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Malawi Struggles to End Sex Trafficking as Cases Rise 

FILE - Women and children separate grain from soil after a spill from a truck in Machinga, Malawi, May 24, 2016. The desire to escape poverty, experts say, is one of the factors that lead young women into the grasp of human traffickers.

COVID-19-driven economic and social difficulties in Malawi have caused an increase in sex trafficking in the southern African country, an NGO said, and the spike is being blamed mainly on poor law enforcement.

People Serving Girls at Risk (PSGR) said that prior to the pandemic, it was receiving about two to three sex trafficking case referrals every week, and that has now risen to seven or more.

PSGR records show that in 2020 alone, the organization handled more than 600 cases of sex trafficking. That's three times the figure reported in the past over a similar period.

Caleb Ng’ombo, director of the organization, said that "in one of the worst-case scenarios, we rescued about 43 girls." He said they were being trafficked "by somebody from a particular community taking them to Lilongwe,” the capital.

Ng’mbo said most of the victims were from poor families and were taken away after a perpetrator promised to provide education and employment.

'I needed money'

One such victim, 17-year-old Hilda (not her real name), told VOA through a messaging app that she was trafficked last year in an attempt to escape poverty at home soon after the death of her parents.

She said, “After feeling pity with my situation, my friend asked to go where she works. Upon reaching there, I was disturbed to see that it was sex work. I could not object because I needed money.”

Hilda said she left the place because of the abusive environment.

She described an incident in which another sex worker hit her in the head with a bottle of beer for allegedly spoiling her market because she thought Hilda was more than attractive than she was.

Hilda also said her employer was abusing her by not providing food to her, as had been agreed upon previously.

Malawi is a source, destination and transit country for human trafficking. It has stringent laws against trafficking and exploitation, however, including the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Act, which criminalized sex and labor trafficking. The legislation also provides for punishment of up to 14 years in prison for offenses involving an adult victim, and up to 21 years for those involving a child victim.

The country also has endorsed several international human rights treaties, including the Maputo Protocol, which mandates that governments protect women and girls from sexual exploitation and trafficking.

Tsitsi Matekaire, leader of End Sex Trafficking at Equality Now, an international NGO that focuses on using the law to protect women's and girls' rights, told VOA via a messaging app from Britain that human trafficking has long been a global problem.

"Over the past two or so decades, what we see from the international statistics from United Nations organ for drugs and crime is that trafficking for sexual exploitation is the most common, and women and girls are the majority of the victims," Matekaire said. "About 72% of all trafficking victims are women and girls. And 94% of [them] are trafficked for sexual exploitation.”

Failure to enforce laws

She said however, that many countries were failing to end the practice largely because of a failure to enforce anti-trafficking laws.

This is true in Malawi, she said, “with the Trafficking in Persons Act. But legislation alone is insufficient. [The] government needs to be doing more to ensure that legislation is properly implemented — that people like law enforcement, the judicial system and communities are aware of sex trafficking and are able to respond accordingly.”

A 2020 U.S. trafficking-in-persons report reflected Malawi’s general failure to effectively implement its human trafficking laws.

Trevor Hamela, Malawi’s deputy director for child affairs in the Ministry of Gender, said the Malawi government was failing to enforce its trafficking laws for a number of reasons.

“One of the reasons is that even the law itself is not well understood and interpreted the way it is supposed to be, because not all the enforcement officers were properly trained," Hamela said.

"Of course, they could have been trained, [but] maybe they don’t understand the law," he said. "The other aspect is that even our prosecutors, they also need to know the law, so that whenever they are making charges, the charges are according to the provision of the current Trafficking in Persons Act.”

Hamela said that in the meantime, to reduce sex trafficking in Malawi, the government’s law enforcement agencies were mounting roadblocks in areas suspected to be routes for the traffickers.