Francisca Awah Mbuli
Ashoka Fellow since 2022   |   Cameroon

Francisca Awah Mbuli

Francisca is working to change people’s mindsets, awakening them to the many ways in which human trafficking has become deeply entrenched and self-replicating in society. She is empowering and…
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This description of Francisca Awah Mbuli's work was prepared when Francisca Awah Mbuli was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2022.

Introduction

Francisca is working to change people’s mindsets, awakening them to the many ways in which human trafficking has become deeply entrenched and self-replicating in society. She is empowering and mobilizing formerly trafficked women as community agents to sensitize young women in rural communities on how pervasive the effects of trafficking are, and how close it is to them.

The New Idea

Francisca is positioning family homesteads, especially women, rural chiefs, and community heads in Cameroon as agents of change in combating human trafficking and domestic slavery. Through her community approach of sensitization and education, Francisca is holding everyone accountable for the safety of women, girls, and young people in their care. By so doing, she is building a critical mass of people who can respond to the problem.

As a survivor of international human trafficking herself, Francisca is working at the system level to change the way communities in Cameroon see trafficking and how deeply entrenched it is within communities. She is creating a model of how to deal with trafficking from the root cause, with survivors of trafficking as the face of the movement; a model that involves everyone taking ownership of their own actions that encourage human trafficking. Francisca’s work is in fact fueled by the Cameroonian government’s seeming inability to handle this growing threat, as her organization is essentially the only one attacking it from a systemic perspective.

Her non-profit has two impact thrusts – first, she leads her team of survivors on community sensitization and rescue projects to communities that have been identified as fertile grounds for traffickers. Through her work, she is activating community leaders and stakeholders in the communities to take action and ask the relevant questions to prevent further pillaging of their vibrant female population. Second, she is working with international and local partners to identify and provide access to travel funds and documents to trafficked young women who have escaped their captors but are still in their country of captivity. Once these women return home, she provides shelter for them in her organization’s safe home while she works on skilling them up to stand on their own afterwards. As a result of her work, Cameroonian Immigration officers at all exit and entry ports, now pay more attention to young Cameroonian women travelling to countries within the Persian Gulf region, as that is where the majority of trafficked young women are taken to for domestic slavery.

Through the support of partners like the Cameroon Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family; US State Department - Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP); the US Embassy in Cameroon; and Freedom for All, Francisca’s work continues to have impact and scale in Cameroon. Through yearly engagements, Francisca’s insights and work regularly feature in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons’ annual report.

The Problem

Human trafficking is a highly organized and syndicated industry, with actors on different levels of the value-chain. According to the International Labor Organization, an estimated 40.3 million people live in modern day slavery – out of which 16 million people are exploited in the private sector such as in domestic work, construction, or agriculture, and 4.8 million persons in forced sexual exploitation. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by forced labor, accounting for 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry, and 58% in other sectors. In Africa, it is estimated that 9.24 million individuals are enslaved, accounting for 23% of the total global enslaved population. Young Cameroonian women and girls in rural communities are doubly affected, as they are victims of both internal and external human trafficking with destinations ranging from the big cities in-country to Middle Eastern countries abroad.

Human trafficking affects communities where people live in poor economic situations, on-going humanitarian crises, and armed conflicts. Due to the on-going conflict in Cameroon between separatist groups in the English-speaking Eastern regions and the government forces controlled largely by the French speaking government, coupled with the Boko Haram menace in the Northern regions, many people living in these communities readily jump at any chance of going abroad as a means to a better life. Sadly, trafficking rings capitalize on this desperation. Most rural communities in Cameroon are oblivious of how pervasive the problem of human trafficking is within their local communities. Families readily agree to send off their mostly teenage daughters to relatives in big cities who promise education to the girls in exchange for some ‘mild’ domestic service ranging from new-born childcare, toddler care, domestic assistance, etc. But what the girls, and their families do not know is that what lies ahead of them has nothing to do with the purported promises. The girls stay in the big cities for years on end, living with the relatives without getting the promised education, working without compensation. Interestingly, this is a mild but rampant case of human trafficking, which is easily and largely overlooked. The more vicious cases are those that have traffickers promise their target victims a life out of suffering, one that would enable them to support their families from the work they would be engaged in abroad. Using this narrative, they lure their victims to foreign countries where they subject them to domestic servitude, prostitution, and other human rights abuses.

While there are pockets of rehabilitation efforts by rural initiatives, none has had a holistic approach towards tackling the problem from the root cause in rural communities largely because they focus on the material level, i.e., rehabilitation for the returned trafficked women and girls. The fact is that the leadership in most communities ranging from the rural chiefs to the local authorities are looking in the wrong direction. What is lacking is an effective strategy to prevent the local recruiters from gaining access to these communities to hoodwink potential victims and their families. There isn’t enough sensitization and education around the subject matter at the local level to equip people with the knowledge to spot the lies peddled by the recruiters, who are usually members of these same communities. Added to the overall problem is the ongoing internal restiveness in Cameroon between the French-speaking and English-speaking regions which inadvertently has created more displacement and by so doing accelerated the ability of traffickers to recruit vulnerable people.

The Strategy

Survivors’ Network tackles the issue of trafficking in local communities on two levels: first, through prevention and sensitization, and second, through rescue assistance, rehabilitation, and empowerment of returnee trafficked women. Francisca leverages former trafficked victims and community leaders to sensitize and educate younger women in rural communities about the pervasive nature of trafficking in their communities. These local leaders are key in the flow of information in their communities as they cascade the information from Survivors’ Network to families and young girls within their communities. Their involvement provides young girls with direct access to report suspicious propositions made by suspected traffickers within and outside their communities.

The preventive work of Survivors Network begins with identifying rural communities known for releasing their young girls and women to potential traffickers who promise them education and work. Armed with knowledge that the domestic worker ring facilitates human trafficking in rural communities, Francisca devised a system to spot those who are either already being trafficked or are likely to become victims. Through Survivors Network, she has established alliances and partnerships with local community leaders to change the perspectives of mothers on allowing their young daughters to work as domestic servants or in jobs with uncertain consequences, showing how this type of human trafficking negatively impacts their young women. She also shows real-life stories of how trafficked girls end up, either in the big cities in-country or elsewhere in the Middle East. The involvement of local authorities lends credibility to the movement and message. To date, Survivors’ Network has reached over 200 local communities in 9 out of 10 regions in Cameroon with sensitization messaging about trafficking and what to look out for in their local communities.

The rescue side of Survivors’ Network starts with identifying trafficked girls through an underground hotline Francisca established while in captivity in Kuwait. After identifying the young women in domestic slavery, they move on to guiding them to safety. These safety points are typically embassies of African countries with whom they have a partnership and understanding. Once the survivors reach the designated safe points, they notify their relevant partners like the US State Department, International Office of Migration (IOM), and Freedom for All, who handles the processing of travel documents and flight tickets for the rescued women. To date, Survivors’ Network, through this partnership, has paid over $35,000 in airfares for 66 trafficked young women back to their countries, and helped guide over 2,500 women from the Gulf countries and Middle East to safety. Through this coordinated effort, partner organizations also deepen their understanding of trafficking and the various ways that traffickers adapt and alter their strategy to evade law enforcement barriers, providing real-time data on new trends.

Upon return, Survivors’ Network provides returnees with free shelter, food, and sustainable livelihood skills training. This effectively staves off the temptation of returning to captivity and reduces their susceptibility to being trafficked again. While in the safe-house, the returnee women volunteer as community sensitization agents with the Survivors’ Network team. At the end of their stay in the safe house, which typically ranges from 1 month to 24 months, Survivors’ Network stands as sureties for them to secure small startup loans or provides them with small capital to start their businesses. Some of them also choose to stay on with Survivors’ Network as paid trainers to train others at the center. As a result of her work in communities, Survivors’ Network has received a 12-hectare land in Eastern Cameroon to develop a massive multipurpose vocational skills center and safehouse to further scale their work. The center will also serve as the training hub for their community sensitization agents, and a call center for their rescue hotline.

So far, Survivors’ Network has succeeded in bringing national attention to the menace of human trafficking in Cameroon, and as a result of that, enjoys a yearly consultative partnership with the Cameroon Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family to provide updates on emerging trends in rural trafficking and survivors’ re-integration. Through this partnership, Survivors’ Network has reached 9 out of 10 regions, and over 200 communities in Cameroon. Francisca continues to leverage her partnership with Freedom for All, the US State Department - Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP), and the US Embassy in Cameroon, to bring attention to the plight of trafficked women in West Africa. With support from her partners, she is spreading her idea to Ghana and Kenya.

The Person

Coming from a poor family, Francisca is the first of three siblings. When her father lost his job, her mother was left to bear the cost of catering to the family’s needs. Faced with the glaring poverty of not only her family but her wider community, she had to take responsibility for herself and her siblings from the age of five. The grueling economic conditions surrounding her growing up exposed Francisca to multiple dangers young girls face in local communities like hers. However, her mother acted as a pillar of support that shielded her from the many dangers in her community. Growing up, she watched her mother make sacrifices to sustain the family. Her siblings, too, had to drop out of school to make room for her to continue, being the one with the most prospects. All of this shaped her youth and leaned her towards responsibility and accountability.

After her university degree, she started her career as a call-box operator, selling mobile phone airtime in her community. From there, she worked at a public transport bus terminal selling bus tickets to travelers. Her drive to provide for her family was a major push factor for her, as she was constantly looking for opportunities that would equip her to better help her family. Sadly, she fell prey to the deception of a covert trafficker who promised her a job as an English teacher in Kuwait. Upon her arrival in Kuwait, she realized that she had been a victim of trafficking. Far from the promise of a better life, she found herself a domestic slave. Over the stretch of three months, she was moved to a total of three homes in domestic servitude. Along the line, she found the email of Freedom for All on CNN, and wrote them secretly, narrating her ordeal. They came through for her and helped her escape captivity.

Fueled by her experience and armed with a commitment from partners to help as many young women as possible, she started her non-profit, Survivors’ Network in 2015 (the same year she returned from Kuwait). Through her non-profit, she leads her team of mostly formerly trafficked (but now rehabilitated) women to sensitize rural communities on what to look out for in potentially deceptive opportunities that could target their young women for trafficking. Through her hotline in the Gulf region, she works with partners to guide trafficked young women to safe zones in their countries of captivity pending their eventual travel back to their countries. Upon their return to Cameroon, her organization’s safe house provides them accommodation, rehabilitation services, and vocational skills training pending their eventual reintegration into society.

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