system just doesn't work if you're poor. It's those kinds of infrastructures of society that is lacking in those places.

Werman: Do you think this threat from Boko Haram to sell these school girls - is it a credible one or could some of these girls have already been sold off in a place like Chad or Cameroon?

Kristof: They could have been and it is a credible threat. But I'm hoping that it isn't going to work as smoothly to sell these girls as Boko Haram might think.

Werman: The New York Times' Nick Kristof, thank you so much for your time.

Kristof: Sure, my pleasure.