Sister Vanaja Jasphine, 39, Yaoundé, holding her US State Department '2017 Hero Acting to End Modern Slavery Award', standing in the grounds of a religious seminary, Yaoundé, July, 25, 2017. .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
YAOUNDE - A celebrated Indian nun who rescues Cameroonian women from slavery in the Middle East has called for greater support for victims to help them recover from the horrors of being drugged, raped and abused.
Sister Vanaja Jasphine says she has identified more than 200 women who have been trafficked from the central African nation and enslaved in the Middle East in recent years.
The 39-year-old nun last year helped to bring home 14 trafficking victims, whom she refers to as Cameroon's "children."
A rising number of African women are heading to the Middle East for domestic work, driven abroad by the lack of jobs at home, rights activists say. Yet many have their passports confiscated and end up trapped in modern-day slavery.
"One woman was thrown from the balcony of a two-story building by her employer after she accidentally burnt her boss's shirt whilst ironing," Jasphine said of a victim in Kuwait.
Others are drugged and turned into sex slaves - being raped multiple times a day and even forced to have sex with animals.
"They come home with a lot of trauma," Jasphine, coordinator of the Justice and Peace Commission of Kumbo, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a seminary in the capital Yaounde.
"Sometimes, a (woman forced to be a) sex worker can be exploited 15 times a day - physically, mentally, she's drained... she's gone," added the nun, who moved to northwest Cameroon almost a decade ago to work with the country's poorest.
"In the end, she doesn't have anything. She comes back in the same dress she left in."
Jasphine was hailed in June as one of eight global heroes in the fight against trafficking at the launch of the United States' annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which grades countries on their efforts to stamp out modern-day slavery.
But Jasphine has no time for celebrations.
She is too busy seeking funding, counseling and support for victims left traumatized by their ordeal abroad.TRAFFICKERS CHANGE TACTICS
Jasphine says she identifies trafficking victims by working with activists, community leaders and civil society groups.
To raise awareness about their plight, she has helped organize demonstrations, where women have marched with placards reading: 'Bring back our suffering daughters'.
"We got a lot of support from the people," said Jasphine.
"It touches every heart because they (the people) feel: 'It's my own child who is affected, who is exploited'."
She has also lobbied government officials, all the way to the country's prime minister, to do more to help the women.
Cameroon has made strides towards meeting the US minimum standards to end trafficking, having provided services to some victims and sent a delegation to the Middle East to discuss Cameroonian workers' rights, the 2017 TIP report said.
Yet the state has not funded repatriation for slavery victims stranded in the Middle East, and continues to rely on civil society groups to bring trafficking cases to its attention and provide most services for victims, the report said.
The government has tried to crack down on Cameroonians traveling to the Middle East, but traffickers have changed tactics, and are instead flying women via Nigeria, Jasphine said.
She said the government must now do more to help those coming home.
Although her organization and other groups try to help victims get back on their feet, take them to hospital and provide counseling, it is simply not enough, the nun warned.
"It is very disheartening," Jasphine said, showing a series of distressed text messages from one of the women she helped to rescue from Kuwait, who is now struggling financially.
"Much more needs to be done."