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 without money for food, let alone school books. When their grandmother was approached with a job offer for Mercy Esther in Kenya and the promise that money would be sent home, she accepted. The money could help Mercy Esther’s siblings. They could 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, causing a pronounced lameness. On the streets of Nairobi, she and other children were forced to beg. She was told to pretend she couldn’t walk, to elicit sympathy from the audience. Every day, the money she collected was taken away from her.
One day, while begging, Mercy Esther was approached by a woman who offered her domestic work and other promises: a new house, a salary and a good salary. She went with the woman, but instead Mercy Esther was mistreated and not given money for her work. It will take him six years before he escapes.
More information on the CNN Freedom Project
With support from Nairobi police and the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments, Mercy Esther returned to her homeland, but without details of the village where she grew up, authorities handed her over to the WoteSawa Domestic Workers Organization, which runs shelter. for child victims of trafficking in Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria in the north of the country.
“Tanzania is a beautiful and peaceful country, but there is a dark side to it,” said Angela Benedicto, founder and executive director of the organization.
“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 servitude, young girls forced into domestic work. They are victims of abuse, exploitation and are not paid for their work.
Around one million children – mostly girls – are engaged in domestic work in Tanzania, according to the non-profit organization Anti-Slavery International.
WoteSawa was created in 2014 and welcomes around 75 children who have escaped trafficking each year. Space is limited: the children sleep two to a bed. Some stay longer than others, Benedicto says, especially those involved in criminal cases because prosecutions can take time. So far, the association has helped hundreds of survivors, but the needs are greater than the resources available. Benedicto dreams of building a bigger shelter for more children.
Its mission is to empower domestic workers and defend their rights. It’s a question close to his heart; she is a former domestic worker herself. “I was a victim of abuse and exploitation, but I was able to express myself,” she explains. “A lot of domestic workers, they can’t express themselves. Who will speak (for) them?
“I use my story to tell them, ‘Don’t give up.'”
WoteSawa means “all are equal” in Swahili. At the shelter, the children are accommodated and benefit from advice and legal support. They also receive education in literacy and numeracy, as well as vocational skills such as sewing. Reintegrating children into education goes hand in hand with efforts to reunite children with loved ones, “so that when they return to their families, they can not only help themselves, but also help their families. “, Benedicto said.
Lydia lives in Ngara district in the western highlands of Tanzania. She left home to become a domestic worker when she was 16, but was beaten by her employer and not paid for her work. She escaped and was helped by WoteSawa, where she learned to sew. Lydia returned to her family with a sewing machine provided by WoteSawa and today she is a seamstress and dreams of having her own shop.
“She earns enough money to support her family,” Benedicto said. “Her dream is to help other young girls learn how to sew. She has a plan to give back to the community.
In addition to helping survivors of trafficking, WoteSawa works to prevent this from happening. Benedicto coordinates with bus depot officers looking for young children, and with local police who have the power to intervene.
“My mission is to make sure that (the) crime of human trafficking is stopped – totally. And it is through education that we can achieve that,” police commander Juma Jumane said. We have to educate the families, we have to educate the victim himself, we also have to educate society in general.
When Mercy Ester arrived at the shelter, she was reluctant to give the name of her village because she feared she would be trafficked again if she returned there. But eventually, she changed her mind.
CNN met Mercy Esther through the Poland-based Kulczyk Foundation, which supports WoteSawa.
WoteSawa was able to reunite with his family and took his grandmother and siblings to the shelter. It had been eight years since they had seen each other. “It was so emotional,” Benedicto said. “They cried, they kissed. I think each of us was so emotional. We were in tears of joy.
Mercy Esther is still uncomfortable about returning to her village and has chosen to stay at the shelter until she is older and skilled enough as a seamstress to start a business to help to provide for his family.
“His future is so bright,” Benedicto said. “I can see she will be a light to her siblings.”