In early March 2016, 18-year-old Puleng became a victim of human trafficking.
Like many girls in poverty-stricken Lesotho, Puleng was struggling. She was 16 when she gave birth to her son, working hard to eke out a living for herself and her older brother. Puleng was earning less than USD $5 washing clothes – it simply was not enough. So when her neighbor, a woman whom she trusted, told her of the opportunity to earn more money as a domestic worker in South Africa, Puleng jumped at the chance.
But when Puleng and her neighbor arrived in South Africa the following week, things did not go as she planned. They were met by another woman who delivered an already terrified Puleng to some man’s house. Her sense of unease grew: the man was easily three times her age. To her astonishment, the woman told her she was now this man’s wife, and to do as he pleased. She protested, crying that she had come here to work, not to be married! Her cries fell on deaf ears.
In a strange city, in another country, with no friends or family to reach out to, Puleng was trapped.
Later that night, the man raped her. The following night, he raped her again.
Eventually, Puleng was able to make contact with a counsellor in the area, and the Lesotho police, who helped her escape and make the journey home. The case she opened against the women who trafficked her is still before the courts.
Although Puleng bears the fresh emotional scars of her experience, she has started the healing process through her participation in Help Lesotho’s Young Mother Support Program. The program targets young women ages 14-24, and brings them together for informative sessions on topics such as self-esteem, HIV/AIDS, healthy relationships, multiple concurrent sexual partners, sexually transmitted infections, sexual violence, and the correct use of condoms. The workshops offer these young women a safe learning environment – and a safe space to share their stories.
Being a young mother in Lesotho can be an emotionally isolating experience. Many of the participants are astounded to discover others like themselves, suffering through the same hardships. Puleng is grateful for the young mothers’ community, where she can share her pain and experiences with others like herself. She wants to share her experience as a cautionary tale to young people who are struggling to earn an income to support their families, and may be tempted to take a job abroad.
A USAID report recommends that to effectively address sexual violence and the exploitation of children in Lesotho, there needs to be a “coordinated multisectoral response involving police, health care workers, social workers, and the judiciary.” Although not specifically targeted at human trafficking, the report urges the development of multisectoral communities to be mobilized in the fight for the rights of children and women, who are the most vulnerable populations to be trafficked. Building communities and networks are critical to address human trafficking at both the level of sectoral mobilization and that of high risk communities.
Building strong support networks (like the Young Mother Support Program) and empowering community members to be informed about push factors of trafficking like poverty, unemployment, harmful socio-cultural practices, HIV/ AIDS, and gender inequalities can help stop human trafficking.
Puleng escaped her situation, but many others do not. Puleng’s strength is an inspiration to everyone around her as she continues to spread the message far and wide that no one deserves to be a commodity.