Giving human trafficking survivors a second life

Monday, August 10th, 2020 00:00 |
Sophie Otiende, one of the 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report heroes. Photo/PD/MILLIAM MURIGI

Milliam Murigi @millymur1

Every year the US Department of State produces a Trafficking in Persons Report that assesses efforts carried out by governments around the world in combating human trafficking.

Together with this report, it honours individuals who have distinguished themselves in the service towards the goal. 

Although the award has been in existence for many years, there has never been a Kenyan recipient until now, and her name is Sophie Otiende.

She is among the  awardees of the Trafficking in Persons Report Hero. 

“I became interested in human trafficking when someone from Awareness against Human Trafficking (Haart) explained to me that an experience I went through at age 13 was human trafficking.

Finding a name for that experience was motivation to be involved in addressing and putting a stop to this issue,” she says.

No school 

Sophie remembers vividly how she was turned into a house help in her uncles’ house where she had gone to stay as she waited for school to reopen.

She was to be admitted in a boarding school near her uncles’ place in Kakamega.

Looking forward to the new experiences and the new friends she would make, Sophie was ready to beat her fellow pupils to the number one slot as she used to in her previous school at Umoja, Nairobi.

However, that was not how things turned out. When the school term began, Sophie remained in the house and did not go to school.

Every day, she would ask her uncle when she would report to school, and all he would say was ‘soon’. 

Days turned into weeks and weeks into months, and she still stayed home.

Every day she spent almost all her time performing tasks assigned to her by her aunt and the little free time she got would be spent reading.

“It reached a time I realised I would never go to school and since I couldn’t communicate with my family I had to accept my fate.

I was sexually harassed in my uncle’s house by a male friend living there. I had no other option than to keep my mouth shut, but I kept looking for an opportunity to go back home and when I got it, I couldn’t let it pass,” she adds. 

The opportunity presented itself in the form of a market day. When running an errand at the market, she met one of her parents’ friends and poured out her heart, explaining the tribulation she was going through at her uncle’s hands.

The woman Sophie spoke to called her mother in Nairobi, who immediately came to Kakamega to take her daughter home.

Minimum standards 

After finding out what she went through was one form of human trafficking, she dug deeper to understand more about it and later joined Haart as a voluntee.

She ended up assisting in setting up their protection department, which provides support to survivors of human trafficking.

Her role was to coordinate services and learn and think about practical interventions. 

She was also quite active in advocating for minimum standards of care for assisting victims of trafficking.

“At Haart, we have always known that Sophie is a hero, but now others are starting to take notice.

The award is given to Sophie for her work at Haart and in recognition of her leadership role in the development of victim assistance infrastructure, resources, and practices in Kenya to ensure human trafficking survivors receive the best possible care, and her unwavering efforts to raise awareness of human trafficking in local communities,” says Jakob Christensen, Haart Programme Manager.

Big motivation 

While serving survivors of trafficking has been her first priority, she has also led the development of several manuals for training vulnerable people on this vice as she believes there is little information on human trafficking that is contextual to the region.

Currently, Sophie is a board member and survivor advisor at Haart. She has assisted more than 400 victims of trafficking and helped identify victims both within and outside of Kenya. 

In her role, she continues to provide critical support and guidance to Haart’s victims’ assistance programme.

Sophie says this recognition is a big motivation to her. She is now using her new platform to fight for trafficking survivors and to raise money for Haart’s campaign to support victims, who due to Covid-19, are even more vulnerable than usual. 

“My motivation remains seeing survivors like me recover, claim justice and thrive in communities,” she explains.

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