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Forms of violence: **Slavery**

12/03/2011  | Child Rights International Network



What is slavery?

A definition of slavery first appeared in an international agreement in the League of Nations

Slavery Convention of 25 September 1926. It defined slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised” (art.1(1)). It further defined the slave trade as “all acts involved in the capture, acquisition or disposal of a person with intent to reduce him to slavery; all acts involved in the acquisition of a slave with a view to selling or exchanging him; all acts of disposal by sale or exchange of a slave acquired with a view to being sold or exchanged, and, in general, every act of trade or transport in slaves” (art. 1(2)).

According to the Office for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR, 2002), however, “[d]efinitions have caused controversy for two reasons: first, there are differences of opinion about which practices should be categorised as slavery and thus designated for elimination; second, definitions have often been accompanied by obligations on States to carry out particular remedial measures. There has invariably been disagreement about the most appropriate strategies to eradicate any form of slavery” (OHCHR, 2002: 4). Nonetheless, The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights notes that the Slavery Convention definition has not legally been significantly altered since 1926 (Ibid: 5). [1]

The right to freedom from slavery is one of a small number of absolute human rights (freedom from torture is another). This means that there is no set of circumstances which can override or qualify an individual’s right to be free from slavery. This is different, for example, from the right to freedom of movement which can be restricted on a number of public interest grounds such as public safety. [2] 

Children and slavery

Save the Children considers the most prevalent forms of child slavery to be:

  • child trafficking
  • commercial sexual exploitation
  • bonded child labour
  • forced work in mines
  • forced agricultural labour
  • child soldiers/combatants
  • forced child marriage
  • domestic slavery

Child traffickingAccording to Save the Children (2007: 2), 1.2 million children and babies are trafficked every year, including into Western Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean, and the number is increasing. The NGO argues that “Poverty, globalisation and the subsequent demand for cheap goods and labour have spawned an unprecedented demand for compliant child workers.”

Commercial sexual exploitationAt any one time across the world, around 1.8 million children are being abused through prostitution, child pornography and sex tourism. Chronic poverty is a major cause, but sexual exploitation also increases during times of war and natural disasters. The UN Study notes that some girls enter prostitution because traffickers and recruiting agents promise golden opportunities. For example, thousands of West African children, from destitute families, are sent to the Middle East each year with many ending up in prostitution (UNVC, 2006: 246). Read about ECPAT’s campaign to stop the trafficking of children and young people. Read more about children and sexual exploitation here.

Bonded child labourAbout two thirds of children identified as engaged in the worst forms of child labour are those in forced and bonded labour which, according to the ILO, amounts to approximately 5.7 million children. The UN Study states “An unknown but significant proportion are victims of trafficking; most cases are in Asia, but the practice exists in all regions.” Forced and bonded labour are classified as slavery according to the 1956 Supplementary Convention on Slavery but “although they are universally regarded as criminal, these cases are very rarely prosecuted” (UNVC, 2006: 247). Read more about child labour here.

Forced work in minesAccording to Save the Children (2007: 6), one million children are risking their lives in mines and quarries in more than 50 African, Asian and South American countries, while in the Sahel region of Africa, 200,000 children are risking their lives daily in gold and mineral mines. Once again, a driving force is chronic poverty, the impact of which on children is severe: “Their water supplies are often contaminated, and mining settlements squalid. A sick or injured child rarely receives medical attention. They face underground explosions, respiratory problems and sheer exhaustion. Mining often shortens their lives through chronic ill health. They are literally worked into the ground.”

Forced agricultural labour – Almost 70 per cent of all child labourers work on farms and plantations, a significant minority in harsh and hazardous slavery-like conditions. For example, there has been considerable concern about forced agricultural labour in Uzbekistan. On the issue, Human Rights Watch says:

"government-sponsored forced child labour in the cotton sector remains widespread…The government closes schools and orders school officials to send children to the cotton fields during the harvest season. It sets centralised harvesting quotas for cotton and uses threats, harassment, and intimidation to ensure that those quotas are fulfilled. Children as young as 10 pick cotton for two months a year. They live in filthy conditions, contract illnesses, miss school, and work from early morning until evening daily for little or no money. Hunger, exhaustion, and heat stroke are common. At least five children died during the 2008 harvest, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation."

Read more on forced agricultural labour in Uzbekistan here.

Child soldiers/combatantsArtilce 38 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that States must not recruit children under the age of 15 into the armed forces. They must also “take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities.” This includes the involvement of children as, for example, messengers, ‘wives’ or cooks. Despite this, 300,000 children under the age of 15 are associated with fighting forces. Read more about children and armed conflict here.

Forced child marriage – Forced marriage occurs when at least one partner does not give consent and is coerced into marrying. Save the Children (2007: 9) says that: “the forced marriage of children takes place in many different cultural, political and economic situations, and involves boys as well as girls. However, girls are undoubtedly the most affected and suffer the most severe consequences. They are frequently intimidated, but also abducted, raped and sometimes murdered. A girl or woman who is forced to marry is usually a slave, forced to live and sleep with her husband, and often physically confined indoors.” Forced marriage is most common in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa, including Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Uganda.

Traditional’ forms of slavery

Slavery does not necessarily relate to specific categories, although the issue should be approached with caution. According to the UN Study (2006: 247):

"Africa has the highest incidence of informal child work, and there is evidence to suggest that a higher proportion may be ‘forced’ than in other regions. However, coercion is mostly related to the importance attached to kinship and client-ship in economic relations, and to the fact that most people, especially in rural areas, do not make their living in an industrialised, monetised, or standard employer–worker economy…Kin and client relationships can be invoked to demand services from extended family members and those of lower status; these arrangements may be considered ‘natural’ and sanctioned by social and religious beliefs."

Snap judgments about the conditions in which slavery takes place should therefore be avoided in favour of nuanced assessments which better help raise awareness about harmful practices.

Mauritania and Niger are the last countries in the world where ‘regular slavery’ – direct ‘ownership’ of people, not by means of commercial trade, but by customary arrangement – continues. According to the UN Study, “these people are usually descendants of slaves, and their degree of actual ‘slavery’ is locally disputed and open to interpretation. However, a range of services can be required of slave descendants, including children, both in the household and in the fields; and they suffer severe limitations on their behaviour, rights, and entitlements” (UNVC, 2006: 248).

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has sought to condemn slavery in its Concluding Observations to States. For example, although slavery in Mauritania was criminalised by law in 2007, its provisions have been labeled as ‘weak’, compelling the Committe in 2009 to call on the government to:

  • take all necessary measures to eradicate slavery and in particular to ensure that perpetrators of such practices are held accountable in accordance with the law
  • implement a national strategy against slavery, including an analysis of its root-causes, and take effective measures to free victims of slavery and provide them with psycho-social recovery as well as reintegration measures
  • conduct specific awareness-raising campaigns on the legislation which criminalises slavery

The Committee has also drawn attention to the existence of slavery in other countries, including Niger (2009), Libya (2003) and Sudan (2002).

For more resources on children and slavery, click here.



Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, (2002) Abolishing Slavery and its Contemporary Forms, United Nations: New York and Geneva. Accessible at: 

Save the Children UK (2007), The Small Hands of Slavery, Save the Children: London. Accessible at:

UN Study on Violence Against Children (2006). Accessible at: 


[1] Although the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery was enacted in 1956, United Nations Treaty Series, vol. 226, p. 3; entered into force on 30 April 1957. Visit:

[2] See, for example, the right to freedom of movement  in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, UN General Assembly, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 999, p. 171. Available at: