There aren’t many things that excite me as much as interviewing people who have devoted their lives to fight for freedom. Saskia Wishart began abolition work in 2008. She has been the regional director for the Not for Sale campaign in South Africa and is soon starting a new chapter in their European office. Many of my conversations with abolitionists have resulted in them saying, “What, you haven’t met Saskia?! She’s amazing.”
So, after snooping through her blog I hunted her down and got to ask her about her experience as an abolitionist. I am excited to have a new friend, and would love to share her journey with you as well!
1. When you first started your abolition work in Cape Town, what was your experience like with the prevention program there?
I think prevention is under-stated in the work of abolition. People get excited about rescues and safe houses but they seem to forget that if prevention had been done, a person may have been spared the trauma of being trafficked in the first place. When I started out with prevention, it was at a time when there was basically no understanding of human trafficking in South Africa. Being on the ground in at-risk communities gave us a better understanding of what trafficking actually looks like. We went in to tell people what human trafficking was, but came out every time having learned more about what was really happening. In the end we were able to turn this information around to call for greater measures to combat trafficking.
2. Some say that prevention efforts are impossible to measure. Do you feel like the prevention/awareness work you have done has been successful?
From 2004 “ 2008 only 8 cases of human trafficking had been identified in all of South Africa. In 2008, when I told someone that I worked with Human Trafficking, they would give me a blank stare. My colleague went to do a presentation in a police station, and they thought she had come to talk about Pedestrians (Human Traffic).”
The 2010 Soccer World Cup provided NGOs with a unique opportunity to raise awareness and it gave prevention efforts an open door into schools, churches, and communities. Millions of people were reached with the message that Human Trafficking is real and is happening in South Africa and we need to be protecting our communities.
Today I am proud to say many other NGOs have picked up the work of doing prevention. Next year all 10th grade students in South Africa will learn about Human Trafficking as part of their life skills curriculum. When I tell someone that I do Anti-Human Trafficking work, it is no longer met with a blank stare. Last year we identified more then 40 human trafficking cases. 11 of those cases are on the court docket. So, I would say yes, if just for 1 person whose life is changed or saved it were all worth it, and I know there has been more then 1 so we have been successful!
Wow, the academy was an amazing experience! I was a bit skeptical at first, wondering how something so American-centric could translate into fieldwork in Africa, but I was really wrong in that way. Seven of the people I did the academy with I have seen or worked with overseas and I have made some amazing friends along the way!
I have to say, everything we did to identify victims in South Africa last year we were able to do because of our academy training. Christina (my crime fighting partner;) and I have made drastically smarter choices because of our training! Our relationships with law enforcement came because we learned the value of working together with the authorities, and we have seen such favour because of our willingness to partner with law enforcement. I recommend it, because if you take what you have learned at the academy and actually put it into action, you will absolutely be able to make a difference in your community!
4. How do you identify victims?
Last year of the 45 victims Not For Sale South Africa identified, all were female and 1/3 were under the age of twenty. Half were from overseas, the other half from Southern Africa. 16 of the 45 cases involved South Africans trafficked for the purpose of forced domestic work. The rest of the cases were victims of sex trafficking.
Most victims are identified because of tips from the community, service providers, or law enforcement. We also use the skills we learned at the NFS academy as citizen investigators to help identify cases of trafficking. We have a list of red flags, but most of it is pretty straightforward; if you have an 18 year old from Korea selling sex in Cape Town, already we have questions about how she got to South Africa, why she is working in a brothel in South Africa, etc.
5. Is there a story that has really stuck with you from the past few years?
Every story stays with you, which can be good and bad! Recently I had the opportunity to travel with Not For Sale to their project in Romania, and honestly, I was absolutely blown away by the work being done there. One girl’s story in particular really affected me. This girl was sold into prostitution at the age of nine by her mother. When she was 14 her traffickers sent her to prostitute in Italy. The Italian government rescued her and sent her to the project in Romania. At 14 she had already spent 6 years in prostitution. Her road to recovery was difficult, but those who were working with her in Romania never gave up on her. She is 21 now, has stunning green eyes, is engaged to be married and going to university.
Meeting her was to me a realization that there is such hope for the future. It takes hard work, and serious commitment, but it is so worth it, because you meet a girl like her, and you see the hope. This girl said to my colleague and I, “I know that God loves me, because here (NFS Romania) I have had more of a family then most people experience even when they stay with their real families.” For someone who has gone through what she has, to say what she had to say with such conviction, humbled me so much.
6. What are the top 3 NFS initiatives that really excite you right now?
Oh my word, only 3! Uhmm we are hosting a Montara Circle in Amsterdam in September. Montara Circle is a gathering of 50 of NFSâ€™s influential people in our network who get together and have 24 hours to come up with a holistic solution to an area of human trafficking. Our last Montara Circle was held in America and focused on the Peruvian Amazon and marries the movement to end slavery with the environmental movement in an attempt to better the lives of people and the planet through a business solution! So I am really excited to see what is developed for Europe!
Equally I am soooo pumped for the Global Forum on Human Trafficking “ if you are an abolitionist, you have got to be there! It is such an encouraging gathering of frontline people changing the face of slavery! Plus I will be part of panel for the GF as an abolitionist of tomorrow, so that should be fun!
And finally, one of my other passions is the work we do to change consumer mindsets! Free2work is our platform that looks at a company’s effort to reduce forced and child labour. I love this platform because it is an easy way for people to engage the issue by changing very basic life activities, like the way they shop!
7. Are there any difficult lessons you have learned along the way?
Yes, I think a long was you do this work you will always be learning difficult lessons, you carry every case on your heart, and you learn something from each person. Sometimes things don’t go well, and then you carry a burden of responsibility, but it is amazing because even when there are I times I think things went wrong, I see a few months down the line how the situation actually turned out better then I would have expected. We can’t be too prescriptive, and we should never lose hope!
My life goal in highschool was to find a job that would allow me to snowboard as much as possible (thoroughly failed that goal, although South Africa does make up for it with surfing)!
My favourite life story at the moment involves a death defying moment with a Cape Town bus.
I have 1 dance move, and much to the entertainment of others, I bust it out unconsciously whenever I am nervous or excited!
Saskia, I’m pretty sure you’re one of the coolest people changing the world, and I am so glad you were willing to share a bit of your journey with us! We wish you all the best as you start a new chapter of your work in Europe – no doubt it will be challenging, rewarding, and life-changing!