sex trade

An Indian nun is fighting a lone battle to rescue Cameroonian sex slaves from West Asia

Sister Vanaja Jasphine and her organisation work hard to rescue victims and get them back on their feet.

A celebrated Indian nun who rescues Cameroonian women from slavery in the West Asia has called for greater support for victims to help them recover from the horrors of being drugged, raped and abused.

Sister Vanaja Jasphine said she has identified more than 200 women who have been trafficked from the central African nation and enslaved in the West Asia in recent years.

The 39-year-old nun last year helped bring home 14 trafficking victims, whom she refers to as Cameroon’s “children”.

A rising number of African women are heading to West Asia for domestic work, driven abroad by the lack of jobs at home, rights activists say. Yet, many have their passports confiscated and end up trapped in modern-day slavery.

“One woman was thrown from the balcony of a two-storey building by her employer after she accidentally burnt her boss’ shirt whilst ironing,” Jasphine said about a victim in Kuwait.

Others are drugged and turned into sex slaves – being raped multiple times a day and even forced to have sex with animals.

“They come home with a lot of trauma,” Jasphine, coordinator of the Justice and Peace Commission of Kumbo, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a seminary in the capital Yaounde. “Sometimes, a [woman forced to be a] sex worker can be exploited 15 times a day – physically, mentally, she’s drained...she’s gone.”

“In the end, she doesn’t have anything. She comes back in the same dress she left in,” added the nun, who moved to northwest Cameroon almost a decade ago to work with the country’s poorest.

Jasphine was hailed in June as one of eight global heroes in the fight against trafficking at the launch of the United States’ annual Trafficking in Persons report, which grades countries on their efforts to stamp out modern-day slavery.

But Jasphine has no time for celebrations. She is too busy seeking funding, counselling and support for victims left traumatised by their ordeal abroad.

Sister Vanaja Jasphine, 39, Yaoundé, holding her US State Department '2017 Hero Acting to End Modern Slavery Award', standing in the grounds of a religious seminary, Yaoundé on July 25. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Inna Lazareva
Sister Vanaja Jasphine, 39, Yaoundé, holding her US State Department '2017 Hero Acting to End Modern Slavery Award', standing in the grounds of a religious seminary, Yaoundé on July 25. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Inna Lazareva

Traffickers change tactics

Jasphine said she identifies trafficking victims by working with activists, community leaders and civil society groups.

To raise awareness about their plight, she has helped organise demonstrations, where women have marched with placards reading: “Bring back our suffering daughters”.

“We got a lot of support from the people,” said Jasphine. “It touches every heart because they [the people] feel: ‘It’s my own child who is affected, who is exploited’.”

She has also lobbied government officials, all the way to the country’s prime minister, to do more to help the women.

Cameroon has made strides towards meeting the US minimum standards to end trafficking, having provided services to some victims and sent a delegation to the Middle East to discuss Cameroonian workers’ rights, the 2017 Trafficking in Persons report said.

Yet the state has not funded repatriation for slavery victims stranded in West Asia and continues to rely on civil society groups to bring trafficking cases to its attention and provide most services for victims, the report said.

The government has tried to crack down on Cameroonians travelling to West Asia, but traffickers have changed tactics, and are instead flying women via Nigeria, Jasphine said.

She said the government must now do more to help those coming home.

Although her organisation and other groups try to help victims get back on their feet, take them to hospital and provide counselling, it is simply not enough, the nun warned.

“It is very disheartening,” Jasphine said, showing a series of distressed text messages from one of the women she helped to rescue from Kuwait, who is now struggling financially. “Much more needs to be done.”

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.