Woman escapes horror of sex slavery
JOHANNESBURG — Each year, thousands of people worldwide leave their countries of birth to go and work in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Seduced by high salaries that are not taxed, the country’s opulent lifestyle and its constantly growing economy that offers many job opportunities, the UAE is favoured by countless expatriates as the country to go to to make money then return home.
What many do not know, however, is that the very same booming economy that attracts people from all over the world has turned some parts of the UAE, especially Dubai and Abu Dhabi, into a haven for human traffickers.
Many unsuspecting women are tricked into going to the UAE with promises of getting jobs as hairdressers, models, waitresses, chefs, domestic workers and flight attendants.
However, they later find themselves in the clutches of traffickers who then use them as slaves or as prostitutes.
Not being able to speak the local language, having no one to turn to and not having identification documents which the traffickers confiscate as soon as they land in the country, the victims find themselves under the complete control of their traffickers.
Some of them come from countries where corruption is embedded in the police force and even when they see the police they do not ask for help as they believe that they work with the traffickers.
It is only when they fall ill, have been beaten to a pulp, or are in labour and have to be taken to hospital that officials become aware of their situation and notify the police.
In one instance, they came across a mother and daughter who had been trafficked and forced into prostitution together.
It was for this reason that the UAE government established Ewaa Shelters for Women and Children Victims of Human Trafficking in the hope of combating human trafficking and helping its victims.
Located in secret locations, the shelters provide counselling and medical attention, and teach computer skills and embroidery to the victims so that when they finally get back home they can make a living.
The shelters also fly them home and give them money to survive for a while as they try to rebuild their lives.
Sarah Shuhail, chief executive officer of the shelters, said what was common among the victims was that they came from poor countries, countries affected by war or countries hit by natural disasters.
They are tricked into going to the UAE by people in their own countries masquerading as employment agents when they were in fact undercover agents for human traffickers.
Most of the traffickers were women who had been victims themselves, Shuhail said.
While many of the trafficked women can’t wait to get home and forget about their ordeal after being rescued, those from Muslim countries that practise honour killings cannot go back, particularly when they are pregnant or have children conceived while in prostitution.
They know they will be killed by their families.
Maitha Ghanim Almazroue, corporate communications manager of the shelters, said it was sad that after going through so much trauma some women could not go back home due to honour killings.
“A woman will say: ‘I can’t get back home because they will kill me.’
“When she left she was single and came here looking for a job and now she is pregnant or has a child. Not all people understand this problem with human trafficking,” she said.
Due to the fact that the UAE does not take asylum-seekers, in cases where victims can’t go back home because they fear being killed, the shelters involve the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The UNHCR will then find alternative countries for them where they can live with their children and start a new life.
Both Shuhail and Almazroue said people needed to be aware of the dangers when promised jobs overseas and should always contact their embassies for help on verifying those job offers. This is Sofia’s story
Two years ago Sofia was one of the many foreigners who arrived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with the hope of getting a job and sending money home to help her family.
Her father stopped working after suffering a stroke, and her unemployed mother was taking care of her younger siblings.
It was during this trying time that a man approached Sofia and asked her whether she would like to work abroad. Sofia jumped at the idea.
She had dropped out of school in Grade 5 and the only thing she did was tend to her family’s land.
Her family was supportive of her going abroad and they sold their land for the equivalent of R15 000 for her to afford the flight and agency fees.
When they arrived in Abu Dhabi, the man from the agency took her to one of the houses in the city where she had to look after nine children and clean the house. She never saw him again. For all the work she had to do, she was paid an equivalent of R1 600 a month.
But after four months, the family stopped paying her salary.
“They kept saying they would pay me but by the end of the seventh month they had not. I told them that I wanted to go back to my country. They said it was fine but I should give them back the money they had paid me. I then decided to flee,” she said. With no passport or any documentation on her as she left them at the house, Sofia roamed the streets of Abu Dhabi, crying.
A taxi driver passing by saw her. He was from the same country as her.
He went to her and asked her why she was crying.
A sobbing Sofia told him and he promised to help her get a job in Dubai.
Sofia hopped into his taxi, happy and relieved that her countryman was going to help her.
When they arrived in Dubai, Sofia saw the taxi driver speaking to a man and a woman. After a while, he saw the couple giving the taxi driver money and she was ordered out of the taxi.
Unbeknown to her, her countryman had just sold her for an equivalent of R9 500 to the pair.
“I was taken to a house where there were many women in heavy make-up. I was also given make-up to put on and told to go and look for men. I understood what they meant by that but I refused. I told them that I was there to clean but they said to me: ‘There’s no other job.’
“I kept refusing but they locked me inside the house and beat me up. One day the woman came again and asked me whether I still refused to prostitute myself. I said yes.
“She called four other women who were living in the house and working as prostitutes. She told them to hold my legs and spread them open. She then tortured me by putting chilli in my vagina,” Sofia said, crying as she remembered the painful incident.
“I kept saying I would not prostitute myself and she put more chilli until I relented.”
Sofia said both the man and the woman used to drive her to clients and wait outside the house for her to make sure that she did not escape. While the men she was having sex with paid for her services, Sofia said she never got any of that money. Desperate to get out of prostitution, she would beg the men for help, telling them that she was being held against her will.
“They would say: ‘We are not responsible for you.’”
Sofia worked as a prostitute for seven months until she was rescued when another woman forced into prostitution managed to call the police.
Police arrived at the house they were all being held at, kicked open the door and rescued all the women who had been trafficked.
The female trafficker managed to flee but the man was arrested and later prosecuted. Sofia gave evidence in court. When The Star met with Sofia at the shelter, she had been there for a few months and was getting ready to go back home the following day.
She had received extensive counselling while at the shelter and been taught skills.
Despite what happened, Sofia said she had put what happened at the back of her mind and was ready to start afresh in her country of birth.
“I won’t tell my family what happened because they will not be happy and will probably treat men differently if they knew,” she said.
*Not her real name. Her country of birth has also been withheld as per request from the shelter.