At Pretoria-based Tshwane Home of Hope, the jubilant young faces of the girls who live there hide the truth of the horrors they have encountered. On the premises is a trauma centre – aptly dubbed by one of the residents as “the hope sanctuary” – here the girls meet with a resident social worker and psychologist to share their stories, stories that will never leave the four walls of the room.
The Home receives new girls often – most are walk-ins, while the police bring others in from the street corners on which they would have been working. The youngest girl is seven and the oldest is 21; they hail from South Africa, as well as places further afield like Zimbabwe, Burundi, and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their reasons for coming to the centre are as diverse as their backgrounds. However, they all have one thing in common – they want to be safe.
While not all these girls have been trafficked or once worked in the sex industry, they are all at the Home because they have run away from violence.
Tendai Joe, director of the centre and also a former street child, works tirelessly to ensure the girls receive adequate protection, go to school and live a life they deserve.
The scourge that is human trafficking and modern-day slavery continues to gnaw at the moral fabric of our society. Globally, according to research conducted by the United States State Department, more than one million people are trafficked annually. How many of those are in Southern Africa is not known.
Human trafficking by its very nature is a form of gender-based violence, not least because the majority of those trafficked are female, but also because physical and sexual violence are its bedfellows. While there are many forms of human trafficking, the most common is sex trafficking of women and children. Though some of the women trafficked willingly participate in sex work to escape poverty, a 2005 International Organisation for Migration (IOM) study found that most are led into sex work because they are lied to, told they will be able to pursue an education, get married or get the job that will help them out of poverty.
In the sub-region, South Africa is the main destination for trafficking victims, with women and children coming from neighbouring countries and conflict zones further afield. Poverty and desperation coupled with a culture of patriarchy means that women are doubly vulnerable not only to trafficking, but to the violence that comes with it.
Most disconcerting are the findings of a 2008/9 Wits University Law Clinic study on access to gender-based violence services in South Africa by migrant women. It found that two thirds of South African organisations that provide services to gender-based violence survivors offer their services exclusively to South African citizens. Therefore the plight of immigrants is compounded by the institutionalised xenophobia they face. Yet, reports abound of rapes and other forms of gender-based violence, especially at the country’s borders.
The South African 1 in 9 campaign advocates for women to speak out if they are raped, this is based on the fact that only 1 out of every 9 South African women who has been raped reports the crime. When it comes to victims of trafficking, it is difficult to collect data because of the underground nature of sex trafficking and the fear on the part of most sex workers that if they speak out they will be arrested, deported or abused or raped by police.
Organisations like the Sex Worker Education and Advisory Taskforce (SWEAT), which advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work, contend that until sex work is decriminalised it is unlikely that efforts to counter human trafficking will yield results. The victimisation of sex workers stems primarily from the fact that their profession is not afforded any protection.
“Moral” arguments against sex work notwithstanding, if human trafficking is to be curbed, the inherent contradictions that exist between attempting to counter human trafficking and the continued criminalisation of sex work need to be resolved.
In February this year, sex workers from ten African countries assembled in Hillbrow, Johannesburg to share their experiences and discuss their needs. This was the first ever meeting of this kind on the African continent. At the conference a Ugandan sex worker voiced her concern over the way in which sex workers are treated “like dogs” by the police.
Many indicated that the abuse did not only come from police, but also from health service providers, clients and the pimps they work for. The irony of the criminalisation of sex work in Africa is that it is the woman who offers the service who is stigmatised and abused, while those who pay for her illegal services go scot-free. It is one of society’s entrenched patriarchal paradoxes.
According to Cape Town based NGO Anex-CDW, which works closely with the IOM in its human trafficking project, most of the cases are reported by third parties and often the victims deny the allegation or refuse to talk about it. The wall of silence is almost impenetrable.
While the girls of Tshwane Home of Hope did not share the horrors of their lives, their presence at the Home speaks of an untold story of violence and fear. The Home is one of several sanctuaries for girls scattered across South Africa. In an ideal world homes such as this would not have to exist, everyone would be free from fear and want; everyone would be safe. The reality is we are not.
Ottilia Anna Maunganidze is a consultant for the International Crime in Africa Programme at the Institute for Security Studies. This article is part of a special series on the 16 Days of Activism for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news. For more information on the 16 Days Campaign go to www.genderlinks.org.za