Two teenage sisters have stepped up to bravely tell their story in the hopes of helping silent victims, after the courts failed to convict their mother for allegedly human trafficking them to men in their area.
Six years ago, the two teenagers, aged 14 and 16, were rescued by Aziza Nolan, a child psychologist. Nolan converted her home into a safe house called Peace Home, and takes care of 11 children – including the two sisters’ 11-year-old brother, who was rescued a year ago from a relative who was raising him. All three siblings never went to school before they met Nolan.
The children who are in grades 9, 7 and 3, all show pain on their faces when they revisit their past at “The Vlei” in Athlone, where they lived inside a wooden structure which had no roof, just material sheeting.
At that time, the three children still lived with their mother, who was addicted to drugs such as heroin and tik.
Six years ago, Nolan received a call about the siblings, who used to beg daily outside Habibia Mosque (Soofie Saheb Masjid) in Rylands near Athlone. Soon, the siblings were rescued and their mother arrested.
The case went to court, which ran for nearly five years, at the Wynberg Regional Court. However, the case collapsed after the police failed to arrest the main suspect. The girls’ mother was found not guilty in October 2017 due to a lack of evidence.
Even though the girls provided enough evidence during the trial, the main suspect was never arrested.
Nolan explained: “Initially there were three people arrested, two of which were men who were set free at the start of the case, and the mother who was on trial for five years. The mother never wanted to reveal who the man was in the red car who she had sold her eight year-old daughter to, for just R10, for sex.
“After the mother was set free, I approached the social workers and told them that the girls want to tell their story in the media. Human trafficking is a forgotten crime. I opened this safe house for children who have been sexually abused, and when you see a child begging on the street, just know there is a story there.”
However, the two sisters shared their story, seeing that justice failed them, with the hope that their story might save young girls just like themselves.
The 16-year-old sister explained that they begged for food and money on a daily basis to feed their mother’s addiction, even when it rained.
She further explained: “Our job was to beg for food and money, and we did it in front of Habibia Mosque. We lived in a tiny shed which had no roof but a sail (plastic-like sheeting), and when we begged and it was raining, we used black bags to cover our bodies because we hardly had clothing. Our mother was a heavy drug user, and she would take the food, money and clothing we received from people and sell it to get her drugs.”
The 14-year-old then revealed that there were often times she was so hungry that “I used to eat sand or scratch in the bins.” For the two, death was a common sight in “The Vlei”. The 16-year-old added that “We would play in the dam and we would sometimes find bodies.”
But hunger was not the only thing these two brave ladies had to face. At the age of eight, the 14-year-old remembered the day her mother took her hand and allegedly placed her inside a red car with a male driver inside.
“We sat outside the mosque and it was daylight. My mother took my hand and placed me inside a red car and this man gave her a R10, I remember this because I saw the colour green, that is how we knew the amount of money when we received it. After that, this man took me to a house. It was ugly from the outside but very posh on the inside. I remember the house had stairs and the one bedroom we passed, was a child’s room. After he was done, he dropped me back outside the mosque where my mother was waiting.
“I could not walk, my legs were so numb because of what had happened,” the teen explained.
After a while, the girls and her mother moved into a brick house with the mother’s boyfriend. Thing then stated to get worse as the boyfriend would allegedly pay the 16-year-old R20 in exchange for sexual favours. “He would give us electricity and this place to stay, he would be nice to me, grooming me.”
The 16-year-old also added that she would also meet the “man in the red car”.
“He said he knows my mother and took me to a place behind Athlone Stadium. He would often change his cars, that is why it was hard for the police to find him, and people there never wanted to speak.”
Soon the girls gathered the courage to tell an adult about their ordeal and met Nolan.
“My sister knew these children and the social workers had also been looking for them, we took them in and bathed them and, as a psychologist, we counselled them as we are still continuing today.”
Late last year, the girls told Nolan that they were ready to share their story.
Ward councillor in Atlantis and an activist for women’s rights and human trafficking victims, Barbara Rass, said that human trafficking was a forgotten crime.
“There was no human trafficking bill during those years when I started helping victims. But, afterwards, it was drafted and I was part of team advocates when it was amended. There are three categories of human trafficking, the one is international human trafficking which is more sophisticated. The second is national, where people are working in top jobs. The lowest level is when children are being sold by their own family. Mothers who sell their children for sex must get a harsher sentence than the perpetrators themselves,” said Rass.