Seeking a brighter future for children working as domestic workers in Tanzania


Mercy Esther was eight years old when she left home.

Mercy Esther and her siblings, raised by their grandmother in rural Tanzania, were born into poverty, sometimes with no money for food, let alone textbooks. When their grandmother was approached with a job offer for Mercy Esther in Kenya and the promise that the money would be sent home, she accepted. The money could help the Mercy Esther siblings. They may have a better future.

The job offer turned out to be a lie – the first of a series of broken promises that deprived the young woman of her childhood and family.

Mercy Esther was born with a deformity in one foot that left her with a severe limp. On the streets of Nairobi, she and other children were made to cry. She was told to pretend that she couldn’t walk in order to arouse the public’s sympathy. Every day the money she collected was taken away from her.

One day, while she was begging, Mercy Esther was approached by a woman who offered her housework and new promises: a new house, wages, and good treatment. She went with a woman, but instead Esther’s Mercy was abused and didn’t get paid for her labor. It will be six years before she escapes.

Other materials from the CNN Freedom project

With the support of the Nairobi police and the governments of Kenya and Tanzania, Mercy Esther returned to her country of birth, but without details of the village where she grew up, the authorities placed her in the care of the WoteSawa Domestic Workers Organization, which runs the orphanage. for child victims of human trafficking in Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria, in the north of the country.

Mercy Esther spent years as a domestic worker without pay.

“Tanzania is a beautiful and peaceful country, but there is also a dark side,” said Angela Benedicto, founder and chief executive of the organization.

“Many people live in poverty and forced labor is a very big problem,” she added. “The most common form of human trafficking in Tanzania is domestic work, where young girls are forced to do housework. They face abuse, exploitation and are not paid for their work.”

According to the non-profit organization Anti-Sslavery International, about a million children, mostly girls, are engaged in domestic work in Tanzania.

WoteSawa was established in 2014 and welcomes about 75 child trafficking survivors each year. Places are cramped: children sleep two on a bed. Some stay longer than others, Benedicto says, especially those in criminal cases, as prosecutions can take time. The nonprofit has helped hundreds of survivors so far, but the needs outweigh the resources available. Benedict dreams of building a big orphanage for more children.

Its mission is to empower domestic workers and protect their rights. This is a question that is close to her heart; she herself is a former domestic servant. “I faced abuse and exploitation, but I was able to speak out,” she explains. “Many domestic workers cannot speak up. Who will speak (for) them?”

“I use my story to tell them, don’t give up.

WoteSawa means “all are equal” in Swahili. In the orphanage, children are accommodated and receive counseling and legal support. They also receive education in literacy and numeracy, as well as vocational skills such as needlework. The reintegration of children back into the education system goes hand in hand with efforts to reunite children with their loved ones “so that when they return to their families, they can help not only themselves, but also their families,” Benedicto said.

Lydia lives in the Ngara region in the mountains of Western Tanzania. She left home to become a domestic worker at the age of 16, but was beaten by her employer and her work was not paid. She escaped and was helped by VoteSawa, where she learned to sew. Lydia returned to her family with a sewing machine provided by WoteSawa, and today she is a dressmaker dreaming of owning her own shop.

“She makes enough money to provide for her family,” Benedicto said. “Her dream is to help other girls learn how to sew. She has a plan to give back to society.”

WoteSawa not only helps victims of human trafficking, but also prevents it. Benedicto is coordinating with bus fleet agents looking for small children and with the local police, who have the power to intervene.

“My mission is to make sure that the crime of human trafficking is completely stopped. And it is through education that we can achieve (this),” said police commander Juma Jumane. “We have to educate families. We must educate the victim, himself. We must also educate society as a whole.”

When Mercy Esther arrived at the orphanage, she did not want to name her village because she was afraid that she would be sold again if she returned there. But in the end she changed her mind.

Mercy Esther (second from right) next to her grandmother and siblings after the reunion.

CNN met Mercy Esther through the Poland-based Kulczyk Foundation, which supports WoteSawa.

WoteSawa was able to find her family and took her grandmother and siblings to an orphanage. It has been eight years since they last saw each other. “It was so emotional,” Benedicto said. “They were crying and hugging. I think each of us was so emotional. We were in tears of joy.”

Mercy Esther still doesn’t like the idea of ​​returning to her village and decides to stay at the orphanage until she is older and skilled enough as a seamstress to start a business to help provide for her family.

“Her future is so bright,” Benedicto said. “I see that she will be a light to her brothers and sisters.”