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Where humans are prey…hope steps in

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Sister Semerita (far right) meets with her planning group (from left) Joseph Mutabingwa, Sister Angelica Birungi, CSC, and Father Fidelis Safari Mushi.

Sister Semerita (far right) meets with her planning group (from left) Joseph Mutabingwa, Sister Angelica Birungi, CSC, and Father Fidelis Safari Mushi.

Animals live with the innate knowledge that they are prey to other animals. But for humans, the knowledge that one could be prey to other humans is shocking. Unfortunately, for some, such knowledge often comes too late. 

Human trafficking. Its very term is an abomination. In the Rwenzori region of western Uganda, Sister Semerita Mbambu, CSC, and other sisters from the Fort Portal community are focusing resources to fight human trafficking with the help of a grant from the Pulte Family Charitable Foundation. Having already completed considerable research on the issue—through a grant from the Africa Faith and Justice Network and additional support from the Congregation’s Justice Office and Ministry With the Poor Fund—Sister Semerita is leading the effort to raise awareness of and develop actionable plans to thwart this plague against humanity. Her goals also include aiding those who have found their way out of the clutches of traffickers, as they are very often traumatized and in ill health.

Sister Semerita’s work aligns with the Congregation’s Corporate Stand on Human Trafficking, crafted in 2013, which makes the issue a ministry priority. 

Danger disguised as hope 

The lure dangled in front of victims is often the promise of good money for a job either in-country or out. When people are poorly educated, lack knowledge of their rights as individuals, don’t understand the issue of trafficking, or are trying to dig their way out of poverty, they are easy marks—particularly women and children. For some families, economic desperation leads them to sell their children to traffickers, who in turn sell them to modern slave merchants. Sometimes, youth are trafficked to form militias that are used by politicians.

The set-up is often similar. The victim hears of good-paying jobs and is put in contact with a person who can help them obtain that job. They may be encouraged to sell any property they own to pay for “processing fees” for travel documents, medical tests and a passport. The trafficker may offer to pay the costs, which puts the victim in his debt. They are then smuggled out of the country. 

No matter the job, their days are long. They get maybe two hours of sleep then are required to return to their work. They are given spoiled or expired food. They do not receive medical attention for health issues. They are physically and emotionally abused. They may get paid and may not. In either case, the money is never what was promised. 

Assisting survivors with hope and care

Those who manage to escape and return home often do so quietly and with considerable trauma. They do not share their experiences out of shame. So the warnings they could impart to others go unsaid. They may be shunned by their family. They are left destitute and hopeless. And because prostitution is a criminal offense in Uganda, those who have been sexually exploited may get arrested if they reveal this fact, which creates a double layer of stigma and fear.

Unfortunately, systems are not in place in Uganda to adequately assist survivors by providing them with health care, trauma counseling, or a path to legitimate employment.

In addition to Sister Semerita, the core team includes Sister Angelica Birungi, CSC, and Father Fidelis Safari Mushi, MI, who has been collaborating with the Congregation on pastoral and social outreach to the poor in Uganda. Rounding out the team are Joseph Mutabingwa, a consultant for the Association of Religious in Uganda, and Masereka Yohan, a media relations specialist. Team members have been conducting face-to-face meetings and focus group discussions with varied stakeholders—religious leaders, community members, non-governmental organizations, and government officials, as well as victims and family members.

Ongoing care for victims of human trafficking

To date, the team has interviewed more than 100 victims and family members, including 21 young women who, trafficked and stranded in Saudi Arabia, were rescued, thanks to a partnership between the sisters and the John Paul II Justice & Peace Centre in Kampala. A number of the victims have begun receiving psycho-social support, and interviews continue.

Those who manage to escape and return home often do so quietly and with considerable trauma. They do not share their experiences out of shame. So the warnings they could impart to others go unsaid. They may be shunned by their family. They are left destitute and hopeless. 

Following each meeting, the team regroups to evaluate the findings and challenges, and devise approaches and activities to address the issues. The learnings Sister Semerita and her team gain from these meetings are helping to support national-level lobby and advocacy efforts on the survivors’ plight.

The road ahead may be long, but the spirit is strong. If you wish to help Sister Semerita succeed against those who traffic in humans, please consider a donation to the Uganda Mission Fund. 

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