July 12, 2009
One of the most fascinating parts of this internship with Save the Children for me is the special access I get to have to meetings and workshops attended by all kinds of interesting people. This past Wednesday at around 3:25, Mandla came to me at my desk and said, “Siphiwe, we are going to a meeting at the U.S. Embassy – come on, hurry, we have to be there at 3:30!” I hurriedly stuffed my laptop into its bag and ran after him to the car with my jacket only half on, where he was already waiting with the engine running. “What is the meeting about?” I asked him as he shifted gears and lurched out of the parking lot. “Human trafficking,” he said, as he murmured to himself about the quickest route to the Embassy offices across town. We arrived, were checked for weapons and given visitor’s badges, and then we were ushered into a large room with tea and a large frosted cake on a table and a small group of people milling around and chatting. Just a few minutes after we arrived, everyone settled down at the tables, it was explained that all comments were fair game for the media unless otherwise specified, and the discussion got started.
There were four Swazi NGOs represented, and there were three people from the media and three State Department officials, including the Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Mandla started the meeting off by talking about a study done by Save the Children to investigate the demographics of victims of human trafficking in Swaziland, both in terms of imported and exported humans. The most common import appears to be young teenaged boys from Mozambique who come here to perform manual labor and earn money, while the largest exported group is young females who are taken to South Africa to earn money as commercial sex workers. The representatives from the other NGOs – CANGO (Coordinating Assembly of NGOs), SWAGAA (Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse), and WLSA (Women and Law in Southern Africa)- spoke at length about their own efforts to combat trafficking and problems they see in the way the issue is currently handled. Sitting there listening to this dissection of the problem, I was overwhelmed not only by the complexity of the problem of human trafficking itself, but also of the enormity of the crisis on so many levels here. How do you fix human trafficking when the systems are still in place that make people vulnerable to it? You can try to regulate trafficking on its own, sure. But if education is not free to all children in a country where 70% of people live below the poverty line, and where HIV/AIDS is ravaging families and creating thousands and thousands of child-headed households and orphans who are living with relatives who already have too many children to support, then you can bet that there will still be a huge number of children who cannot afford to go to school. So what will happen to those children? Some of them will end up as the head of a household of siblings or cousins, quit school and find a job; others will be sent to live with relatives or to live in a city to earn money for the family; and those who are orphans may not have anywhere to go and end up living on the street. All of them are extremely vulnerable to vanishing from the system to due to a lack of proper documentation, and thus are likely to fall victim to human traffickers. Borders are porous and allow traffickers easy and often unregulated access to these countries. The rules for travel in and out of Swaziland currently state that an adult may travel across the border with up to 6 children, but there is no regulation of which children go and which children re-enter the country with that adult, or even if any re-enter at all. The border between Swaziland and South Africa cuts right through the general region where ethnic Swazis live, and there are many cultural practices that create a divide between civil and traditional law; a chief may cross a border to bring a child to a family living in South Africa who are ethnically Swazi but legally South African, for example. The South African government provides a type of social support to families that is pro-rated depending on the number of children, so South African families may bring a child to come live with them just so they can claim them as a dependent, but then may send them off to a city to work. And on top of all this – just to ice that beauty of a cake – there is essentially no coordination among the governments of South Africa, Mozambique, and Swaziland, meaning that the trail for these cases ends at the borders. This makes it nearly impossible to identify victims and creates a disjointed front of law enforcement that has no hope of preventing trafficking from taking place, nor of rectifying individual instances of trafficking when they are discovered. For instance, there is no process in place to return Swazi girls to Swaziland when they are discovered to be in the commercial sex industry in Johannesburg, or for the boys from Mozambique to be returned to their families either. It’s a problem that has implications for government, NGOs, families, schools…. for everyone.
So the meeting was both incredibly depressing and fascinating for me because I got to witness diplomatic, behind-the-scenes talks between Swazi civil society and the U.S. government. Mandla and I discussed it on the way home, and we agreed that education is really the key factor here. If education were free, it would drastically decrease the likelihood that many of these children would have a need to migrate to earn money. It would also educate the generation of students coming up in school now so that they would hopefully be less likely to contract HIV, or less likely to end up in situations where they feel they have little choice in their risky actions. There is still the problem of child-headed households, because in those cases, it’s not just a matter of school fees; it’s a matter of earning money for basic needs. The government only pays half of the school fees for orphans anyway, as I understand it. In a country that is projected to have 200,000 orphans by next year, though, something has to be done to ensure that these children are kept in school and educated or Swaziland will find itself with an entire generation that is not equipped to run the country – especially because there is an increasingly large age gap in the population young children and the elderly as HIV/AIDS takes its toll. It is disturbingly common to see Gogos (grandmothers) with babies strapped to their backs, and many people I know here are taking care of orphans in their families.  One man I work with has three children of his own, but has taken in four others who needed a place to stay, and they only have a 2 bedroom house. The government is supposedly rolling out the first efforts at free education next year, but it is a long way off before it will reach all of the children in Swaziland. Even in my short time here, I’ve observed how central the issue of school fees really is. It can breed the unfortunate choice between staying in an abusive home and going to school or leaving the abusive environment and losing the financial support to continue getting an education. It is truly heartbreaking, and just taking in all of the different facets to these problems is an overwhelming experience that makes me exhausted just to think about finding a lasting solution.
After the meeting, I got back to the guest house and found John and Antonio in the kitchen, Antonio cooking at the stove and John leaning against the wall with his arms crossed in front of him. When I came into the room, John gave me a sly glance and said, “Siphiwe, here is your Zumbu!” and looked sideways at Antonio. “But you better get in line, because he already has too many girlfriends.” Antonio flipped the steak he was grilling and gave me a slightly exasperated smile and said, “Ach, he’s lying. I don’t have any girlfriends.” As Antonio adjusted the heat on the stove and darted around the kitchen to collect various ingredients, John leaned against the wall with his arms crossed, grinned and said, “Siphiwe, this man has 4 different SIM cards so he can switch them out in case he wants to avoid one of his girlfriends. I called him earlier and got a message that the phone number wasn’t working. It happens all the time.” Antonio rolled his eyes at John, looked at me earnestly, and said, “I only have one SIM card. This man is lying to you!” Turning to John, I asked, “And may I ask how many SIM cards you have?” He looked at me quickly, shot another sly smile at me, and then walked across the room, busying himself with re-arranging some spoons that were standing upright in a bowl. “Ah, I see,” I said, grinning at him. I have no idea what those two are saying to each other in siSwati when I’m in the room, but they often seem to speak in low tones and glance at me every few sentences. The other day, I came into the kitchen to find Celiwe eating her porridge and Antonio and John sitting in the corner having their lunch. I greeted them and then started making myself something to eat, hearing the two of them murmuring in the background, and then Celiwe said, “Siphiwe, I think these two men want to say Zumbu to you,” took another bite of porridge, and started laughing, glancing back at the two of them. John and Antonio avoided my eyes and looked down at their food, smirking. Then Antonio looked at me and said, “What is your answer to this man, then?” I laughed uncomfortably and said, “I can’t answer a question that hasn’t been asked!” and left the room quickly, carrying my sweet potato. The sound of Celiwe laughing at them followed me as I walked back to my room.