‘I met many girls beaten, addicted and prostituted,’ says Melanie Hamman
I came across many stories of human trafficking while working around the world as a photographer. I was outraged at the way people selfishly gained off the misery of others. When I returned to South Africa in 2009, I had the opportunity to work with Benjamin Skinner, an author on human trafficking.
For two years I was out in the field, investigating. My contacts led me into a world of sex trafficking. The victims were primarily female minors who were lured to the cities from townships or rural areas with the promises of work.
One night in Bloemfontein I went out onto the streets with outreach workers from a local church.
Outside this nightclub I saw this young, beautiful girl standing on the corner. It was winter, but she only wore a thin jacket, skinny jeans and leather sandals.
It was serendipitous because shortly before we met “Elizabeth”, we went to a hospital to see another victim “Sindiswa”, who was on her deathbed. She died two days later from tuberculosis, and was three months’ pregnant at the time.
It turned out the two were friends from an Eastern Cape village. A girl from another village made them promises of work in Bloemfontein and told them to go with her to stay at her “boyfriend’s” place.
Once there, the girl they knew left them. As they couldn’t find work, they were told what to do by the boyfriend and turned to the streets. They gave him all their earnings.
Elizabeth tried to escape a few times, each time being found and then punished. She was hesitant to leave her pimp because he would “witch” her (a threat of witchcraft).
After meeting the outreach workers, Elizabeth was placed in a special home for victims of trafficking in East London, where she had her baby girl.
She hadn’t even known she was pregnant. If she hadn’t escaped, it’s unlikely her baby would have lived. It is not uncommon for the baby to be forcefully aborted, or for the pimp to use the child as collateral to ensure trafficked women do not run away.
Elizabeth wanted to return to her village, where she hopefully remains today raising her baby girl.
During the World Cup in 2010, I worked with an outreach worker on the streets of a Johannesburg southern suburb. During a police raid on a brothel, we found three girls behind the locked gates, who lived in the same house but for different pimps. All were on drugs.
One called Wendy came across as arrogant, shouting at passing cars. She seemed to be “higher” on the drugs than the other two.
She had burn marks on her legs from an iron, scars from stabbings, and revealed that these were from her “man” when she misbehaved.
At one point she looked as if she wanted to leave, but then refused, saying the other two were “mad” for leaving. She had been with her pimp for much longer than the other two who’d only been there a few months.
(Less than a year later, Wendy’s body was found outside Pretoria. She had been murdered.)
The other two girls wanted to leave. One was from Lesotho. She looked no more than 16, was tiny and had scars where she’d been slashed with a bottle on her back by her pimp. She had left home after being raped and seemed to think she had done something wrong.
It struck me deeply that this young girl, through no fault of her own, was robbed of her virginity and had her life shattered.
She ended up in Durban and, with promises of work, was trafficked to Johannesburg, where her passport was taken. She was told she owed money for transport and food, and had to work as a prostitute to pay it back.
The pimp took all her earnings. He gave her drugs, food and a place to stay, all used as debt bondage to ensure she stayed.
Both the girls left with us and were taken to a shelter for abused women. Sadly, the next day they ran away. I don’t know whether they are alive or dead.
I want to find stories of these victims and tell them. What if I had been born under their circumstance and I was alone at night on that street corner wearing sandals?
I can’t not take this work home – it’s not something separate. I’m blessed that I have a husband who understands and supports me.
I want to leave this world knowing that my life mattered to someone else and it made a difference. My job is not done yet.
Hamman is Media Monitoring Africa’s Child Protection and Trafficking Programme Head and also the Media Co-ordinator of the National Freedom Network, a local organisation affiliated with Stop The Traffik from the UK which aims to unite anti-slavery efforts in South Africa.
‘Most victims are introduced to traffickers by friends,’ says Margaret Stafford
In 2008, I met my first victims of human trafficking from Thailand. They had been brought into South Africa with promises of work in restaurants and the hairdressing industry, only to end up in a brothel in Rosettenville.
We weren’t sure how to ease their pain. Some had left their children in Thailand. They were put in our shelter for three weeks. In that time we taught them how to sew.
Because of the language barrier, we learnt to communicate with them through pictures. They became part of the family. Saying goodbye when they left was hard. We cried and hugged one another. For them, it was the one time in South Africa they felt safe.
Each one of our cases is different. One girl came to us pregnant, so she was with us for the entire duration of her pregnancy. Another came in heavily addicted, so we walked a different journey with her.
Another was on the verge of dying. We managed to get her to a hospice where she received the right treatment and eventually recovered.
We have rescued girls from prostitution. For some, once they were better, they’d go back to it.
At the children’s homes, we see them struggling and troubled. It’s a situation they’ve been in for years. They’ve been at it since 12, and then they become 17. They know the streets, they’re in survival mode and that’s what they are taught.
We’ve rescued an eight year-old but most of our girls range from 18 to 25 and come from within South Africa but we’ve had girls from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Tanzania.
Most of these girls were introduced to the traffickers by friends who tell them to come to work in South Africa. Some had been sold several times.
All the girls have the opportunity of reuniting with their families. We find out what happened to make the young girl leave home in the first place and then we look at the possibilities of getting her back to her home town. We have staff meetings on how to deal with the trauma.
There are people we talk to, who remind us to take a break from work, to take care of our families and ourselves. But it’s difficult, there have been times when I breached this rule.
We had a woman who was on suicide watch. The police found her in the park and she was going to kill her baby and herself. She was taken to a shelter.
For a few days, I took her baby home in the evening because she was colicky and couldn’t sleep through the night. And then, during the day, I took the baby back to her mother. It’s amazing to see these girls heal. As staff, it’s what carries us through.
It’s frustrating that the human trafficking bill hasn’t been passed yet and that we lack infrastructure for victims.
We can provide healing but the hope and what happens after is difficult. In South Africa, we’re not ready for it. The more we talk and explain it, more cases will get exposed. Coming from a faith-based organisation, we know there is hope in the long run.”
Stafford is National co-ordinator for the Salvation Army’s Anti-Human Trafficking Task Team.
‘The most vulnerable are those exploited,’ says Shireen Pekeur
As a trained social worker, when I see a victim, I know what to do. You get taught to not let your personal feelings interfere.
You try not let the history of someone’s life affect you.
I’m fairly new to our victim assistance programme, and I’ve worked on very few trafficking cases. The one that stays with me is the girl who came from the Northern Cape.
At the age of 16, she was brought down to Cape Town by a man who recruited women for domestic work.
As a domestic worker, it seemed like she had good working conditions, but her employer’s husband continually harassed her sexually and finally raped her.
What saddened me was that she was an innocent and very gullible.
It angers me that it’s those who are most vulnerable who are exploited. And they’re brought from other places with the hope of a better life. You feel helpless. You can only put a bandage on a wound.
Because these girls often don’t have family, they get sent back to where they came from, which is often a poverty-stricken environment.
There’s no support system for them, no jobs, so some will return.
Family is an important link to repatriation. Just the fact that you can speak to families, and they’re not going to reject these girls, it’s encouraging for them.
It was a reward for me to know that the girl we sent back to the Northern Cape was happy.
The social worker was also happy with my work, that I gave this girl a sense of dignity.
You know, success for me would be if she found a job, but resources in the rural areas of the Northern Cape are limited.
There are few social workers who specialise in human trafficking. Our case loads are high. It sometimes feels like we just put out the flames.
Social workers are basically dealing with the surface layer but are not digging deeper to find out what happens, and to walk a road with that person. And that person can fall through the cracks.
It’s stressful finding the shelters for these women and children. You don’t want to allow them to become victims of the system again.
Pekeur is a social worker for Activists Networking against the Exploitation of Children (ANEX) in Cape Town.
Who are the traffickers?
They range from inexperienced individuals to experienced organised networks.
When traffickers operate in large criminal groups, they have accomplices who facilitate the transportation and exploitation of victims.
Often a trafficker is an individual known to the victim. Traffickers also target vulnerable people and use recruiters to spot them and deceive them into trafficking. These recruiters are usually good at manipulating their peers and using false promises of a better life.
There are also private employment agencies, who recruit job seekers to send them abroad with the purpose of exploiting them.
Common recruitment methods:
* Individual recruiters looking for interested males and females in impoverished communities.
* Recruited via informal networks of family and/or friends.
* Advertisements offering work or study opportunities.
* Agencies offering work, study, marriage or travel.
* False marriages.
* Purchase of children from their guardians, or by deceiving guardians to hand over children.
Means of recruitment:
* Abduction or kidnapping.
* Selling a person, typically a child.
* Deception by promise of legitimate employment and/or entry into another country.
* Deception through half truths – often to young girls of love and romance.
* Deceptions about working conditions.
* Abuse of vulnerability – a poor child with few/no options.
Forms of exploitation:
* Forced labour – domestic, farming.
* Sexual exploitation – being used for sexual services or forced to work as a prostitute.
* Removal of organs or trafficking of body parts.
* Criminal activities, begging, forced marriage, illicit adoption, armed conflicts (armed soldiers).
Forms of control:
* Debt bondage
* Isolation by removal of ID and/or travel documents.
* Linguistic and social isolation.
* Violence and fear.
* Threat of death.
* Threats of reprisals against victim or a victim’s family.
* Psychological – imprisonment and torture.
* Magical beliefs and practices – threats of witchcraft.
* Emotional manipulation.
* Threat of reprisal upon leaving – often that victim will not be accepted back by family.
* Threat of arrest by police.
Source: International Organisation for Migration and Media Monitoring Africa.
08000 RESCU (08000 73728) The Salvation Army 24-hour toll-free hotline
0800 555 999 IOM helpline (International Organisation for Migration)