YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – This year’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons is being observed July 30 under the theme, Victims’ Voices Lead The Way.

It’s a theme that highlights the importance of listening to and learning from survivors of human trafficking.

Ahead of this year’s event, Talitha Kum – the International Network of Consecrated Life Against Trafficking in Persons – has launched its Care Against Trafficking campaign.

“Our experience on the ground shows that long-term, care-centered approaches can reduce the risk of survivors being re-trafficked and exploited again,” said Sister Yvonne Clémence Bambara, Talitha Kum’s regional coordinator for Africa.

Speaking to Crux, she addresses the root causes of human trafficking and makes proposals on how to stem the tide of modern-day slavery.

Following are excerpts of that conversation.

Crux: What do you hope to achieve with this campaign?

Bambara: Talitha Kum’s Care Against Trafficking campaign aims to show that care can make a difference along every step of the journey to combat human trafficking – care for those at risk, care for victims, and care for survivors.

Our experience on the ground shows that long-term, care-centered approaches can reduce the risk of survivors being re-trafficked and exploited again. However, these approaches require holistic support at an institutional level, which our networks cannot provide alone. With this campaign, we call on all people of good will to come together and tackle the systemic causes of human trafficking, to transform the economy of trafficking into an economy of care.

Human trafficking is a global issue, but what is Africa’s share in this global problem?

It is believed that 25 percent of global human trafficking crimes may be taking place in Africa. Across the continent, poverty, terrorism and conflict lead to forced migration, exposing people on the move to physical and sexual exploitation. This situation is exacerbated by the influence of foreign powers plundering African countries, slowing down our development agenda and exposing communities to the threat of human trafficking.

Apparently the global pandemic has had a significant impact on this crisis: how has COVID-19 helped to drive up human trafficking around the world, and particularly in Africa?

The situation is different in different countries. Variable factors such as travel restrictions and lockdowns have created pressure points in certain areas: For example, trafficking between some neighboring countries has increased since routes to Europe have been cut off.

Overall, COVID-19 has created opportunities for organized crime, disrupting education and exacerbating poverty and hunger. The closure of schools, youth groups and social services has particularly exposed children to violence, abuse and trafficking: in lockdown, many have spent unsupervised time on virtual platforms and fallen prey to online sexual exploitation, a phenomenon that has exponentially increased. At the same time, restrictions on freedom of movement have made it harder for many victims to escape from their traffickers.

What other factors are responsible for human trafficking in Africa, and which parts of the continent are hardest hit?

One of the main factors driving trafficking across the continent is the plunder of Africa’s mineral resources by foreign powers. Other factors include poverty and food insecurity, instability due to terrorism and conflict, economic inequality driven by political choices around resource distribution, and customs such as forced marriage. Countries hardest hit are the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria and Uganda.

Do you think that African governments have been doing enough to tackle the root causes of this problem?

Some governments have put in place appropriate policies, but are struggling to follow up on their implementation. Others are doing little or nothing to tackle this challenge, which is why Talitha Kum networks continue to vocally advocate for increased awareness, political focus on the root causes of trafficking, and long-term support for survivors.

What is Talitha Kum doing to stem the tide of human trafficking in Africa?

Talitha Kum Africa is now active across fifteen countries, growing yearly in its reach and impact. In 2019, 72,130 people were reached through prevention and awareness-raising activities, 5,535 people were rescued and protected from exploitation, and 36 cases were prosecuted.

What do Talitha Kum networks believe that their work means for the communities they serve?

We know that one of our key areas of impact is prevention: our major accomplishments include raising awareness of trafficking, educating women and children on the risks they face, and building the capacity of local communities to eradicate trafficking networks. We’re also proud of our efforts to bring together different organizations and stakeholders, encouraging people to connect and collaborate. Last but not least, our mission has a life-changing impact for victims and survivors, empowering them through education, training and job opportunities to rebuild lives of freedom and dignity.

What have you learned from your contact with victims and survivors?

We’ve learned that many people become victims due to ignorance, which is why we focus on education and awareness. We meet victims who want to return home, but feel ashamed by expectations that they’ll bring wealth and provide for their families: many leave in search of greener pastures and feel they cannot return empty-handed. We’ve also witnessed the power of the religious bonds that keep victims tied to their traffickers: voodoo is widely used to exert psychological pressure and keep vulnerable people trapped in exploitative situations.

What is your vision for the ministry of human trafficking? Has this changed in response to the COVID pandemic?

Fueled by the power of our spiritual commitment, Talitha Kum Sisters have supported tens of thousands of people to escape the shackles of human trafficking since 2009. The COVID pandemic has worsened the situation, but this has only increased our dedication to protecting the dignity of the human person with the strength of God’s mercy and compassion.
What challenges do you face in your battle to end human trafficking?

Ignorance and fear are our greatest enemies. The fear of poverty, hunger and violence creates desperation and vulnerability. The fear of challenging organized crime silences victims and their allies, particularly where corruption is rampant. The fear that laws and policies will not support survivors makes it impossible to prosecute crimes and bring traffickers to justice. The fear of social ostracism inhibits those who might challenge traditional customs which drive human trafficking. Our mission is to educate and empower, combating fear in all its forms.

As the world prepares to observe the UN’s Day Against Trafficking in Persons, what is your call to humanity?

We call on all people of good will to come together and tackle the systemic causes of human trafficking. In particular, we call on governments to commit to long-term support for survivors, including access to quality education, access to work permits and job opportunities, access to justice and compensation, and healthcare and psychosocial support.