Mercy Esther was eight years old when she left home.
Raised by her grandmother in rural Tanzania, Mercy Esther and her siblings were born into poverty, sometimes with no money for food, let alone school books. When her grandmother was approached with a job offer for Mercy Esther in Kenya and a promise that money would be sent home, she accepted. The money could help Mercy Esther’s siblings. Maybe they have a better future.
The job offer turned out to be a lie – the first in a series of broken promises that would rob a young woman of her childhood and her family.
Mercy Esther was born with a deformity in one foot that caused a severe limp. On the streets of Nairobi, she and other children were forced to beg. She was told to pretend she couldn’t walk in order to garner public sympathy. Every day the collected money was taken from her.
One day, while begging, Mercy Esther was approached by a woman who offered her chores and other promises: a new home, wages, and good treatment. She went with the woman, but instead Mercy Esther was mistreated and received no money for her work. It would be six years before she ran away.
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With the support of Nairobi Police and the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments, Mercy Esther returned to her country of birth, but with no information on the village where she grew up, the authorities placed her in the care of the WoteSawa Domestic Workers Organization, which provides shelter operates for trafficked children in Mwanza on the shore of Lake Victoria in the north of the country.
“Tanzania is a beautiful and peaceful country, but there is also a dark side,” said Angela Benedicto, the organization’s founder and executive director.
“Many people live in poverty and forced labor is a very big problem,” she added. “The most common form of human trafficking in Tanzania is domestic slavery, young girls are forced to do housework. They are subject to abuse and exploitation and are not paid for their work.”
According to the non-profit organization Anti-Slavery International, around one million children – mostly girls – are engaged in housework in Tanzania.
Founded in 2014, WoteSawa takes in approximately 75 children who have escaped human trafficking each year. Space is tight: children sleep in pairs in one bed. Some stay longer than others, Benedicto says, especially those involved in criminal cases, since prosecutions can take time. To date, the nonprofit organization has helped hundreds of survivors, but the needs outweigh the resources available. Benedicto dreams of building a bigger sanctuary for more children.
Her mission is to empower domestic workers and stand up for their rights. It’s a subject close to her heart; she is a former domestic worker herself. “I was subjected to abuse and exploitation, but I was able to raise my voice,” she explains. “Many domestic workers cannot speak. Who will speak (for) them?”
“I use my story to tell them, ‘Don’t give up.'”
WoteSawa means “all are equal” in Swahili. The shelter accommodates children and provides them with advice and legal assistance. They also receive education in reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as professional skills such as needlework. Getting children back into education goes hand in hand with efforts to reunite children with loved ones “so that when they return to their families, they can help not only themselves but their families,” Benedicto said.
Lydia lives in the Ngara District in the mountains of western Tanzania. She left home to work as a domestic servant at the age of 16, but was beaten by her employer and not paid for her work. She escaped and was aided by WoteSawa, where she learned to sew. Lydia returned to her family with a sewing machine provided by WoteSawa and is now a seamstress with dreams of her own business.
“She makes enough money to support her family,” Benedicto said. “Her dream is to help other young girls sew. She has a plan to give back to the community.”
WoteSawa not only helps survivors of human trafficking, but also works to prevent it. Benedicto coordinates with bus depot agents who are on the lookout for young children and the local police, who have the power to intervene.
“My mission is to make sure that (the) crime of human trafficking is stopped – completely. And through education we can achieve (that),” said police commander Juma Jumane. “We have to raise families. We must educate the victim. We also need to educate society in general.”
When Mercy Ester arrived at the shelter, she was reluctant to give the name of her village for fear of being trafficked again if she returned. But eventually she changed her mind.
CNN met Mercy Esther through the Poland-based Kulczyk Foundation, which supports WoteSawa.
WoteSawa was able to find her family and brought her grandmother and siblings to the shelter. It had been eight years since they last saw each other. “It was so emotional,” Benedicto said. “They cried, they hugged. I think each of us was so emotional. We burst into tears of joy.”
Still uncomfortable with the idea of returning to her village, Mercy Esther has chosen to stay at the shelter until she is older and skilled enough as a seamstress to start a business to provide for her family.
“Your future is so bright,” Benedicto said. “I can see that she will be a light to her siblings.”
Source : www.cnn.com