Rachel (a fictitious name) is a 15-year-old white South African from a poor background around Pretoria who was trafficked to Pakistan. She has two siblings. Her parents are jobless and find it difficult to provide for their children. Rachel’s cousin, who has a Pakistani live-in partner, convinced her parents that they could be well off if she would marry the partner’s 19-year-old son. The parents were promised a house in Johannesburg and they looked for one since they didn’t have a place to stay. Rachel was taken out of school and brought to Pakistan last year. Arriving there, she was taken to the boy’s grandmother’s house where she had to do all the house chores she was not used to, for the whole family. She had to act immediately as a wife. Within two weeks the marriage ceremony was performed. The jobless husband wanted to come to South Africa. On February 5, they went to the Embassy in Islamabad to apply for a visa. Married to a South African, he shouldn’t have had difficulties. Perhaps, the aim of the whole ploy was to migrate here, but one of the officials became suspicious. He called the girl aside and interviewed her. She revealed her ordeal. They went to the husband and told him that there was something wrong with his wife’s passport. She couldn’t accompany him home; she had to remain behind to solve the issue. They booked her in at a hotel and the following day they flew her to South Africa. The husband came to know the plan and phoned his father to fetch her at the aiport. Interpol was also there waiting for her. The house promised to her parents never materialized. They are now homeless. Rachel is pregnant. She wanted to terminate her pregancy but it was too late. She thinks about giving the baby up for adoption. Her marriage is not valid in South Africa and she wants to get a divorce. She was greatly abused emotionally and treated like a slave. Mercy House in Pretoria is her refuge now, hers and other victims of human trafficking. The scourge seems to be increasing. Cellphones and social media expose children more easily to risk as in the case of Theresa (not her real name), a 35-year-old educated Nigerian woman. Her father was putting pressure on her to get married and have children. She came across a guy through the Internet and trusted him. She came over to South Africa to be with him, thinking she would be his princess. He never brought her home. They met in a hotel that she paid for. When the money was finished, he disappeared, leaving her pregnant. She gave birth and wants to go home but cannot because without his consent the baby cannot travel. He cannot be found and she is very upset.
Sr Colleen Wilkinson and social worker, Mary Mmushi, explain that Mercy House was founded by the Sisters of Mercy as a fruit of the celebration of their centenary of presence in South Africa. They wanted a worthwhile project and decided to help vulnerable women, starting with the victims of domestic violence. They approached the local government to be granted the needed facilities. Eventually, they got some funds from Ireland where the congregation was founded and were able to buy the house. It can accommodate 17 people and opened in 2001, after the necessary permission of the social development services was obtained. The Sisters got involved with the victims of human trafficking in 2004, when they were approached by the immigration services to accommodate the victims while they were waiting for repatriation. So far, they have helped more than 250 girls and women. They come from different countries such as Mozambique, Congo, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Lesotho, Botswana, Ghana, South Africa and, especially, Thailand. Many of them are humble, single mothers who need to make money to raise their children. Generally, the girls are recruited and manoeuvered by crime syndicates—in collaboration with nationals married or working here—that offer them better job opportunities and money. When they arrive in South Africa, they are brought to the brothels. During raids by the police and/or the immigration services, if found without proper documentation, they are arrested and brought to the embassies. The Thai Embassy asks Mercy House to shelter them for a while. Some will continue in the job, perhaps in another country. But the majority just want to go back to their country and earn a decent living. Sr Colleen recalls: “We had four girls here a few years ago. The Home Affairs raided the brothel where they worked and found them illegal. They put them in jail. Two days later, they were brought to us because they found out that they were victims of trafficking. One of the girls had arrived the night before the raid took place. When she realised what work she was supposed to do, she just shouted and screamed… she was totally unmanageable. They left her alone that night. The next night the place was raided. She was saying: ‘I am so lucky, I am so lucky… I went to jail. I didn’t have to work!’” “The most thrilling stories”, recounts Mary Mmushi, “are how they manage to escape from there. Some risked their lives by jumping from the third floor. They have to study the movements of the trafficker in order not to be caught. Often they are locked inside the houses and they do not have clothes. Their passports and money and sometimes, cellphones, are kept by the traffickers who keep moving them around. Sometimes, sympathetic clients help them to escape. Sometimes, listening to their stories and seeing how traumatized they are, I cry and they are the ones consoling me!”.
VICTIMS FEEL UNCLEAN
The majority of the residents usually are victims of domestic violence and rape. The victims are beaten up by their husbands or boyfriends. They had a lady there some years ago whose husband ran over her with his car. The circumstances: She had some visitors and called him to ask for some money to go and buy cool drinks. He didn’t answer. Since he was nearby, she walked there. He ignored her. On her way back, he followed her. She was walking on the sidewalk and he drove over her with the car more than once. She was admitted to hospital in a miserable state. She came to Mercy House a few weeks later. Even if he had shot her a few times before, she returned to him for the sake of the children. Going to hospital for a medical check-up, she was taken by a family member and never came back. Rape is the worst kind of violence perpetrated against women and it is becoming a pandemic. Its wounds are the most difficult to heal. The victims of rape—but also the victims of trafficking—feel unclean and keep washing themselves, perhaps, four, five times a day. Recovery from the trauma is difficult, explains the social worker. A lot of them are able to get a boyfriend afterwards, but the relationship does not prosper because of the lack of trust. The perpetrators of rape of the young ones generally belong to the family—uncles, stepfathers or mothers’ boyfriends. Sometimes, the victims are older, as in the case of Afua, a 35-year-old Ghanaian woman. Her sister, living with her husband in South Africa, convinced the parents to send Afua here promising to enrol her at school. Instead, she was made to look after her sister’s baby and never went to school. Meanwhile, her brother-in-law started abusing her. She complained to her sister who didn’t want to believe her and even convinced their father that Afua was a liar. A sister’s friend, however, helped her to go to a clinic where they confirmed that she had been abused. She was removed from the house and taken to a place in Rustenburg before arriving at Mercy House. They are now looking for a ticket to send her home.
A FUTURE BEYOND VIOLENCE
While at Mercy House, the girls have the opportunity to attend a skills training programme (machine and hand-sewing, fabric painting, knitting, crocheting, cooking and baking, hair styling and computer literacy). They are offered medical services and psychological therapy at a nearby clinic. For spiritual help, they can attend Bible sharing initiatives and frequent freely the Churches they belong to but they are not pushed into religious services. Some do not want to hear anything about God or the Church. Sr Colleen says: “We encourage them to follow whatever virtual path they are on. Some ask to pray together at night. The Thais are mainly Buddhists. The goal is to help them rediscover their self-worth and find their place in society”. They are supported basically by: the Department of Social Development that pays around 30% of their expenses; the South African Lottery (the sisters have to ask continually but they have been generous); Mission Cara from Ireland, which gives more for development than for the running of the house; the Thai Embassy; the Bishops Lenten Appeal. Some companies and individuals give donations and bring them groceries. The Tuks rugby team and a nearby school also help them. Some former residents have been showing their gratitude. For instance, Alice, a former resident who now lives in Australia, sends them donations once in a while. Brenda, a Zimbabwean, is another thankful former resident. She was a victim of violence at the hands of her boyfriend. After leaving, she got a job in a hairdresser down the road and, sometimes, she would come in and do the women’s hair, especially before returning to their country. Then, she got married to a teacher and invited them to the wedding. Now, she has her own hair salon in Rustenburg. She and other former residents are very encouraging when they come along—they tell the residents that violence is not the end of the road and there’s a future beyond their troubles.