Over the last few weeks, the world's attention has been focused on South Africa like never before as we hosted one of the world's biggest sporting events - the FIFA Football World Cup. However, this honour brings even greater challenges for us as a country, away from the glory of the soccer fields: the need to acknowledge and tackle the desperate problem of human trafficking.
As many visit our country from around the world to share in our wonderful natural attractions, rich cultures and traditions, there are also many who seek to take terrible advantage of this influx of tourists. The World Cup has provided opportunities for abusers, exploiters and traffickers to meet the perceived increased demand for cheap labour and sexual services. Inevitably, it is the most vulnerable in our society who suffer at their hands.
Human trafficking is modern day slavery, most commonly seen in the form of prostitution or sweat-shop labour. Those at most risk tend to be young girls or women who are tricked into enslaved prostitution by men who may initially pose as boyfriends or friends, to gain their confidence and trust. In reality they are pimps who isolate and control them. They may take away victims’ money and identity documents, keep them locked indoors, make them dependent for food and even drugs. They then force them, often through threats or actual violence to them or their families, to sell their bodies to clients on the street or work in unsafe or illegal sweat shops.
In South Africa, young girls are trafficked from one province to another, or from neighbouring countries, to work in brothels. But this problem is international. It is estimated that as many as 27 million people have been victims of human trafficking, with around 1 to 2 million people trafficked every year. Most victims are young girls between 5 to 15 years of age and half are African, though boys under 18 are also increasingly being lured into sexual exploitation. Crime syndicates target rural areas and informal settlements for vulnerable women, young people, and children, and transport them to urban centres. They are often enticed by the promise of jobs in offices, in modelling, or as domestic workers. Yet on arrival at their destination, the reality is very different.
Poverty is one of the biggest reasons why women, young people and children are at such a huge risk of being exploited and trafficked. The chance to make good, quick money and get a better life is understandably attractive. The breakdown of families, gender discrimination, HIV/AIDS, ignorance and demand also play a role in this tragic reality. This complex problem must be addressed collectively.
While no country has yet attained a truly comprehensive response to this massive, ever increasing, ever changing crime, the World Cup has brought a heightened awareness of what we face. We must now use the opportunity this provides to get to the root causes of human trafficking. To beat this terrible and destructive practice, we need to understand better the social and economic dynamics that create the markets that make human trafficking profitable. With the world's eyes still upon us, South Africa can take a lead in pressing for a comprehensive global response.
How do we find the solutions? We need a combination of international and regional government task forces working with local communities, NGOs and religious groups to put in place effective action plans. With every human trafficker identified and every successful prosecution, lessons should be learned and applied to ensure that others swiftly follow and that trafficking rings are broken. However, it is not enough simply to prosecute the traffickers. We also need to provide emotional and practical support to the victims and survivors.
Individuals need to become more aware of the reality of human trafficking in our country – to learn to identify the signs of trafficking, and to be conscious of this modern ‘slavery footprint’ just as we are of our carbon footprint. We also need to be proactive and support efforts to protect our most vulnerable citizens who may fall prey to traffickers. While we look to our police force to find and prosecute individuals and trafficking rings who inflict this worst kind of human suffering, individuals have the power to help prevent these crimes and protect those who are at most risk. We must also ensure the proposed Human Trafficking legislation for South Africa is passed as soon as possible, to assist law enforcement agencies as well as provide related services and support systems for victims.
We believe that all God’s children are created in the image of God and as such deserve the respect and dignity inherent in their creation. Our Constitution ‘enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom.’ Let us therefore all fight against those who would deprive others of what we should all rightly take for granted. Let us fight for a world without human trafficking. Let us make 2010 the year to remember, not just for the World Cup, but as the year that South African society stands united against the traffickers in our country, and makes a positive difference in safeguarding the lives of our most vulnerable people.