For five months of 2014, two young Malawian girls—age 12 and 13—were forced to work as prostitutes in a Blantyre bottle store after being lured from their homes in Zomba with K500 and the promise of well-paid household jobs. In September, one of them had secretly stored up K6 000 for transit and had the courage to escape. The other girl was rescued, and the woman who held them as captives and forced them to sleep with customers for a few hundred kwacha was arrested. One of the girls contracted HIV.
The New Year began with news of 13 children and youth, between the ages of six and 20 who were trafficked from Zomba to Mozambique after being told they were being brought to a Christmas party. The story of why and how they were taken from their homes has yet to be told.
One of the most vexing challenges facing the world—and Malawi—today is human trafficking. Human trafficking does not necessarily mean moving people from one place to another. It can also be the dehumanising act of holding another by fear or force to exploit them, modern day slavery.
Human traffickers prey on those who seek a better life—whether it is a young girl lured from her family only to be trapped in sexual slavery, or a young man who hopes to earn a good wage to support his family only to become a victim of forced labour. The poor and marginalised are the most susceptible to this crime.
Human trafficking affects every country. In the United States too, trafficking occurs for commercial sexual exploitation in street prostitution and brothels and for labour in domestic service, agriculture, health care, or strip club dancing… citizen victims, both adults and children, are mainly found in sex trafficking; child victims are often runaway, troubled, and homeless youth.
Ending trafficking requires a comprehensive approach, including awareness raising, data collection, strong laws, a sensitised Judiciary, victim assistance, and effective enforcement. President Barack Obama signed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act last September to add another tool to combating human trafficking in the US. The Act requires each state to provide care and supervision of children who have been victims, or are at risk of becoming victims, of sex trafficking.
The United States’ determination to oppose human trafficking extends beyond our own borders. In his Presidential Proclamation on Human Trafficking of December 2010, Obama declared: “We stand with those throughout the world who are working every day to end modern slavery, bring traffickers to justice, and empower survivors to reclaim their rightful freedom.”
Unfortunately, today Malawi does not yet have a law that criminalises all human trafficking, and resources for victims are limited. While acts associated with human trafficking in Malawi can be prosecuted under provisions of existing laws against kidnapping, forced labour, or profiting from prostitution—and the relatively untested Child Care, Protection and Justice Act of 2010 partially addresses child trafficking—no comprehensive framework for preventing and punishing trafficking exists.
Without comprehensive legislation, prosecutions have been rare and strong punishments have been almost non-existent.
Malawi’s National Assembly now has a golden opportunity to help do just these things when it considers a comprehensive Anti-Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Bill this month.
Over the past year, increased awareness of trafficking has brought many more cases to light, allowing police and prosecutors to pursue traffickers and victims to receive support services. Passage of the TIP Bill is the next step in bolstering and institutionalising these efforts, allowing Malawi to become a model in the fight against human trafficking for the region.
Time for a comprehensive anti-human trafficking law is now. Malawians deserve this protection.
- The author is US deputy chief of mission.