Turning Pain into Purpose: How a Human Trafficking Survivor is Helping Women Rebuild Their Lives
by Claire Quigley
“People were created to be loved and things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in such chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.” — The Dalai Lama
Growing up in the African nation of Cameroon, Francisca Awah Mbuli did not know the “different faces of human trafficking." It wasn't until she left her homeland to pursue higher education in Norway that Francisca would come to know firsthand how this $150 billion global industry robs 40.3 billion people of their freedom.
When I interviewed Francisca in late 2018, she told me how in the rural parts of Cameroon, traffickers know parents are less educated about what is happening in the outside world. Traffickers use their “sugar-coated tongues” to deceive families into exploiting their own children under the guise of education or career opportunities abroad. There even is a special word for someone who has traveled and lived abroad: “Bush Faller.” Having a Bush Faller in the family is seen as a prestigious accomplishment.
In retrospect, Francisca didn't realize she was a victim of a heinous crime. Like many women, she was unaware of the risks inherent in traveling abroad and her own susceptibility given her isolation and poverty. Francisca afforded her travel to Norway through her own savings and a gift from a distant relative. She arrived in Norway penniless, jobless, and without a support system to protect her. She would babysit a family’s infant without pay for food. Later in exchange for shelter, Francisca was forced to have sex with the assistant pastor of the church she turned to for community. Additionally, a friend’s father would harass Francisca for sex.
In 2015, Francisca was approached with what she was led to believe was a teaching opportunity in Kuwait. When she arrived in Kuwait, however, Francisca was forced into domestic servitude and was sexually assaulted and abused by her 'employer'.
The nightmare continued until Francisca joined a Facebook group created by members of the Cameroonian diaspora. They provided the information she needed to run away and seek refuge in the Central African Republic Embassy. There, Francisca sought help from an American organization: Freedom For All.
“I needed to get the courage, I needed to wipe my face and stand for it, to make everybody know that no, you will not experience this so far as Francisca is alive.”
Francisca credits Freedom For All founder Katie Ford with helping Francisca return home to Cameroon and for inspiring Francisca to give purpose to the pain she endured. “I needed to do something for others,” said Francisca. “I needed to get the courage, I needed to wipe my face and stand for it, to make everybody know that no, you will not experience this so far as Francisca is alive.”
With funding from Ford, Francisca started Survivors' Network, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting human trafficking and sexual abuse. The organization has three main objectives: "We help rescue. We have awareness campaigns. We have reintegration," explains Francisca. Survivors’ Network assists women survivors of trafficking by helping them return to their homes and families, and connects women with support networks and any appropriate local organizations.
Francisca routinely attends retreats in regions of Cameroon where she speaks about her organization’s initiatives and educates about the dehumanizing effects of human trafficking. Recently, Francisca was selected as one of five Cameroonians invited to participate in a five-day leadership program hosted by the Obama Foundation in Johannesburg, South Africa. “We all heard talks from various people... whose stories impact the world,” detailed Francisca. “We were trained [in] advocacy and, at the end of the program, we did some humanitarian works.”
A key component to helping survivors rebuild their lives is guiding them to financial independence. Without financial stability, these women remain vulnerable to traffickers and the cycle continues. Through workshops, survivors learn to write project proposals and business plans, and even receive startup management training.
Survivors’ Network also has a microfinance team that assists survivors with funding for their startups through grants and loans. Francisca tells me how many of the survivors she works with dream of opening a hairdressing salon, store, poultry farm, or restaurant. Survivors’ Network makes these dreams possible.
To date Francisca and Survivors' Network have helped 28 trafficked women regain their freedom and create their own economic opportunities. If they do not start their own businesses, fellow survivors can find gainful employment at any of the startups created by the women of Survivors’ Network.
Francisca and Survivors’ Network are succeeding in Cameroon despite obstacles. “Coming from an African community, it's very difficult to stand up and speak to people that you've been sexually abused by,” said Francisca. "To stand up and speak of sex openly as a woman,” she continues, is culturally taboo. Then there is how some in Francisca's community look upon her as a “used item” (something Francisca has heard whispered about her on the streets of her city).
When I asked Francisca about her plans for the future, she told me her dream is expansion. She hopes one day to open a large vocational training center in Cameroon as well as a transition home where survivors would receive six months of skills and business training.
Francisca’s end goal, however, will always be the same: to provide the support of a loving community of fellow survivors and to help women who have been trafficked rebuild their lives and achieve financial independence. Only then can the cycle of human trafficking truly be broken. Whatever the future holds, Francisca will continue to lead Survivors’ Network with grace and dignity.