Minister of Social Protection Volda Lawrence has urged Indigenous leaders to be more proactive in tackling the social ills that affect their communities and specifically Trafficking in Persons (TIP) and sexual abuse.
Lawrence was at the time responding to concerns raised by participants at the National Toshaos’ Council’s 10th annual conference over the prevalence of rape, sexual abuse and TIP in their respective villages.
The presentation by the Minister and her team revealed that there are a number of issues facing the Indigenous people that continue to gain the ministry’s attention, including the growing occurrence of incest and teenage pregnancy and TIP.
However, while Indigenous leaders were assured of the ministry’s capabilities in addressing such issues, they were also reminded that they too have roles to play.
According to Tenisha Williams, of the Ministry’s TIP Unit, the steady occurrence of trafficking of persons of indigenous descent has been a growing concern for the ministry.
“We have a lot of young women and men who are leaving their villages to venture to other areas in search of jobs…this is a very big issue because most of the time, they are being exploited; they end up in situations where they are taken as slaves or sexual servants, etc,” Williams said, before imploring the Toshaos to think long and hard on how best the issue can be addressed.
Having expressed the view that the services offered to victims of sexual abuse or human trafficking are usually “one off,” Antonio Hackett, a Community Development Officer (CDO) from Region 10, implored the minister to shed some light on the follow- up services offered by the ministry for such individuals.
In her response, Lawrence pointed out that while counselling is provided, the ministry is faced with a shortage of probation officers.
This being said, she was quick to note that the Ministry has been taking steps to re-assign the task of these officers to facilitate more time and focus on following-up on pending cases and support for victims. Sharing a recent experience where she encountered a 13-year old mother of one—a reality that sometimes accompanies instances of rape and sexual abuse—Lawrence urged the village leaders and other participants to be more vocal when such cases occur.
“I was in Kwakwani and I saw a child with a child and I was lost for words because I recognised that it wasn’t a brother and sister scene but rather a son and mother. It was a 13-year old child, who is the mother of a one-year plus son, and nobody said anything, not the police, not the community health worker, nobody,” she stressed.
“Many of these things are happening in communities but when we visit people are not speaking out. If we are going to prosecute these persons who take advantage of our women and children, we as the elders have to take a stand because many times we allow them into our community; we allow them into our homes and we need to take a stand on that. We need to work together,” she added.
Mining a ‘major’ contributor to TIP
Meanwhile, another participant linked the prevalence of TIP to the occurrence of mining in areas that are in close proximity to indigenous communities and this view was shared by many who attended the session.
“Where there is mining there are social issues, especially when you have people going in from the coast to exploit our Indigenous Peoples,” one participant said.
Another participant, Dwight Larson, of Isseneru Village, Region 7, urged the minister to look into the operations of large- and medium-scale miners, since he believes such entities are a major contributor to TIP in the hinterland. He contended that often the “tight security” at such companies acts as a barrier for individuals who are desirous of escaping the unsavoury situations they may have been tricked into. “In some of these large companies, they have tight security so when they are trafficking people, these people do not have any chance of accessing agencies that can help them…it’s like slavery in there,” Larson said. “The ministry needs to put some systems in place to get these thing rectified, if not we are always going to be the talk, talk show and no action will be taken,” he added.
Persons also moved to question the role of some law enforcement in the fight against TIP, as they shared their concern over police officers who partake in the human trafficking trade in the interior. “…The police are also involved in the same trade, so who is going to protect our people now? Who is going to protect these victims from the police criminals who are taking part in trafficking of our people?” one participant asked.
In offering a response, Lawrence supported the view that mining in the hinterland contributes to the occurrence of some social issues, before alluding to her decision to engage both the Ministry of Natural Resources and that of Public Security to work together in addressing such issues. “Where lands are going to be opened up for mining, the Ministry of Social Protection must know so we can ensure that we have officers there who can police and give protection to our young girls and boys because in many instances, persons go to a new community and think they can do whatever they want to do,” she said.
The minister further related that she is cognisant of cases that implicate police in the TIP trade and, thus, she has sought the assistance of the Minister of Public Security. She also noted that there are instances where they would have found that law enforcement is absent in terms of providing that protective service that is needed by villagers in some communities.
Lawrence also said that the ministry has begun to engage large-scale businesses in discussions but noted that while outsiders are involved in these offences, it is usually, “someone from the community who takes the children out by saying that they will find them work.”
This being said, Lawrence reemphasised the importance of Indigenous leaders as well as other villagers being proactive in their communities. “I am saying to you Toshaos, mothers and fathers, when people come to offer your children jobs, ask them questions…I agree with my brother who said you can talk as much and I do agree with you; this fight is not for a few of us, it is for all of us. They are our girls. Just remember that and that it could be your daughter or your sister, so we need to [identify] culprits so we can deal with them,” she added.