Friday, July 12, 2024

A survivor shares her story of human trafficking

Human trafficking and modern slavery are often used interchangeably to describe a gross violation of human rights involving the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labour or commercial sex act. Every year, men, women, and children are trafficked worldwide – including right here in Botswana. The story of this young teenage girl simply started like so many others, with a manipulation of trust. All it took was the purchase of fresh chips and a coke for P20 from a seemingly caring man, and the course of Thato’s life (a pseudonym) was forever changed.

A year ago at the tender age of 15, Thato was staying in a remote village in Northern Botswana taking care of her young sister and ailing mother. Having not attended school for the most part of her life and with no income coming into the household, she threw caution to the wind and applied for a job at a farm as a herdswoman. A week into the job her supposed boss offered to buy her a coke. She accepted, and within three months that man became her human trafficker, controlling every aspect of her life and selling her body for his own gain.

“Ever since I was young I never had anyone that I could rely on to assist me with money, advice or food because I came from a dysfunctional family. My father died before I was born and my mother has been bed ridden for years. I had to figure out life on my own from a tender age,” says Thato.

By the time she was 14, she had been physically and sexually abused by an uncle on numerous occasions. Being overwhelmed by shame from these incidences coupled with the lack of a steady family support system, this led her on a very challenging path.

“I had no one to help me to process all the emotional and physical trauma that had taken place in my life. My self-esteem slowly vanished. When I started working as a herdswoman at a farm, a man came and started to appreciate and compliment everything that I was doing. Since I was on a broken path and could not differentiate between good or bad, I got immediately attracted to this man who then became my trafficker,” Thato tells The Telegraph.

The man came days later and bought her a coke and chips and then invited her to his house. Thato says in her mind this man had taken that daddy-figure role and she was impressed with his money, nice cars and nice clothes.

The man then began to sexually abuse Thato and trafficking her.

“That literally wrecked my entire life,” says Thato.

Linah Kaodi who mainly counsels and helps teenage girls who have been victims of sex trafficking to right their lives says traffickers use such tactics to prey on the vulnerabilities of young boys and girls. She says most of the victims of traffickers are people who have had a rough upbringing at home, suffered child abuse or are homeless.

“Human traffickers target people who are weak and vulnerable in the society and people who are not in a position to make their own decisions,” says Kaodi. She also adds that most boys who have been victims of traffickers had a negative association with a male figure and usually grew up in a household where there was no father figure.

On how she managed to escape her trafficker, Thato says it was mere good fortune. “One night my trafficker forgot to tie me to the bed as he routinely did. So I then managed to escape out of the house and went straight to the streets. At that time i was traumatised and wanted to commit suicide by lying on railway tracks and wait for a train to run over me,” says Thato.

She also says while getting her self-worth was an important first step, it took much longer for her to realise that she was a survivor. Thato also says having been abused as a child, her road to recovery was quite quick because of awareness and counselling.

“The moment you come out of human trafficking, slavery or exploitation you feel as if you were born to be that way. Because of years of grooming by your trafficker, you feel as if it was your choice to be trafficked and exploited,” says Thato.

Thato describes her trafficker as someone who had the power to control her mind. This, she says, made her trafficker to abuse her financially, emotionally, mentally, physically and in some cases isolated her. All of this contributed to a sharp feeling of isolation for Thato.

When we inquired from Thato on how easy or difficult it is to spot a human trafficking victim, she says “It is quite difficult because it is conducted in stealth mode.”

Although to some extent the past will always live with Thato, she took one more step towards freeing herself from the past by removing a tatoo she received from her trafficker. As her welcome into the industry, her trafficker tattooed the back of his neck with the words “Forever mine” primarily as a distinctive mark to indicate a trafficker’s property.

No two trafficking stories are the same although there might all be laced with some similar threads that exist among the diverse survivors. Fortunately Thato seems to have bounced back from her riotous youth. After months of counselling and embracing her new life, Thato seems to be on the right path once again.

“I love my new life and I am alive again,” she says. 

The U.S. State Department’s 2020 annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report says Botswana does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. For the past five years, Botswana has remained in ‘Tier 2’ category which refers to countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.

“The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore, Botswana remained on Tier 2. The government prosecuted more traffickers and increased funding for victim protection services. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. The government did not amend its law to eliminate the option of a fine in lieu of imprisonment, and reported identifying fewer victims of trafficking,” states the report.

The report says traffickers in some cases exploit young Batswana serving as domestic workers for extended family who may be denied access to education and basic necessities. “Criminals exploit some Batswana girls and women in prostitution within the country, including in bars and along major highways. Organized trafficking rings subject some Batswana women to trafficking internally or transport women from neighbouring countries such as South Africa and Zimbabwe and subject them to sexual exploitation,” states part of the report.


Read this week's paper