Covid-19 makes the vulnerable girl child more vulnerable to human trafficking

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…gvt should strengthen social protection mechanisms for the vulnerable children

Perseverance Javangwe

The Covid-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the already harsh economic situation in the country, it has also exacerbated existing disadvantages, poverty, and vulnerabilities. The measures introduced to curb the health crisis did not consider those most vulnerable and affected by violence and exploitation. This has resulted in the girl child falling victim to human trafficking.

Traffickers have cruelly capitalised on the pandemic by preying on out-of-school children. When poverty-stricken and marginalised children are out of the formal education environment, they are at greater risk of being subjected to exploitation, child labor, and violence. School closures have also restricted teachers’ abilities to identify at-risk and exploited youths.

The story of a girl in Mberengwa who fell into the hands of traffickers speaks volumes of the exposure that befalls the girl child when the economic situation is not addressed properly, coupled with the covid-19 lockdown measures that do not cater for the vulnerable communities.

Rutendo (not her real name), 21 from Chief Mabika, Mberengwa was met by the Vukarhani Trust research team at Lutumba, when she was coming back from South Africa where she escaped some traffickers there. According to her, the life challenges including poverty and lack of parental guidance made her decide to look for greener pastures in South Africa.

Rutendo is an orphan and at age 10 she had lost all parents and even the grandparents. She did not attend secondary school because she dropped from school in Grade 6. She has two siblings who are 17 and 14. She looked after her siblings from a tender age. Rutendo, has vulnerabilities that make her prone to traffickers. She was managing the bare minimum by vending vegetables and green mealies from the gardens at Mabika. She would board the train to outlying areas selling vegetables and green mealies. This placed her at risk in many ways. During the Covid-19 induced lockdown restrictions, her market diminished?

Rutendo’s cousin sister who had gone to South Africa some years back returned to the village. It took time for Rutendo to recognize her cousin because she had aged a bit. The sister talked to Rutendo about the possibility of changing her life and that of her siblings for the better. She was promised a job at a hotel in a mining town in Rustenburg (South Africa). Her sister promised to pay all the expenses for the trip. Rutendo could not resist the temptation. She left with her so-called cousin sister and three other girls younger than her. They used an undesignated point to cross the border. The journey was smooth save for the delays on the road.

Upon arrival, she was taken to a house where there were three other girls, so together they were eight in a small room. The next morning, the new ones which included Rutendo were told that they are not allowed to go out of the room. She was kept for three days on water and bread. When she asked about the job, she was advised against being a bother because she owed them. After about a week, there came a man with a vehicle and they were loaded into a tinted van. She was taken to a place she did not know even up to today. She does not know what happened to the other three girls. For her, it was hell. She was placed in a room that had a bed and a thin blanket only. First, it was the man who took her from her so-called sister who came in the morning and raped her several times that day.

She complained but was told she was bought for this kind of job. Several days that followed, men would come and literally raped her, she was heartbroken. However, luck ran on her side when one man came, the man asked her why she was doing prostitution since she was young. She explained her ordeal to the man who felt sorry for her and made a plan to help her. The man, who is a South African, smuggled Rutendo from that place and contacted some Zimbabweans who helped her to return back home. She had to come through an undesignated point. Asked if she tried to get help from the police, she said she did not because she had no valid papers, and was afraid of getting arrested.

This is the challenge that the girl child is now facing and is prone to traffickers. Yes, human trafficking started a while back, but the covid-19 pandemic coupled with the economic situation in the country exacerbated the situation as more people seek greener pastures from the harsh economic situation in the country. Speaking in an interview with this reporter, the Vukarhani Trust Director Gerald Shirichena explored the impacts of the covid-19 pandemic on the girl child exposing them to trafficking.

“Covid-19 had some effects on the human matrix in Zimbabwe because the vulnerability of the people was increased when they were not able to go work or school. There were so many cases of Gender-Based violence and run-away children. And these people became more vulnerable to traffickers because they will be running away from situations that they cannot contain.

“Because of Covid-19 the girl child was affected by human trafficking because they became targets since they were not going to school, some actually dropped out of school, they could not afford extra lessons and online learning. A quick survey that we did during the covid-19 was at Lutumba where illegal migrants gathered to go to South Africa and there were so many girls of ages 11-15years that were moving to South Africa. So the girl child became more vulnerable, some girls became the source of income in most homes because the situation forced them to become food bearers. We witnessed a lot of run-away children during the covid-19 era and these ran away from either hunger or conflicts at home where, for example, the stepfather and even stepmother, uncles, or aunts ill-treated the girl child. So the ill-treatment was to force them to move out of the houses which exposed them to traffickers

“…basing on the trends, movements of people to and from, seemingly human trafficking situations, some impact assessment shows that covid-19 has actually had an impact on human trafficking. We can safely say there was an increase in human trafficking activities during the lockdown. The lockdown has made vulnerable groups move from city to city and even across the country. The girl child became more exposed since they had nothing to do, they would loiter around looking for something to do, and some would spend more time on social media which has become a major recruiting point for traffickers,” he said.

Traffickers have made the most of the situation, exploiting the precarious financial situation of many of their victims and some might have succumbed to covid-19 according to Shirichena.

“The victims that we encountered during Covid-19 told us of events that were traumatic. Many were not allowed to go out there were stringent methods in places they were working. They could not go home. Some told us that they were fired from work without pay. So the victims told us that they contracted Covid-19 but were denied medication I remember meeting some people near Beitbridge who were very sick and told us that they were not allowed to go to hospitals. So they had to run away and we managed to get hold of them. We believe some might have lost their lives during this period and no one was informed.

“During the lockdown, the borders were closed but the movement of people never stopped. People were going to South Africa illegally some were moving from rural to urban and even to other small urban settlements, this has actually increased the vulnerability of such people because they will be trying to look for something to sustain themselves. The covid-19 worsened the situation of people who are seemingly in exploitative situations because the people that are enslaving them did not allow them to go out. Even those in domestic servitudes could not go on off days because employers were afraid they could bring covid-19 infection. So it worsened some situations. Even those in sexual exploitation we noted that in as much as they did not go on the streets but for younger children, it became easy for traffickers to keep them indoors so that abusers had easy access because they would just come through at their own will,” he said.

Shirichena, gave some solutions that should be undertaken by the government as well as the ordinary citizens in order to curb traffickers. He said that everyone is a potential victim of human trafficking and therefore there is a need for everyone to partake in the fight against this scourge that is taking its toe in the country.

“The girl child is adversely affected by human trafficking and what can be done to protect the girl child from a government level is that the economy has to be stabilized so that families do not lack basic necessities. While that is being done, safety nets at the community and local level have to be built, just to build resilience. Safety nets like community gardens, micro-finance to families so that they are able to look after the girl child. The issue of giving the girl child, sanitary packs, really mitigates the girl child against child trafficking.

“So there are certain things we can do to protect the girl child. They need the care and support from us. We should include men and boys in the protection of the girl child. Men and boys should know that they are protectors. We should do programs that do not demonise men but give mandate that they should protect the girl child. If we have a radical shift of mindset for men and boys against girls we can promote the girl child. We also need the support of the elderly women because there are cases where older women become accomplices of human trafficking of the girl child.

“So we should understand that everyone is involved in human trafficking so the protection of the girl child should come from everyone. Men should change their mindset and challenge those taking girls for sex objects. We also need role models in our society to inspire the girl child not to be exploited. We need authentic role models who can come forward and teach the girl child not to be lured by small things in human trafficking,” he said.

Locadia Mavhudzi, the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCOZ) Midlands Chapter Chairperson spoke on the importance of the government, civil society organisations and the media in protecting the girl child from human trafficking.

“…what we need to do is to strengthen social protection mechanism for the vulnerable children especially child-headed families and orphans, orphan led families and those families in distress. The government should strengthen social protection mechanisms through offering grants for survival, through offering zero cost access to education, access to health so that they will be able to live a normal life, thereby not becoming targets for human trafficking.

“We realise that this is a challenge that affects mostly the youths, so we need to strengthen young people’s activities and access to resources so that they are able to do something and be busy with life, be it through education or doing small businesses or anything that engages them and keep them busy.

“Civil Society Organisations cannot work alone but have to be on the alert side with community leaders to identify if there are any challenges that pertain to children who are targets of human trafficking so it is not a one person or one-sided responsibility but it needs any all stakeholder approach for us to curb the challenge. The media on the other side can also bring out these issues on various platforms like on radios, TVs, on newspapers and even online to say this is a challenge that we have in our communities, let us all have our eyes open and be able to report any of these issues,” she said.

The covid-19 pandemic has taught us that we need to develop strategies on how to continue anti-human trafficking activities on a national.


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