Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Human Rights & Trafficking in Africa

Dear Friends of Alaffia,

It is my sincere wish this note finds you and your family in good health. I hope that you are enjoying the last few remaining days of 2014. Throughout 2014, I have written to share with you what Alaffia has been up to and my own personal thoughts and reflections on the course of humanity towards justice for all. While some of my reflections are of a sad nature, they have and continue to propel me to continue the Alaffia journey. One thing both the Alaffia updates and my personal notes have centered on is the profound desire for basic human rights for all.  Since this is the end of the year, I wanted to discuss with you one of the human rights abuses that persist in our society, and as we jump to a new year, we shall use this information to continue to create justice. As you know, there are many aspects of human rights, but my note will focus on one flaw I continue to witness in our West African societies. This is the trafficking of young ladies, which is an area of injustice that is very personal to me, as I have witnessed it first-hand.

Three years ago, while in Togo, my step sister was put in the local jail in our home town of Kaboli. It happened I was in Togo at the time, and I received a phone call that I must send money to Kaboli right away to bail my sister out. She had been jailed for trafficking a young girl of our neighborhood to Benin for domestic servitude. This created an extreme dilemma for me. I felt disgusted a member of my family would participate in such a trade. On the other hand, my refusal to help her financially would lead my family to see me as a cold person and my inactivity would bring shame on the entire family. The longer she remained in jail, the more time there was for the town to learn about it and create even greater strain on the family. Even though my sister’s actions went directly against my primary core values, I agreed to send funds to bail her out. I did this because she was the only one who knew where the girl had been sent and the only one who could help get the girl returned to her family. In exchange for the bail, my sister agreed to bring the young woman back to her family.

Since that day, I decided to learn more through my sister on how this trade works. As she explained, it begins when women like my sister will receive an “order” from a contact, who has a network of wealthy clients in cities in Benin or Nigeria looking for house servants. Through this network, he will put in his order for young women and girls to traffickers like my sister.  The traffickers begin their search by identifying extremely poor families with many children. These are families that barely have enough food to make it through the day or have undergone some tragedy, such as losing the mother or father, leaving young women under 20. The traffickers take advantage of the family situation and convince the young ladies that this is their chance for a better life, that after three years of helping rich families she will have her own money. The trafficker then smuggles the girls through the town and passes them on to the contact, who has connections with cross border bus drivers.  When the girls reach the city, a message is sent through the same bus driver telling the girl’s family she has gone to Cotounou (or other city) to work for a family and not to worry.  This way the family will stop searching for her. While the family knows which city their daughter is in, they don’t know the address or even the neighborhood.  The young girl leaves her family behind, and is treated a house servant for up to three years. During this time, the family she works for pays the contact approximately $10 each month, but the girl does not see any money until her three year term is up, at which time she only receives a small portion of her earnings. Traffickers are given up to 20% of the girls’ anticipated earnings when they deliver the girls to the contact. This upfront payment is the primary motivator for traffickers like my sister.

What I have shared with you is just a bare sketch of the complexity and totality of this human rights violation.  As my sister related to me, at least half of the young women end up in prostitution or get pregnant, in which case they are sent back to their already impoverished parents. According to UNICEF, 80 percent or more of domestic workers in West Africa are girls, the majority of which are rural girls relocated to urban areas.

Today, a quarter of all the women that participate in Alaffia’s maternal health program are young girls that have been trafficked and returned with unwanted pregnancies. While Alaffia is supporting these women, it does not resolve this injustice. As I have alluded already, the root cause of this is poverty. And, while poverty does not justify such inhumanity, as I have seen over and over, when people are in deep poverty, morality is deflected and decisions are made that keep individuals and communities in poverty or prevent chance of a better life in the future. I see how entrenched this practice in in our society, but remain hopeful that the creation of economic opportunities for these girls and their families will put an end to it.

As for my sister, I gave her a small loan, and she now trades agricultural good, grains and yams, in Kaboli and surrounding villages. She no longer participates in human trafficking. As for me, my decision to pay for her bail continues to bring internal conflict but affirms my dedication to continue to mitigate these practices in our societies.  Since the day I bailed out my sister, I have been working harder than ever to reduce this practice in my country through providing economic opportunities and social empowerment to reduce poverty in our communities.

During this holiday season, I plead to you to improve something in your neighborhood that you see as morally wrong. We as a human family cannot and should not allow for such practices that make our fellow sisters be treated in such a manner. Those of us who do not live under poverty conditions must do everything we can to reduce the pain of the lives of our sisters. The only way we can reduce this suffering is if each and everyone one of us, regardless of geographical location, does something.
Finally, please accept my deepest gratitude for all that you have done in supporting Alaffia to enable us to continue our dedications in Togo. I wish you a very joyous and peaceful holiday.

In peace,

Olowo-n’djo Tchala