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Vulnerable runaway youths at risk of human trafficking

Perseverance Javangwe

In a pressing issue that demands immediate attention, runaway youths are increasingly at risk of falling victim to the destructive claws of human trafficking. As they seek solace and escape from their troubles, these vulnerable individuals unknowingly expose themselves to a dark underworld that preys on their despair.

According to recent reports, the number of runaway youths, often grappling with diverse challenges such as abuse, neglect, or familial conflicts, has been steadily rising. Disconnected from protective networks, they find themselves alone and susceptible, making them prime targets for exploitation by human traffickers.

Rekiatu (not her real name) is 14 years old. She is from Zaka, in Chief Nhema’s Benzie village. Rekiatu’s mother died and her father remarried. According to her, she had to run away because her stepmother was abusing her. She has been doing all the house chores since she was young. According to what she explained her step-mother would beat her and scold her. So one day she decided enough was enough, and she had to live at home. She walked on the tarmac with bare feet for more than fifty kilometers. A driver who had seen her the previous day when going the other way saw her and stopped for her. The driver gave her a lift to Chiredzi. While on the way the driver assisted her with food. When she arrived in Chiredzi, she had nowhere to go and to stay by the bus terminus. While she was there the rank marshals would ask her to wash the cars and give her money for food. She stayed at the bus terminus until one night she was picked up by a young man who offered her accommodation and food. This man took her to his house and he looked genuine. She was surprised when they got home that there was no one else at the house. That night she was raped, and she was helpless. The man promised to marry her, and now she is staying with this man as his wife. According to her, it is better for her because she has escaped the wrath of her stepmother.

In another case, Chenai (not her real name) left Mberengwa for Chiredzi via Rutenga. Chenai is from Chief Mataruse. She has parents and they afford the basics of life. Chenai ran away from home because she was disciplined by her parents over an issue that had to do with her boyfriend. She was angry and decided to leave home. She got a lift from a haulage truck and was dropped at Rutenga. She started roaming the township area before being taken in by some ladies who were into prostitution. The first night she was at a shabeen, which was then raided by the police for violating rules. The police took her, seeing that she was underage and they referred her to the Vukarhani Trust who then facilitated her way back home.

The dangers they face are harrowing, with traffickers employing cunning tactics to lure these young individuals into their web of exploitation. Promises of a better life, false job opportunities, or even romantic relationships serve as deceptive bait, leading them into a web of manipulation and coercion.

Once ensnared, the lives of these youths are subjected to unimaginable horrors. Stripped of their freedom and rights, they are subjected to a range of abuses, including forced labor, sexual exploitation, and even organ trafficking. Isolated and often far from home, they suffer in silence, their pleas for help stifled by fear or threats to their families and loved ones.

“The problem of runaway youth in Zimbabwe including the Midlands Province is huge nowadays, every time you see parents looking for their children who go missing. In urban areas, you see a lot of young people, and children roaming the streets, a sign that they have run away from their homes. Often children run away from home due to various factors such as economic hardships, poverty, abuse, neglect or desire for independence, juvenile delinquency due to influence from other children that might have gone to town, or to South Africa, then children they want to copy others to run away from home.

“The situation that we are facing as a country, the economy is immensely contributing to run away children because parents/guardians are not able to provide adequately. So children will seek alternative sources of income which pushes them to run away from home. We also have several cases of children who ran away from home due to abuse from step-parents or their guardians who are not so loving, or in their own understanding, the guardians are abusive. But, more often than not, you find out that the children are telling the truth, that the guardian is abusive, the guardian is alcoholic, and pushing the children to overwork, and children are not properly cared for. Some will be abused emotionally, some will be denied food. This pushes children to run away from home.

“Furthermore, some parents are neglecting their children. Some move to South Africa, and while there, they do not fend for their children. They neglect their children especially those in the rural areas, and children end up running away to fend for themselves. This has become prevalent across the country. When these children run away from home they then expose themselves to traffickers. Traffickers target vulnerable individuals by offering false promises of employment, education, or a better life elsewhere. There is also a risk of being lured through social media, friend requests with acquaintances who might be connected to traffickers,” said Gerald Shirichena Director of the Vukarhani Trust.

Despite the gravity of this issue, efforts to combat the trafficking of runaway youths remain inadequate. Key stakeholders, including governments, NGOs, and communities, must rally together to address the root causes and provide protective measures for these at-risk individuals.

To tackle this dire situation, it is crucial to enhance awareness, not only among potential victims but also within communities at large. Education campaigns that highlight the signs of trafficking and offer guidance on seeking help can empower targeted youths to make informed decisions and escape potential exploitation.

Furthermore, robust support systems must be in place to assist those who have fallen victim to trafficking. This includes establishing safe havens, helplines, and specialized counseling services to help survivors rebuild their lives and reintegrate into society.

Collaboration between law enforcement agencies, social services, and NGOs is also essential. Strengthening coordination mechanisms and ensuring adequate resources are allocated will enhance the identification and prosecution of traffickers, ultimately dismantling their sinister operations.

“We need support systems and resources to aid runaway youth in Zimbabwe to protect them from falling into the hands of traffickers. There is a need to establish and promote shelters, and hotline services to provide immediate counseling for runaway youths. A dedicated hotline can be set up to facilitate their access to support. Conducting widespread campaigns to raise adequate awareness about the risk of trafficking amongst young people and the general public. This can include programs, educational initiatives, and media campaigns. There is a need to forge collaborations, and partnerships with civic society organisations specifically those embarking on the youth, and child protection to develop a comprehensive program and intervention.

“There is also a need to develop a peer and support mentorship program that provides guidance, counseling, and positive role models for runaway youths. These networks can help them reconnect with their families or find alternative safe places. Prioritizing access to quality educational training programs to enhance the resilience, and employability of runaway youth reduces their vulnerability to traffickers. Furthermore, the legal framework has to be strengthened. There is a need for informed law enforcement to combat human trafficking, this includes strict penalties for offenders, proactive identification, and supporting individuals,” said Shirichena.

The time for action is now. It is our collective responsibility to protect the most vulnerable members of society and secure their future. By confronting the issue head-on and implementing comprehensive measures, we can create a society where runaway youths are no longer at risk of being ensnared by human trafficking. Only through such concerted efforts can we truly safeguard their well-being and ensure a brighter, more secure tomorrow for all.

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