Rose’s* story is not a pretty one. Yet as she talks, there’s a confidence and optimism in her tone that strikes me. It’s a reminder that surviving – and flourishing – is possible after exploitation.
Having authored a book and soon to be married, Rose’s story has reached an impressive and seemingly charmed page.
But it wasn’t always this way…
Rose, the middle of three sisters, was just 11 years old when she lost both parents in a car accident. Amongst the mourners at the funeral was a maternal uncle who had travelled from the Democratic Republic of Congo. His interest in Rose and her then 6 year old sister became clear when he demanded they return with him to the DRC. But at least for that moment, he had to return alone.
If only the story had ended there, how different the next few years might have been for Rose. But her uncle had not abandoned his plans…
Returning to South Africa, he set his plans in motion. The caregiver looking after Rose and her sisters was his first target; he began threatening to kill her mother.
His next target was Rose. To convince officials to allow him to take Rose and her younger sister “on holiday” to the DRC, Rose’s uncle hijacked her voice. Writing down what he wanted her to say, he prompted her to convince officials she really wanted to go with him. Rose recalls his hand, menacingly clasping her own beneath a desk, in meetings with the child-care lawyers and other involved figures.
Did no one see the coercion, the manipulation of a little girl by a callous man? At this crucial moment when so much might still have been different, how could his true agenda have gone unseen?
These are questions there may never be answers to, but they are questions that are critical to consider when discussing trafficking.
Perhaps one reason Rose’s uncle was not recognized as a predator was because he was…well, her uncle. As a family member, he might well have had an advantage in presenting himself as a benign or even beneficial influence.
Rose herself notes that, “I had no idea it could be considered as human trafficking because he was a family member…my mother’s own brother.”
Yet trafficking was exactly what ensued when Rose’s uncle, using false documentation for her and her sister, and having convinced officials, whisked them off to the DRC, leaving her elder sister behind in South Africa. It was to be no “holiday”.
Almost 6 years would pass before Rose would see South Africa again.
Living with her uncle and his wife, she would endure abuse and indignity.
Rose at the same time had to contend with anxiety over her little sister – who, she recounts, was brutally beaten by their uncle and his wife. So bad were the beatings that Rose’s sister would be left bleeding and bruised. The violence was inescapable.
Part of the abuse involved keeping the young girls in a state of semi starvation. To keep her sister and herself alive, Rose, barely an adolescent, had to start working. During this time she would work at the school she had managed to get herself and her sister into. In addition, she would do translation work and work as a tour guide. That she found a way to survive, alone with her sister in brutal circumstances, speaks to a certain strength of spirit. It is a strength and courage many trafficked girls, and victims of GBV, have held in common.
Unsurprisingly, Rose and her sister grew very close during this time, their relationship almost resembling a mother-daughter bond. Rose’s love for her sister is clear in her voice as she tells me she could not have survived without her.
Given the closeness of their bond, necessitated by the circumstances, one can only imagine Rose’s anguish when her sister became ill with malaria. Lacking the money required for medical care, Rose had to watch her sister suffering from the illness. Fortunately, she recovered, but it was a shattering experience.
The abuse went on, seemingly unending. At times, it was bizarre – keeping leftovers from Monday until they were rotten on Friday, then forcing Rose and her sister to eat them.
Somehow, Rose did not give up.
She began planning their escape a year in advance. But it was not easy. She recounts spending six months outside the South African embassy, ignored and in tears.
Then came the day the Ambassador happened to walk by her. Told by the security guards she had been a “problem”, he decided to listen to her story. Welcoming her into his office, he heard her plea. Though Rose had no documentation, she was able to provide the contact number of child care lawyers in South Africa who had handled her case before the kidnapping. They verified her story, and the embassy set a plan in motion to return Rose and her sister home.
It could have ended then…
Informing her uncle’s wife they would not be going straight home, Rose and her sister left school. Needing an ally, she called a trusted aunt. It was a mistake…
Though the physical abuse ended, Rose would spend another year, unable to get away, with this aunt – who, it turned out, was not averse to doling out emotional abuse.
This setback would not deter Rose, however.
On the same day she and her sister ran from their aunt’s home, they boarded a plane for South Africa. Finally reunited with their elder sister, it seemed to be over.
But is it ever over for survivors of GBV and trafficking? Rose struggles to make sense of what happened, questioning the hatred. She also struggles to trust men. For years, she battled suicidal feelings; but writing, her sisters, and a loving relationship have helped her deal with the mental strain.
Rose encourages girls facing similar situations to acknowledge and denounce to themselves the situation they are in. She says, “The biggest thing is, when you feel something is not right…I don’t think you should succumb to the denial that it’s not ok.” Accepting the reality of the situation is the first step in changing it.
Today, both for survivors and those currently trapped in GBV and abuse, Rose’s story serves as a reminder that there is always hope.
As Khulumani has learned through visits to shelters where young women are removed to be safe from the hands of their traffickers, the situation is very serious because criminal syndicates are very often involved in trafficking of young women. These syndicates have proven to be ruthless when their economic interests are challenged, putting the girls and women at risk as well as the shelters where the women are taken in while investigations are conducted by criminal justice units such as the Hawks, towards bringing prosecutions against the traffickers.
Another book that tells the story from the perspective of a young woman who is trafficked, is the autobiography of Grizelda Grootboom called EXIT. Grizelda has become a powerful advocate against trafficking and an educator for young women about what happens to young women who are trafficked.
*Not her real name
To find out more about trafficking, READ: Sweet Memories: Tears of Melody by Stella Mpisi