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Partner Voices: Working to end sex trafficking and secure access to justice in Malawi

This Saturday marks World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, an annual day marked by the United Nations, governments, and civil society to focus on the need for collaborative action to end human trafficking in all its forms.  

Our partners are critical to our work towards ending sex trafficking in Malawi and around the world. Ahead of World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, we spoke to Caleb Ng’ombo, Executive Director of our Malawian partner, People Serving Girls at Risk (PSGR), a frontline organization working toward ending human trafficking for sexual exploitation, prostitution, and child marriage in Malawi. 

Why is ending sexual exploitation a priority for PSGR?

Sex trafficking and sexual exploitation are the least talked about. Many women and girls tell harrowing stories of sexual exploitation and want to leave it but cannot do so because there are no programs to support their exit. At PSGR, we are at the forefront of bringing change. We spotlight the harms caused by sexual exploitation and the harms women and girls face. It is a unique area, and something must be done. Ending sexual exploitation is key to achieving gender equality as provided in SDG 5. 

What are some of the challenges that survivors of sexual exploitation face in Malawi?

Access to justice is difficult in Malawi. Even when we report a case, and it is brought before a court, often a survivor does not get justice. Whether because of corruption, a poor investigation, or just that those in corridors of justice don’t attach value to the case. But we continue to push on through these challenges and we are glad that there are partners who are willing to come in and complement our efforts. 

If something is not done, then it defeats the whole purpose of accessing justice.

How does online sexual exploitation manifest in Malawi?

In Malawi, women and girls are increasingly being exploited online. The situation worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw most people move to the digital space.

The focus of this year’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons on the use and abuse of technology is very timely when most people are increasingly interacting on digital platforms. Unfortunately, these spaces have become a new frontier for sexual exploitation.

Perpetrators use the internet for recruitment, organizing transport and accommodation, and advertising victims to potential clients. The internet is also a mode of communication and perpetrators can remain anonymous.

I believe that the use of technology is a great opportunity that we can take advantage of to eradicate trafficking. If we implement laws and policies such as cybercrime laws this should help expedite investigations, and provide law enforcement with tools and mechanisms to track and identify perpetrators.

The criminal justice system can leverage the use of technology to ensure that survivors access justice. Perpetrators leave a digital trail that can be tracked and used to hold them to account. Additionally, digital evidence can also be used to enhance prosecution and should be admissible in court. It is high time that we embrace the use of technology to hold perpetrators to account.

What have you learned fighting for survivors of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation?

There’s quite a lot that I have learned. For example, by interacting with survivors, most of the stories they share are harrowing and heartbreaking. Most of them also share inspiring dreams but their dreams have been shattered by endemic poverty. Many are survivors of harmful cultural practices, so they cannot realize their dreams. The lesson, therefore, is that we must do more and strive to be creative and innovative. We must use approaches that bring sustainable solutions that can achieve holistic results and have far-reaching impacts. 

For example, when we fight for strategic change in laws, we know it is sustainable and will protect many women and girls. And if we advocate for governments to implement regional and international laws and standards, we know that harmful cultural practices in the communities will be repealed and that will free many women and girls.

What would you like the government, community leaders, lawmakers, judiciary, police, and prosecution to do to secure the rights of women and girls?

My call to all of them is to do everything possible to ensure that women and girls enjoy their rights just like everyone else. Every day, we are measured by various factors, including the commitments that governments have made. For example, the Sustainable Development Goals are clear on measures that governments must take to ensure that women and girls are empowered. If we are committed to attaining them, there cannot be a better time than this. It is time that each one of us plays our role.

The Government of Malawi must walk the talk. There is a lot of conversation about the Maputo Protocol, Palermo Protocol, and the Trafficking in Persons Act. The government must ensure that laws and policies are adhered to. There is a need to provide resources to roll out these policies. No policy will be meaningful if the government does not allocate resources. The government must provide enough resources to implement these laws and policies and ensure that they translate into meaningful action on the ground.

Equality Now and PSGR jointly filed a communication at the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC), what could this mean for women and girls in Malawi?

The communication that we submitted means a lot to women and girls and to us who are fighting for women’s rights. We used one case of Maggie, a teenage girl who was trafficked for sexual exploitation in Malawi, to highlight the lack of justice for sex trafficking survivors but there are several women suffering in silence. Several survivors of sex trafficking have been held back because they cannot access justice and feel demoralized and depressed when their cases are not finalized. This situation discourages others from reporting their cases. 

We are hopeful that the outcome of the communication, will go a long way in holding the government to account and ensuring that women and girls enjoy the full protection of the law. For a long time, we have grappled with cases of sex trafficking, hoping to have a court precedent that metes out a substantial sentence that would have a deterrent effect. However, this has not been the case because there seems to be laxity by the state to prosecute sex trafficking cases in the courts. 

If the ACERWC responds favorably by outlining actionable recommendations to the government of Malawi, that will give us impetus. It will be a huge morale booster as a frontline organization that we are fighting for a good cause and that everyone including regional mechanisms, acknowledges our efforts. It will give us the energy to go on. We believe that everyone must take part in the battle we are fighting. Each one of us must play our part.

For Maggie*, I am sure she will be the happiest person since she will access justice. Maggie has been denied justice because justice delayed is justice denied. The more her case is delayed, the more she dies inside herself. 

What is the change you hope to see through the partnership with Equality Now?

We are focusing on holding the government of Malawi to account for its commitments under human rights law but also hope to bring about broader changes in the legal framework and narratives around sexual exploitation in its various forms within Malawi. We hope to bring a paradigm shift and challenge the normalization of sexual exploitation and lack of access to justice. We would especially like to remind the government of the commitments it has made at the national, regional, and international levels for which it is not doing much to meet its obligations under those frameworks.

By putting a spotlight on the issue, undertaking coordinated advocacy, and holding the government accountable for its commitments, we hope that a lot will change for women and girls to enjoy their legal rights and protection from sexual exploitation. Through our partnership with Equality Now, we are bringing the realities of sexual exploitation and its manifestation to the fore. We are also bringing on board different players and hope that they will join us in the campaign and take action as well.