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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