Sylvia* is 14 years old. I met her in a school in Nairobi. She was a class seven pupil and according to her teacher she used to be very bright, but her performance had dropped drastically over some time. Sylvia’s attitude was also different because she was always moody. These changes made the class teacher suspect that something was happening to Sylvia that was causing these changes. Upon investigation the class teacher found out that she was being abused by her cousin.
Sylvia would leave school early to go and pick her cousin`s children from school. She was also responsible for doing all the house chores. This meant that she would have to sleep late at night, was extremely exhausted from all the chores and still had to wake up early to attend school. This schedule was impossible for a young child who is only fourteen years old to maintain.
The class teacher was concerned and forwarded the case to the school social worker who coincidentally is a volunteer on a HAART project. He had previously arranged trainings for the students on human trafficking. The social worker contacted me and we discussed the issue at length. We concluded that Sylvia was being exploited for child labour, that this was a child trafficking case and the girl needed to be rescued. At the time of planning her rescue the schools were closed for holidays and Sylvia was to travel back to Kisii with her cousin. This made it impossible for us to implement our plans for her rescue. We talked with Sylvia and agreed that we would carry out her rescue when they came back from Kisii.
Schools opened and to our dismay Sylvia did not report to school. We were imagining the worst because if her cousin could exploit her as she was doing maybe she had harmed her. We had to figure out our next course of action because Sylvia’s welfare depended on it. We decided that the best way forward was to visit the girl’s home in Kisii to confirm whether she was fine. Luckily we had taken directions to Sylvia’s home in Kisii when we interviewed her. Therefore, we had an idea of the location of her home. I discussed the issue with the program manager and he agreed with our course of action.
I left for Kisii relying on the directions I got from Sylvia. I had never been to this area before. I had tried to follow the directions but became lost because it was an area I was not familiar with. I was also running out of time because it was becoming late for me to get my destination. It took me two hours to realize that I had gone in the opposite direction and I had to find my way back. I did not despair because I knew Sylvia’s life might depend on my success.
It took two hours for me to find my way back to the town. When I got there I thought that the village was close but I had to travel for two hours on a motorbike to get to Sylvia’s village.
I got to Sylvia`s home at 7.30 pm. I found her cleaning utensils. Her brother and grandmother were also in the house. It was a relief for me to see her safe and she was very happy to see me. She was able to explain to me how she got home. Sylvia said that on their way to Kisii her cousin decided to visit her sister in Siaya. Her cousin did not want the burden of travelling with her all the way to Siaya and dropped her off at town near Kisii. She left Sylvia with an older man who was to take care of her for some months before they picked her up. When she explained this to me, I could tell that there was a very high risk that her cousin was planning to traffic Sylvia to this man for sexual exploitation. No one in their right mind would leave a fourteen year old girl with a man who is a complete stranger to her.
Fortunately Sylvia had attended one of HAART’s trainings. The information she got from the workshop made her notice that she was not safe and she needed to run away from him. To escape she devised a plan. She excused herself to go to the washroom and as soon as she was sure that she was alone, she ran away. Luckily she had a few coins in her pocket which she used as her transportation to get to her home village. She arrived home late at night, which meant that she had travelled alone using public transport. Since I had travelled the same route coming to see her, I knew what she had gone through to get home. When she arrived home she found her mother and brother. They were shocked to see her arrive at that time. She had to explain what had happened to her mother who broke down in tears upon hearing everything her child experienced in the hands of someone that is a relative.
Her mother works as a house help in the nearby village and was not earning much, which is why she allowed Sylvia to stay with her cousin. The mother said she was not aware that her daughter was going through such difficulties in her cousin’s hands. She took the initiative of taking her daughter to her nearby school and decided to take full responsibility of taking care of her. Sylvia was lucky to get away as she did because she knew what was about to happen to her. Most victims are not so fortunate because until they are trafficked they are not informed of the danger of trafficking.
By the time I had finished talking to the family it was very late but I had to begin my journey to a meeting I had the next morning in Homa Bay. I had to travel on a motorbike and down a mountain after dark for two hours to get to the main town where I could catch a connecting bus. Despite the challenges I was happy that Sylvia was fine and safely in the hands of someone that genuinely cared for her.
By George Matheka, edited by Winnie Mutevu and Sr. Elizabeth Mueni
* Name has been altered.