Kenya: Breaking Vicious Cycle of Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation

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Kigali — Desperate to escape the rural area where she was engaged in the informal economy in Kayonza, a district in Eastern Rwanda, Sharon* made a long and arduous journey to Kenya in the hope of a well-paid job.

An unidentified individual contacted her, paid for her ticket, and gave her a modest amount of pocket money to travel to Kenya by road. The person told the 19-year-old she was traveling to take up an “employment opportunity”.

However, Sharon found herself in sexual servitude at a karaoke bar on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

Sharon’s job was to bow elegantly to all customers at the door and usher them inside the bar.

“I was also hired as a nightclub dancer and sometimes forced by my employer to engage in sexual intercourse with clients to earn a living,” the high school graduate told IPS in an interview.

Like Sharon, activists say the number of young women from rural areas trafficked into the sex trade across many East African countries is growing. The young women are lured with the promise of good jobs or marriage. Instead, they are sold into prostitution in cities such as Nairobi (Kenya) and Kampala (Uganda).

Both activists and lawmakers warn that people with hidden agendas could target young women from Rwanda.

The process of trafficking most of these young women into neighboring countries is complex. It involves false promises to their families and victims in which they are promised a “better life”, activists say.

In many cases, traffickers lure young women from rural villages to neighboring countries with the promise of well-paid work. Then, victims are transferred to people who become their enslavers – especially in dubious hotels and karaoke bars.

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While Rwanda has tried to combat human trafficking, law enforcement agencies stress that the main challenge revolves around the financial and other assistance for repatriated victims. Limited budgets of the institutions in charge of investigation and rehabilitation of the victims have meant that these programmes are not working optimally.

The chairperson of the East African Legislative Assembly’s Committee on Regional Affairs and Conflict Resolution, Fatuma Ndangiza, warned that if no urgent measures are undertaken, the problem is likely to worsen.

“Most of these young women without employment were victims of a well-established human trafficking ring operating under the guise of employment agencies in the region,” Ndangiza told IPS.

The latest figures by Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) indicate that 119 cases of human trafficking, illegal migration, and smuggling of migrants in the region were investigated in the last three years.

These involved 215 victims, among whom 165 were females and 59 males.

Driven by the demand for cheap labor and commercial sex, trafficking rings across the East African region capitalize primarily on economic and social vulnerabilities to exploit their victims, experts said.

But estimates by the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) show that the lack of relevant legislation and needed administrative institutions across the East African region have continued to give traffickers and smugglers an undue advantage to carry on their activities.

To prevent human trafficking, Rwanda has adopted several measures, including passing a new law in 2018.

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Under the current legislation, offenders face up to 15 years of imprisonment, but activists say this measure is not enough deterrent.

Although law enforcement officers were trained in combatting human trafficking, Evariste Murwanashyaka, a fervent defender of human rights who is based in Kigali, told IPS that enforcing laws is a challenge, mainly because it is hard to detect women who are engaged in sex work or other forms of sexual exploitation in neighboring countries.

Murwanashyaka is the Program Manager of Rwandan based Umbrella of Human Rights Organization known as ‘Collectif des Ligues et Associations de Défense des Droits de l’Homme’ (CLADHO)

“Young women are still more likely to become targets of trafficking due to the growing demand for sexual slavery across the region, ” he said.

Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, activists say there is not only a lack of awareness but people, especially youth, who are unaware they are victims of a human trafficking offense.

“Most informal job offers from abroad for these young people [from Rwanda] are associated with illicit businesses, such as human trafficking, mainly of women, and their sexual and labor exploitation,” Murwanashyaka told IPS

According to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, the increasing unemployment rates, malnourishment, and school closures have increased human trafficking.

Meanwhile, RIB spokesperson, Dr Thierry Murangira is convinced that human trafficking is a transnational organized crime.