‘I thought that happens to other people’: Being trafficked without knowing it
By— August 7, 2015
When I met Sophie Otiende, she was running late. I had reached out to her in December 2014 while I was in Nairobi doing research for a film about sex trafficking. Otiende and her boyfriend, Jakob Christensen, are volunteers at the anti-trafficking nonprofit HAART Kenya and had agreed to meet me for dinner. But as time wore on, I was beginning to think I’d been stood up.
When the two finally arrived, Otiende, a native Kenyan with runway grace, and Christensen, a stoic Dane, apologized and explained that they had recently rescued 29 trafficked women from Libya and earlier that day had still been working to secure the arrival of two who had been left behind.
They had my full attention.
The two explained that the women had all escaped from various trafficking scenarios and were now stuck at the Kenyan Embassy in Libya, which has been closed since July 2014. As the political situation in Libya has worsened—the only functioning airport was bombed in November—getting the women out of Libya had become more complicated. Many of them were traveling without documents. One was pregnant.
Dinner that night was a crash course in Kenya’s social realities. The 29 women in Libya were just a few of the potentially thousands of women a year who become caught up in Kenya’s human trafficking rings. (Specific data on numbers have not been released by the government.) According to a 2014 U.S. Department of State “Trafficking in Persons Report,” the country is a source, transit, and destination country for traffickers, whose victims may end up as far away as Saudi Arabia, Europe, or the United States. Children sell for an average of US$600 and are usually sold for sex to European tourists in resort areas like the southeastern Kenyan city of Mombasa. Still, Otiende told me that with all this happening under their noses, most Kenyans are unaware that trafficking is an issue. Often, victims themselves don’t even know they’re being exploited, especially if they had already experienced abuse or sexualized violence before, she said.
“You ask them, ‘Were you beaten?’ Yes. ‘Did someone sexually abuse you?’ Yes. ‘Touch you in an inappropriate way?’ Yes. ‘Did someone abuse you?’ Yes,” Otiende said. “But they think they were lucky because they got paid.”
The current political environment for women in Kenya is one of flux. In a 2013 report released by the United Nations Children’s Fund, Kenya has been praised as a “leading light” in Africa for its drastic reduction of female genital mutilation. Campaigns against sexualized violence and workplace harassment have also seen progress. Yet recent legislation—such as the Matrimonial Property Act, which, after a divorce or the death of a husband, allows a woman to be stripped of family property if she’s unable to prove she’s made a significant financial contribution to the marriage, as well as a new bill that formally permits polygamy—is seen as proof of the tug-of-war between an old world and a new one. Otiende said it’s proof that even as Kenya progresses on the world stage, women and girls are being left behind.
President Barack Obama called out this disparity in the final speech of his historic visit to Kenya last month. “There is no excuse for sexual assault or domestic violence,” he told the crowd. “There’s no reason that young girls should suffer genital mutilation.”
The president’s comments were met with applause, but change will likely be a slow process in a country where women are still passed over in so many facets of public and private life. A new constitution adopted in 2010 prohibits discrimination based on marital status, lets mothers pass citizenship to children, and gives women equal land rights, however the new reforms have gone virtually unenforced, according to news reports. Unable to inherit land from her parents, a daughter remains dependent on the care of male relatives or a husband. She’s less likely to be allowed to go to school and more likely to marry early. Otiende said women who feel they’re not valued in their own country are apt to seek better prospects somewhere else—and then may fall into the hands of traffickers.
Jacinta, who I interviewed via Skype, was one of the women rescued by HAART. She’s still recovering so she asked that I not use her last name. Jacinta had come to Nairobi from Kiambu, a town about 30 minutes from the capital, looking for work. She was a young woman with no connections, only a primary school education, and children to feed, so when an agent promised her a job as a domestic worker for a wealthy family in Tripoli, she decided to try her luck. She said the elderly head of the household had initially been reasonable but things took a turn for the worse when the man died suddenly soon after. She asked to leave. Her employers refused.
“We’ve already bought you,” they said.
They informed her that she would have to work for a year to pay off the fee they had given the agent for her. Fearful that they might kill her, (Jacinta says both the agent and a male member of the family had used a gun to intimidate her) she bided her time until, one day, while taking out the trash, she saw an opportunity. With her employers in hot pursuit, Jacinta ran for her life to the Kenyan Embassy.
All of the 29 women rescued—including Jacinta—eventually made it safely to Nairobi. (You can read Otiende’s account of their harrowing journey here.) They were lucky. Many victims remain in bondage abroad for years, facing starvation, physical, and sexual abuse, or worse.
Women with no safety net are easy prey for traffickers. Experts say economic strain is a key factor in the proliferation of the trade—especially when the collapse of traditional sources of income force people to make desperate decisions. A 2014 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says poverty is as devastating as civil unrest or natural disaster on the list of factors that drive individuals into the hands of traffickers. The report notes that poor families may entrust children to more affluent friends or relatives—effectively trafficking their own flesh and blood—not just for the money, but also in the hope that they will have a better life.
There is a low likelihood that women who are trafficked have been economically empowered, said Alice Kinyua, a Kenyan lawyer who advocates for the rights of children and girls. She advocates addressing the problem from the root by enabling women to support themselves, which can prevent children from becoming victims as well. “That way you’re supporting the whole community,” she said.
Kinyua helped draft Kenya’s Counter Trafficking in Persons Act, a historic law passed in 2010 that is the first to legally prohibit all forms of trafficking in the country. Her legal initiative, Friends for Justice, also works to rescue and counsel victims. She says trial and error has taught her that the key to breaking the cycle is to do it at the source.
Job training ensures that a woman can become financially independent, but Kinyua takes it one step further. She says appointing the returned victim as the manager of whatever assistance the family receives can reinforce connections while rebuilding self-esteem. She told me about one rescued woman whose farm now earns enough to support a family of seven. “When she tells her story, she tells her friends she owns a business,” Kinyua said. “She’s never dreamed that she’d actually be a manager of something.”
Otiende said most of the women she’s worked with are surprised that there can be life after trafficking. And her own story also has an unexpected twist.
I had asked how she became involved with HAART. After a deep sigh, she revealed that she was also trafficked at the age of 13 but hadn’t realized it until she met Christensen at the organization many years later.
“I just thought that that happens to other people,” she said. “I didn't think that my scenario was a trafficking scenario.”
She told me after her father had “lost everything,” he pulled her out of boarding school and paid a relative to take care of and educate her in the town of Kakamega, six hours from her residence in Nairobi. Instead, the man put Otiende to work at his home, a large compound where another male relative sexually abused her for months. Her nightmare ended when she was able to leave on an errand and used the opportunity to contact a relative.
While she was trapped, Otiende said, she repeated to herself, “I’m not going to allow you to steal my humanity. I won’t.” Now, she fights against becoming bitter; she tells herself that she won’t allow the men who did this to her to win.
At 14, Otiende didn’t know there were initiatives or legal policy to help her, so she helped herself. First, as a girl, by confiding in a journal and then as an adult by confiding in a therapist. She now has a job she loves (a manager and outreach specialist for HAART), a loving partner (Christensen), and freedom from the shame of what happened to her—all things she was told she would never have. She said she wants other survivors to know that such a tragedy doesn’t have to define them.
When we first had this conversation, I asked Otiende if I could tell her story. She agreed but asked that I not use her real name. When I contacted her again recently, she said she had changed her mind and now realized that sharing her struggle publicly could help her connect to victims in ways that current efforts are falling short.
“Let’s empower the woman,” she said. “Let’s put this in the constitution. Let's put that in the law and then she’ll feel like she’s safe. She’ll feel like she’s protected, but if she’s not feeling it—if it’s not happening with her, it doesn't matter what we tell her. She’s not going to believe it. She has to believe it herself.”
When I spoke to Jacinta, I could see by the end of our interview how that belief was already beginning to take shape. I had asked her if she felt stronger now after what she’d overcome. “I feel stronger,” she repeated. And as she said it out loud she laughed to herself. I think she was tickled to realize that it was true.