Too Many People
by Major Colleen Marshall
Rice. It’s the staple food in most Sri Lankan households, eaten for breakfast, dinner and tea. But this particular Sunday morning, a kilo of rice took on new meaning.
‘Guess how many grains of rice you think are in this bag,’ the Sunday school children were asked. Blank looks. A bag of rice is a bag of rice – who cares how many grains there are, one could imagine the children thinking.
After some coaxing, wild guesses followed. Five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million!
‘This bag contains 35,000 grains of rice,’ the speaker went on. She opened the bag and took a handful, letting it fall through her fingers then passed the bag around, asking everyone to take some and hold the grains in their hand. ‘Every grain represents a boy in Sri Lanka who is suffering. This many boys go missing from home every year, their parents might be tricked into selling them, or they just disappear – 35,000.’
It’s not a comfortable matter to explain human trafficking to children, to explain how children are exploited, lured or abducted from their families for labour, as child soldiers, or to satisfy pornographic and paedophile demand. And there was no need to be graphic or go into great detail. Enough to raise awareness of the plight of other children and the evil that lurks in broad daylight in their own neighbourhoods.
|A mother and child who have been given a safe home at The Haven|
|One of the refuge’s youngest residents|
|A resident at the Salvation Army refuge helps prepare a meal |
|Worship services are part of life at The Haven|
|The Haven is ‘a big family’ whose activities include dancing|
|The pictures shown here are part of a programme run by The Salvation Army in Sri Lanka, funded by Spring Harvest through The Salvation Army’s UK Territory. The project seeks to make children aware of the dangers of trafficking|
That morning the young people were invited to pray in small groups for the children their grains of rice represented and to commit themselves to keep praying, as were the adults later in the morning service.
Postcards of Sri Lanka show an island paradise. Palm trees, white sandy beaches, balmy warm temperatures the year round, upmarket seaside resorts. But driving down the rough tracks leading to such resorts one can’t ignore the poverty. All along the coastline shacks have sprung up among the rubble and half demolished houses left by the 2004 tsunami.
Of the many children left orphaned, it is said that hundreds of them just disappeared, spirited away, many by unscrupulous and opportunist foreigners to feed their lurid fantasies.
On the whole, Sri Lankan society has turned a blind eye for many decades to this hidden evil in its midst. The tourists bring money, don’t they? And what kind of message does a fine of $10 or $20 send? Sometimes parents left in poverty without a livelihood roam the coastal resort areas, offering their children to tourists for a mere dollar or two.
Of course it’s not only children who suffer the effects of poverty. More than 200,000 wives and mothers have left Sri Lanka in search of riches abroad. In the rural villages where opportunities are non-existent, unscrupulous teams systematically hold ‘housemaid seminars’, rolling out the prospect of a wealthy future as housemaids in the Middle East. The dollar signs dazzle, the thought of sending money back to help educate their children, to build the family a proper house, leads to signing up on the spot. Why delay? Loans to get passports and documents are offered, it sounds too good to be true. And often it is.
While certainly there are many cases of all going well, too many find themselves in a human hell. Some never leave the shores of Sri Lanka but are sold within the country, from city to city, to brothel after brothel, and virtually become imprisoned to pay off their ‘loans’.
Family life breaks down, incest is common, some fathers roam off, unable to carry the burden of caring for the children. Children fend for themselves, education is forgotten, they are hungry and wide open to the powers of evil and darkness. There is no escape. There are no choices.
A few months later the same people who offered hope to the women return to the villages, now greedily looking for the children too. The poor and the vulnerable will blindly sell their children to a stranger who offers to take them to the city, and give them a good education, or help them become ‘film stars’. Down the track, those same young people, by then trapped in a sickening lifestyle, become the pimps who are forced to lure other young children away from their homes.
It is hard to get figures for the trafficking problem. ‘Organised recruitment’ campaigns for women to work abroad see around 200,000 going every year and if many go of their free will but don’t know they’re being trafficked, who is counting?
There is also the infamous ‘beach boy’ situation here. UNICEF believes that 30,000 boys are used on the beaches for paedophile demand – many live in poverty-stricken homes along the beaches and the parents welcome the couple of dollars they get paid. There is always a network behind it and boys rescued have horror stories to tell. But putting numbers on trafficking is difficult. There is evidence it is happening, with children being fed from the villages into pornography in the cities as well.
The Salvation Army in Sri Lanka is taking up the struggle with its Combating Human Trafficking project. While awareness-raising programmes will cover the spectrum of children’s, youth and adult groups, the main focus will continue to be rescuing and helping women. Another organisation has focused for several years on rescuing boys.
For Shani and Rosie [not their real names] it sounded like a dream come true. Working abroad. Making lots of money. So many promises. They were taken to Colombo, given a loan for their documents, then taken to a house near the airport where the reign of terror began. All their personal belongings were confiscated. False passports were given to them, and unfamiliar skimpy clothing. They were flown to another south Asian country, sold once, twice, three times, and shunted from brothel to brothel.
Sometimes denied food for days at a time, they were ‘sexploited’ mercilessly day and night. Finally they found themselves in Singapore, broken and beaten. All self-respect and dignity had died with their dreams. They knew their families would never accept them back. They would be waiting in vain for the promised money, for a word from them.
Then one night in a daring escape, they fled to a neighbouring shop and hid, asking for help. Police were called and a week later they were on a flight back to Sri Lanka. But the underground had been alerted, and the same woman who had sold them off met them at the airport. They were shoved into a van, taken to a lodge and savagely beaten, raped repeatedly by 10 men, and told they still owed money. They would never be free. The nightmare started all over till police finally raided the brothel and took them into custody.
They found themselves at a place called The Haven, the Salvation Army women’s refuge in Colombo. The home has cared for such victims for more than 100 years.
Human trafficking and prostitution are not a new phenomenon. But while the emphasis until now has been on providing a safe place, a shelter, little has happened in the way of advocacy, counselling, skills training, and proactively raising awareness and fighting the evil in the communities. Little has been done to prepare a woman and her family for reconciliation.
The women and girls rounded up in brothel raids are treated as criminals and have to await their court cases. Those pregnant wait to give birth. There is shame for the young women’s families. They will never be told if a new baby has been born or adopted out.
One woman has waited 14 years, with her case being ‘conveniently’ delayed time after time. Rarely is there justice. The Haven also contains a remand home, where residents are locked in and never go out.
But don’t get the wrong picture. The Haven is a family, a big family of usually around 100, with a dozen or more pre-schoolers also living there. There’s learning and laughter, there’s drama, they have concerts, they creatively celebrate the simple things in life. They cook over a wood fire, and get through 100 coconuts a week!
Very few speak English and I don’t speak Sinhala but somehow we communicate! A new handcrafts project is happening.
There’s a long road ahead for our project. But the thought of making a difference, making an impact, being agents of positive change, raising awareness at village level, offering hope, teaching livelihood skills and preparing women who have been victims to return to their communities gives everyone involved in the HT project the inspiration and motivation to make it happen.
Next time you buy a kilo of rice, or pass the rice aisle in the supermarket, pause a minute to think of those grains, every grain representing a human being, boy or girl, man or woman, trapped and exploited.
The General of The Salvation Army last year called a day of prayer for the victims of trafficking. That was good but I would urge people not to wait for the next special day later this year. These people need our prayers today – and tomorrow, and every day.
Major Colleen Marshall, a New Zealander, is Project Officer in The Salvation Army’s Sri Lanka Territory