Sofia’s childhood was stolen at the age of 9, when she was raped by a 48-year-old man in her hometown of Welcome, in Free State province of South Africa. Five years later, she lost the last traces of her childhood when her mother died. Sent to live with an abusive uncle, Sofia ran away. Instead of freedom, she found slavery. Kidnapped and raped yet again, Sofia became a commodity. Human traffickers bought and forced her into prostitution.
Changed for her privacy, Sofia’s name is made-up, but her story is not. Stories like hers are a daily occurrence in Africa’s wealthiest country. Yet, little is known of lives like Sofia’s. Even when helped in shelters, victims of human trafficking often find it difficult to open up, either because of language barriers or because they have been threatened by their exploiters. Also, the significant decrease of awareness since the 2010 FIFA World Cup – when many campaigns were deployed to halt the expected expansion in trafficking linked to the sport event – has kept this crime in the dark corners of South Africa.
Not For Sale, a California-based non-profit-organization, wants to bring again public attention to this issue.
In partnership with Mxit, Africa’s largest social networking service, it has created a platform for use on mobile phones. Basically, it works as a quiz and aims to gather data on three subjects: what people know about human trafficking, which trends of trafficking are taking place in various regions, and how to detect and support victims.
“An initiative such as this will not only provide valuable information for key stakeholders and decision makers, but also motivate community efforts to raise awareness of the problem, support law enforcement and possibly identify victims,” declared Carol Allais, professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of South Africa.
When people log on to Mxit using their mobile phones, the Not For Sale logo appears along with an advertisement inviting to take the survey. If users click on it, the survey starts in a format of 11 “yes” or “no” questions.
Here are two examples: “In South Africa, are only young local females at risk for being trafficked?” or “A young boy from the Eastern Cape needs money to help his family buy food. An uncle tells him of a job in Cape Town where he can make enough money to send some home to his mother and sisters. He boards a taxi van with other young boys thinking he is going to Cape Town, but instead he is taken to a farm where he is forced to work long hours with no pay. If he tries to escape, he is beaten. Is this human trafficking?”
By offering free air-time and other credits to its 40 million users, Mxit – and so does Not for Sale – hopes to achieve 150,000 responses to the survey over a two months period.
By collecting data, Not for Sale hopes to better understand people’s general perception of human trafficking, one of the world’s fastest-growing criminal industries, generating more than $32 billion per year.
Not For Sale will also identify areas where it is needed to implement anti-trafficking initiatives.
Another outcome, no less important, is an increase in the culture of reporting human trafficking incidences. Mxit’s users are encouraged to report cases of people affected by trafficking. For this purpose, a toll-free number is provided.
Though too early to draw conclusions from the new findings, what is already known is that South Africa remains a main source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children trafficked for forced labor, sexual exploitation, and organ harvesting.
In spite of its overall growth – the country’s GDP is expected to increase by 2.8 per cent in 2012, outperforming the US and the EuroZone – South Africa’s urban and rural poverty is the most evident cause of trafficking in humans.
“Local South Africans from the rural areas are tricked into taking jobs in the cities and then are exploited both sexually and domestically,” Christina Bacino, Not For Sale’s South Africa coordinator, told MediaGlobal.
This trend is confirmed by Myriam Danam, founder of S-Cape Home, a project launched by the counter-trafficking network Justice ACTs, that provides a safe environment and a holistic restoration process for young exploited women. “Mainly the girls we’ve been helping come from rural or suburban provinces of South Africa,” said Danam. “They usually go to the cities by themselves and from these cities they’re trafficked by Nigerian rings that bring them to Cape Town.”
Both Not for Sale and Justice ACTs’ experiences on the field are corroborated by the latest results described in the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report released by the US Department of State.
The US State Department uses a 3-tier scale regarding human trafficking where 3s are the worst offenders. South Africa ranks as a Tier 2 country in the TIP report, meaning that its government, like many others including the ones of Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, and Brazil “do not fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.”
Currently, South Africa’s laws do not prohibit all forms of human trafficking. Moreover, law enforcement efforts are focused on sex trafficking, with little attention to forced labor. The US State Department recommends that South Africa compile national statistics, as the current lack of data inhibits effective response. “I’ve had a meeting with the South African Department of Social Development; what I’ve heard is that they [the government] don’t have enough reports and statistics to really understand it’s a problem and, thus, that they need to do something about it,” Danam stated.
Experts agree much needs to be done in the realms of prosecution, protection, and prevention. The Parliament’s justice committee has recently adopted the long-awaited Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Bill, drafting of which began in 2003. The legislation, under discussion in Parliament for the past five years, still needs to be enacted.
Despite the South African government’s slowness, the civil society has proven ready to act. Social networks can be the new frontier for all the stakeholders to do an even better job in fighting this modern form of slavery.
Thanks to social networks potential victims can better understand the dynamics of human trafficking, recognize and avoid it. Also, a real-time reporting of such crimes can induce real-time responses by authorities. Trafficking detection can also be managed through social networking sites like Twitter as shown in Mark Latonero’s study “Human Trafficking Online.”
“Raising awareness and gathering opinions are important parts of the anti-trafficking movement,” Latonero, Research Director at Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy at the University of Southern California, told MediaGlobal. “At the same time, social media and mobile phones are used to facilitate human trafficking, for example, to recruit, control, and advertise victims. We need to find innovative ways to detect both victims and exploiters on these digital networks and provide real-time information to those who are able to help.”