Stop trafficking, protect women

Each year thousands of people are lured to South Africa with promises of jobs, education, or marriage, only to be sold into slave-like conditions.

Southern Africa’s young women are especially vulnerable to the recruitment tactics of traffickers because civil unrest and economic deprivation leave them with few opportunities at home, and make migration, and the opportunities it promises, seem a natural and common solution.

Some of these women end up in the brothels of Hillbrow and Berea in Johannesburg, or in more private venues in the City’s upmarket suburbs, the mining areas of Carletonville, and in Cape Town’s red light district.

When we look at eliminating gender-based violence in South Africa, it is essential that we address the fate of these women, often hidden from public view, by increasing awareness and access to help.

An activity financed by IOM’s Southern Africa Counter Trafficking Programme (SACTAP), and implemented by Community Media for Development, the Portuguese-language theatrical production targets the Mozambican community living in the country.

IOM estimates that at least 1,000 women are trafficked into South Africa from Mozambique each year, with poverty a huge factor in their susceptibility to promises made by traffickers.

As one former police informant told IOM; women “hear about, and see on television, the

glitz and glamour of Johannesburg, and think its heaven. They would all like to go there for an easier life.”

Traffickers exploit the desperation of these women with promises of a better life, and with few other alternatives, many take jobs offers on trust without questioning potential dangers. After being offered jobs as waitresses, trafficked Mozambican women may find themselves working in Johannesburg’ sex industry or sold in mining areas as “wives” and forced to act as domestic servants and sex slaves without remuneration.

Human trafficking is certainly not a new phenomenon. In 1810, Dr William Dunlop, a surgeon visiting South Africa from London, promised 21-year old Saartjie Baartman a job, fame and fortune in a foreign land. All she needed to do was board a ship to England. For a farm servant, well past the traditional age of marriage among her people, and with little prospects of improving her condition, she took up the offer.

What awaited Baartman in London was neither fame nor fortune nor freedom. Fascinated by her ‘exotic’ appearance, Dunlop chose to parade Baartman naked in front of large crowds of Londoners, who paid one shilling each to gawk at the ‘Hottentot Venus’ from Africa.

Rather than improving over the last 200 years, trafficking in persons is flourishing throughout Southern Africa, typically involving young women who are trafficked to South Africa from other countries in Africa, South East Asia and Eastern Europe. Baartman’s experience of recruitment by deception and cross-border transportation for sexual exploitation is still a living reality for many thousands of women in Southern Africa today.

Traffickers often use security guards, violence or threats of violence, and confiscate documents prevent trafficked persons from escaping.

The theatre project is part of a nationwide information campaign targeting both trafficked persons and potential whistle-blowers. Billboards and other signage will appear in areas with a heavy concentration of trafficked persons and information materials will be translated into the languages commonly spoken by victims.

Information campaigns have a key role to play in motivating community members to report suspicious activities. Materials are also available for interested community groups and organisations to distribute.

There is also a need to support the South African government’s efforts to outlaw human trafficking and put in place effective legislation. In February 2004, South Africa signed the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons. This committed South Africa to criminalising trafficking and developing legislation against it.

A forthcoming anti-trafficking bill is an important piece of legislation for civil society to support. Trafficking has thrived in Southern Africa in part because it has offered traffickers high profits with relatively low risks.

A comprehensive anti-trafficking law will help change this, as it will add to the arsenal of legislation that law enforcement agencies in South Africa can use to prosecute traffickers. Other Southern African countries are also looking to outlaw trafficking and their efforts should be encouraged and supported by concerned civil society.

As we mark 16 Days of Activism against gender violence in 2006, it is tragic that Saartjie Baartman’s story is still a living reality for many women in Southern Africa today. We need to act now to ensure that South Africa has the tools it needs to prevent trafficking, protect the victims and prosecute traffickers. We need to stop history repeating itself.

l Rebecca Wynn works with the IOM’s Southern Africa Counter Trafficking Programme.

December 2006
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