OPINION - Back to school is a busy time of year filled with late nights, early hours, and lots of homework. But it can also be a time when children and teens are vulnerable to being lured into human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines human trafficking as "the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or a position of vulnerability or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim for the purpose of exploitation“.
Human trafficking is a global issue that has been present since the beginning of time, with an estimate of 20-40 million victims worldwide.
The problem was not taken seriously until the last century when it became a major issue in Western countries. However, it has never been absent in developing countries where poverty and conflict are common.
The issue of human trafficking in South Africa is not often discussed, despite having the highest incidence of violent crimes against women and children in the world.
However, when we think about the back-to-school season, it is important to highlight the link between human trafficking and why back-to-school should be a period of high discernment for parents and teachers alike.
In general, human trafficking goes largely unnoticed at schools and higher learning institutions.
Some victims might also be unaware that they're being trafficked until it's too late.
When I was researching this article and discussing the issue with others, I was often surprised at the lack of knowledge people have about human trafficking in general. If a parent was asked what they thought the signs of trafficking were, they might say "a tattoo on their ankle" or "a small brand on their skin." While some traffickers do brand their victims, there are other ways for children and youth to be exploited without anyone else noticing. Some of these signs include:
Inappropriate references or sexual jargon that is beyond age-specific norms particularly to highlight their own personal experiences or sexual encounters.
He/She is looked after by a male or female who is not the legal guardian of the child.
Signs of psychological coercion include an overly submissive attitude.
Signs of physical or psychological trauma.
The list is barely extensive, yet some of these signs highlight crucial elements which are grounded enough to cause suspicion, not only for human trafficking as a potential signal point, but other forms of abuses as well.
Remember, violent and abuse-related crimes can become intertwined hence adding to the complexities of mitigating them.
As a parent, the most important thing is to talk to your child about the dangers of trafficking. Start a conversation today by asking your child what they know about human trafficking. This can open up an opportunity to discuss the subject and learn at what age and how often children are targeted for exploitation. Be sure to talk about the problem in South Africa, as well as its global nature and reach. It is never too late or early to raise awareness in your own household.
Traffickers don’t hide themselves or their intentions. They often have people in the community who know them, so that children can be sure that the trafficker is reputable.
Traffickers generally will not force a child to do anything; they just entice them with the “help” they offer. As a teacher or class instructor, it is important to talk to your children about the risks of human trafficking and instruct them on what to do if they encounter it.
The more we work together to spread awareness, the more likely we are as a community to prevent these tragedies from occurring.
Durban-born Thobeka Felicia Gigaba is a South African Anti-Trafficking, and Human Rights Blogger.