Labor migration has been a historical fact of life throughout West Africa. While trade routes have long been a part of the regional economy, patterns of labor migration were established during the colonial period, which is still evident today. Mali is the third poorest nation in the world, according to the Human Development Index. As a result, it is common for people to migrate from Mali to other countries, such as Côte d’Ivorie, or from rural Mali to urban centers, such as the capital of Bamako.
Education in Mali is supposedly compulsory and free up to age 12. Still, classrooms are overcrowded, and many times led by untrained teachers who use sub-standard curriculums. In addition, students are left with the responsibility to purchase uniforms and supplies. When taking into account rates of enrollment, attendance and completion, the education system of Mali is ranked exceptionally low, especially among girls.
For most Malian parents, it is more economically beneficial to the family if their children work, rather than attend school. In 2002, nearly half of children ages 10 to 14 were part of the Mali work force. They often migrate to find work. Usually, the migration begins as a voluntary act to earn income for the family and/or to accumulate a dowry; often these children end up in an involuntary life of exploitation and servitude.
Many children who make their way to the capital city of Bamako end up becoming one of the city’s "street kids." The average age of these children is 15, and they have no form of adult supervision. While the literacy rate in Mali is altogether very low, the female literacy rate is much lower than that of males. So girls are less able to handle life on the city streets and are more susceptible to being forced into domestic servitude. In Africa, 85 percent of child domestic workers are girls.
Domestic servants are discriminated against, often contracted unwillingly to employers, and are worked long hours for little to no pay. Lack of governmental oversight subjects domestic servants and girls working on the street to unchecked sexual harassment and abuse. There are a number of laws to curb the exploitation of child labor and the trafficking of children, but enforcement is virtually non-existent. Unless, there are significant measures to enforce those laws, the same heartbreaking story will play over and over for domestic servants and other "street kids."
Jacqueline Dembele Goita, also known as Madame Urbain, is one of the lucky ones. Born in Mali, during an era when it was almost unheard of for girls to go to school in the impoverished country, Madame Urbain’s father sent her to school. Today, she uses her education to help hundreds of girls and young women, who flock to the capital city of Bamako every year in search of a better life.