In western Uganda, a group of women nimbly piece together textiles to create handbags they can sell for income. It is one of several skills they need to build after surviving harrowing experiences of human trafficking. In such cases, individuals are lured by false job prospects into situations of labor and sexual exploitation. Essentially held captive, they are denied pay, food and sleep.
These women managed to return home. However, they did so empty-handed and hollowed out, bearing the physical and psychological scars of their trauma. What’s more, for them there were no homecoming receptions or social services providing critical aftercare. Their families — who emptied pockets and sold property to send them off — are destitute and ashamed of their diminished reputation. In their culture, blame is commonly cast on the one who was sent away. One husband refused his wife’s return and even barred her from seeing her children.
Working to prevent trafficking
Acutely aware of the predatory scourge of human trafficking in their country and the overwhelming plight of child and adult survivors, Holy Cross sisters in Uganda have been aggressively pursuing education and activism in this arena for several years. Empowered by the Congregation’s Corporate Stand on Human Trafficking, they have partnered with the Association of Religious in Uganda and the Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) to magnify their efforts and address trafficking systemically.
Sister Semerita Mbambu, CSC, and several other Holy Cross sisters in the area have made significant strides in communities with support from the Pulte Family Charitable Foundation, AFJN and the Congregation’s Ministry With the Poor Fund. Early on, they created trafficking awareness radio campaigns. They heavily lobbied national and local lawmakers, law enforcement and city councils to do more to combat the criminal practice. They also led or took part in trafficking awareness workshops geared at protecting young people, the most susceptible to traffickers.
Caring for survivors
But that was not nearly enough. The sisters insisted on uncovering the causes and prevalence of trafficking in the Fort Portal/Rwenzori region. To accomplish this, they inerviewed survivors, their families, recruitment companies, religious leaders, government officials and health providers. Their findings revealed the immense scope of the issue and its bureaucratic roots. Undeterred and guided by their data, sisters quickly set to work with community partners. The group devised ways to further prevent trafficking and acquired temporary housing, emergency medical care, and basic counseling services for survivors. They also worked to reconcile survivors with their families. At the same time, they educated the community about returnees’ situations, their needs and the goodwill and dignity due them.
In late 2021, the sisters organized a four-day retreat for 65 trafficked individuals. There, attendees shared their experiences and voiced their persistent sorrow, anger, shame and desolation. Such a practice is nonexistent in their culture. “I listened to some heartbreaking stories,” says Sister Martha Nambi, CSC. “We saved three suicide cases in one day.”
Empowering a community
Additionally, the sisters secured training in sewing, cooking, hairdressing and solar panel repair for 45 individuals and provided them kits to begin small businesses. To date, the sisters are ministering with 200 survivors, and more come every week. Individuals inform the sisters of other trafficked persons. At the same time, aware of what they have found, survivors are reaching out to other survivors. “There are no other spaces in the country with this model of comprehensive services for survivors of any age or gender,” says Katie Yohe, the Congregation’s Laudato Si' coordinator. “The sisters are the only ones doing this.”
However, emerging partnerships with other congregations of Catholic religious point to even greater possibilities. Working through the ARU and supported by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the collective is coordinating anti-trafficking efforts country-wide.
All the while, under the tent with the sisters, trafficking survivors find trust among each other. Person by person, they fashion a new, transformed community. They gather regularly to share, to listen, to cry, to heal — supporting one another simply by showing up.
To learn more about the sisters’ efforts to curb human trafficking and address the needs of survivors in Uganda, go to cscsisters.org/hope-steps-in.
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