Taking a Stand against Human Trafficking

Awah Francesca Mbuli of
Survivors’ Network (SN), Cameroon

July 2020

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Awah Francesca Mbuli


Awah is a survivor of sex and labor trafficking and almost a victim of organ trafficking, and the founding director of Survivors’ Network (SN), a Cameroonian NGO comprised of trafficking survivors that raises awareness, helps victims escape their trafficking situations, and offers temporary housing, vocational training, and other essential services that survivors need for successful reintegration.

Due to her hard work she has earned many plaudits such as: Akina Mama Wa Africa Fellow, Ghana February, 2020 – Obama Foundation Summit 2019 Chicago (On a Panel With President Obama) – Mo Ibrahim Governance weekend Fellow, 2019 – Global Freedom Exchange Fellow 2018 – Obama Africa Leader, 2018 inaugural class – Trafficking in Persons Hero award 2018 – World Pulse story Award – African dream Achievers Award – 50 Most Influential Cameroonian Youth 2018, emerging 18th.

Since 2015 her organization has helped more than 200 women from Africa free themselves from their situations of forced labor, including debt bondage in the Middle East and then funded the flights of 28 of these women back to their respective countries in Africa. Under her leadership, ‘Survivors’ Network’ has built a unique approach to survivor’s empowerment by focusing on economic independence and fostering entrepreneurship among women and girls.

She has provided guidance to more than 1000 victims of trafficking, and her organization has helped create economic opportunities for more than 400 survivors and internally displaced persons (women) across Cameroon by providing micro financing for small businesses and income-generating projects as well as job and small business training. She recently began working with children in 2019 and in 2020 she began working with male survivors as well.

Through the outreach campaigns and partnerships formed with international non-profit organizations and her grass-roots workshops and programs, Ms. Awah Mbuli and the Survivors Network have raised the level of awareness among Cameroonians and others around the world.

AGN contacted Awah to learn more.

The Bigger Picture

AGN: Why did you decide to embark on your intervention ‘Survivors’ Network (SN) Cameroon’ and when did you decide to do so?

The organisation was set up in 2015. I decided to do so for several reasons. (1) as part of my healing process, (2) to raise awareness about the issue, (3) to realise a desire I had previously considered while studying for a masters in Norway and (4) due to a query an elder had raised in one of the villages I had visited.

Due to certain challenges I was unable to complete my studies in Norway and returned to Cameroon. I was seen as a failure, not necessarily because I did not complete my studies but more because I returned to Cameroon instead of staying in Norway to prosper.

In 2015 I departed from Cameroon for Kuwait with the understanding I would take up a well paid teaching job, this is where my most recent ordeal began. After my rescue in Kuwait and subsequent repatriation to Cameroon, I did not find my family to be very supportive. First Norway and then Kuwait, there is a tendency among some people in Africa to see leaving the continent as a sure way to become successful. If you return without the trappings of success, you are stigmatized.

As mentioned, I set up the organisation for a number of reasons. In terms of aiding my healing, I had been receiving medical care due to the trauma I suffered both historically and in Kuwait. Things were not going as well as they should and I was advised to voice the issues, feelings and experiences I had in order to aid the healing process. Understandably I was terrified to do so. People who have faced the type of things I have experienced are often stigmatized. It was this realization that had held me back from speaking out about prior ordeals. Nevertheless, I eventually plucked up the courage to face my fears, and I began to share some of what I had experienced.

While some of my fears were realized through the negative reactions of some people, I found the reaction of those who responded positively to be extremely helpful and cathartic, this spurred me on to further activity and engagement. In helping myself I was also able to help others by raising awareness and building solidarity amongst other victims and allies, while creating a safe space for victims of trauma to air their experiences in a way that was supportive and cathartic for them too.

Having shaken off the shackles of my fears, I began to engage the media and to visit numerous places to raise awareness e.g. schools and communities in towns and rural areas. At this stage I had not set up an organisation. I vividly recall an elder in one of the villages I visited asking me ‘where is my umbrella?’. I thought it strange he would ask such a question given the time of year, when I sought clarification he explained that he thought I was doing very good work but that he felt my position would be strengthened if I had an organisation behind me, so while my work had started off semi-formally it was this exchange that was pivotal in birthing the formal structure/ organisation through which I now operate.

One can never trivialise the horror of human trafficking irrespective of the scale. It appears this crime has mushroomed, do you have any indication as to when more people began to be ensnared in this horror?

Awah: In terms of my country and specifically the English speaking regions, I would say the increased activities of the separatist movement for political autonomy around the mid part of the previous decade has led to a rise.

Is there a particular part or parts of your country where this crime is highly prevalent and why is that?

Awah: I have more awareness of the situation within the English speaking parts of my country i.e. within the Northwest and Southwest regions. In these parts schools haven’t been operating effectively since 2016. Armed separatists have heavily restricted movement, this has led to a massive decline in growth, trade and opportunities.

People are fleeing or being lured primarily to the capital Yaounde, economic capital Doula or other countries in order to better themselves, this often results in exploitation.

Do you feel you have adequate data to enable you fine tune your operations?

Awah: Yes, we conduct our own surveys, this allows for further insight of the situation within the geographical sphere of our operations.

The nature of this crime means reliable data can be challenging to come by, what more would you like to be done with regards to gathering of locally derived data on this issue?

Awah: As far as my country is concerned I feel empowering grass-roots organisations to gather more general data across the country would be helpful. Door to door surveys either voluntary or paid would help to present a more complete picture of the situation across the nation. This could help shape a national strategy to tackle the issue rather than piecemeal efforts which may lead to problems migrating from one place to another.

AGN: What would you say are the key factors that lead to people seeking irregular migration as a means to an end?

Awah: I would highlight the following as some of the key drivers; economic poverty, poverty of the mindset/ ignorance, peer pressure, political instability/ conflict.

People are being encouraged to speak up and report suspected instances of trafficking, prosecutions of traffickers who are members of the public or officials have also been recorded. Are there any character traits you would say traffickers tend to exhibit?

Awah: People whose behavior lacks regard and that is extremely neglectful of the welfare of others who are reliant on them is often a hallmark of someone that is a trafficker or exploiter. Having said that, intermediaries/ agents can be very charming at pivotal points during the process of acquiring victims. Obviously no one is knowingly going to jump at the chance to be taken to a place where they will suffer terribly. Sadly it’s not always possible to determine who is who.

What types of behavior and circumstances would you suggest indicate someone is enduring trafficking/ exploitation?

Awah: People who are heavily reliant on others for their well-being, whose outward appearances is usually dishevelled, coupled with a sad, downhearted demeanour. Over time the clothing of such victims is rarely changed and increasingly they look malnourished and are subjected to constant beatings. Such people are often reserved and have no joyous stories to tell. Obviously it is the ones that don’t exhibit any obvious outward tell tale signs that are the most difficult to spot. Sometimes the situation may not be as it seems.

Obviously there are a range of factors associated with a given individuals circumstance, in terms of your experience, where an individual has not sought irregular migration voluntarily, are agents typically strangers or known to the victim/ victim’s family e.g. relatives?

Awah: It’s very difficult for a stranger to acquire a victim directly from a family. While later on in the process strangers can become involved, often it is a person known to the victim and/ or the victim’s family that starts the process. Cases such as mine in Kuwait where people are deceived can typically involve strangers from the outset. In reality it all depends on the individual situation.

We hear of instances where people who are returnees and have been trained and possibly assisted to set-up a venture, still seek to drop everything in order to utilize irregular migration to leave Africa, have you come across such instances, if so why does this happen?

Awah: There is a perception that living outside Africa is better, a degree of prestige and respect is accorded those who do live abroad, it is assumed they know and are doing better. The unbalanced narratives that some who have succeeded in leaving Africa portray through social media, irrespective of whether they are living well or just faking it in order to cover their shame is totally unhelpful. Add that to the challenging economic realities in Africa and even though some returnees may have experienced and/ or witnessed unbelievable trauma, they still jump at the chance to leave the continent. Some will use the same methods that failed them previously, only altering the new route based on the knowledge gained from their previous failed attempt(s).

A member of my team who was a returnee and used to join me on sensitization visits highlighting the perils of human trafficking and exploitation, even recounting her experience in order to add weight to the message, one day disappeared. The next thing I knew was that she had tried again to leave Africa through illegal migratory channels and on this occasion she had been successful in getting to her destination.

In another instance, the victim wasn’t a returnee but someone who had been rescued from a situation where she had been repeatedly raped and as a result fell pregnant. Our organisation provided training and support and purchased stock for her to set up a small trading kiosk. One day we paid her a surprise visit with some items for her child. We discovered that she had packed the stock she had been given to one side in a haphazard manner, some of it was clearly spoiling due to the inadequate way in which it had been kept.

It turns out that the victim wasn’t really interested in trading but had just been going along with things in order to receive additional support. She was also receiving support from other agencies too and could certainly get by in the short to medium term.

These are some of the challenges one faces. It due to this sort of thing that my relationship with ‘Freedom for All’ (the organisation that paid for my repatriation from Kuwait and supported me personally and my organisation) was damaged. It can be difficult to obtain financial support when team members/ volunteers and survivors who have ulterior motives eventually show their hand and set things back through their actions.

We of course have learned from these type of experiences and adapted accordingly. We now typically drip feed financial support and monitor progress/ milestones rather than pay lump sums to those who require funding.

While there are governments that are doing their bit, civil society/ non state actors are also very dynamic in addressing this issue; through skills acquisition/ training, education, entrepreneurship and so on, having said that there are only so many skilled/ semi-skilled workers and graduates an economy can absorb. A global economy that does not operate on a level playing field is not going to right itself because of the hardships faced by Africans or black people across the globe in general. As long as even a menial job in parts of the world outside Africa derives greater economic value for most Africans, leaving the continent for such places is unlikely to lose its appeal.

Unemployment and underemployment are very high in Africa across the socio economic spectrum. Do you feel the approach of training and assisting individuals to set up small businesses will yield a long term strategic benefit that will make a pivotal difference?

Awah: I believe additional measures need to be put in place. Introducing more people into an economy that cannot enable them realise their ambitions is unlikely to solve the problem. Embracing initiatives and processes geared towards exports can to some extent, help overcome domestic economic bottlenecks.

I would be interested to hear what suggestions AGN has in relation to this point. AGN’s response: Let’s make a note to talk about forming low cost, accessible co-operative savings and investment schemes, externalisation and diversification of capital, sovereign/ commercial bonds etc. Instead of families or individuals risking life and limb to earn foreign currencies they can pool resources into a fund or funds and deploy them in other countries with stable governance that typically have a higher exchange rate. Returns can simply be repatriated and utilized to improve living standards and investment in local enterprises.

This approach can actually be used by anyone e.g. immigration officers/ members of the police service, those who would otherwise seek to run gangs of petty traders and so on.

Is there a particular situation that stands out in terms of the terrible experiences you have come across?

Awah: A young lady who came to volunteer later revealed she had been repeatedly raped from the age of 3 years by a person who her family invited to come and live with them. He was mute as well as poor so the victim’s parents invited him to come and live with them in order to support him.

Had it not been for a session where people at the network were invited to open up about past issues they had experienced, this lady may never have revealed what happened. It took a lot of support and empathy for her to share what had happened to her. It was her very first time of telling anyone.

Do you feel it is desirable for non-state actors to collaborate and do you feel it happens to a satisfactory level?

Awah: I do feel it is desirable for this to happen. Sadly it doesn’t happen as much as I believe it should.

Why do you feel there is a reluctance for such organisations to collaborate?

Awah: Unfortunately parochialism tends to be an issue. Sometimes I encounter barriers that appear to have a retrogressive cultural dynamic, some don’t seem willing to accept that someone who is younger than them should be able to have equal or more of a say on any platforms.

Human nature is what it is. At times people are jostling to position themselves in a way they perceive will garner added exposure in the hope they will accrue some sort of additional benefit. It can distract from the serious issues at hand.

What could be done to improve things in terms of collaboration and how might it benefit the cause in general?

Awah: Stipulation by donors that in some cases organisations must partner with others in order to access funding could help to create a more cohesive environment which if managed well, would amplify the message.

Thank you for taking a moment to share your thoughts and experiences with us. Thank you also for all of your hard work in this area.


Speaking Out

The videos below detail part of Awah’s personal ordeal and activism:

* PBS News video about her ordeal and rescue

* Foundation Summit with President Barak Obama

PBS News

Play Video

Foundation Summit