Eleven international journalists crowded around a glass-top table at the Fairfax office of Ayuda, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that serves the immigrant community of the D.C. metropolitan area. Two glass windows looking out on to the city’s skyline also flooded the room in bright daylight as the journalists heard 39 year-old human trafficking survivor and activist Fainess Lipenga share her story of incredible perseverance in the face of trauma and cruelty.
The journalists were visiting the NGO as part of a joint campaign by the Foreign Press Centers and the Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons to raise awareness in countries around the world about the dangers of trafficking and the toll on its victims. The Foreign Press Centers launched its part of the effort by organizing an international reporting tour for 20 journalists from around the world, to see how U.S. government agencies and civil society organizations combat trafficking and aid victims. The Foreign Press Centers then followed up with a series of local reporting tours for foreign journalists based in Washington, DC, to NGO Polaris to learn about the National Human Trafficking Hotline, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia to learn about the prosecution of sex trafficking cases, and finally to Ayuda to learn about victim protection and labor trafficking. These efforts are meant to educate and inform foreign journalists of this global crime, and to highlight some best practices in enforcement and victim service, in the lead up to the release of the 2018 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.
Lipenga grew up in Malawi, and was at first excited to accompany her employer, a Malawian diplomat, to the United States in 2004. Once she arrived, however, she was subjected to conditions much different from those that her employer had led her to expect as a domestic worker. Lipenga frequently worked 17-hour days and was paid less than 40 cents a day. After a long day of cooking, cleaning, and washing and ironing clothes, she was forced to work in the middle of the night at her trafficker’s company cleaning carpets with heavy equipment. She was not even given her own room and had to sleep on the ground in her trafficker’s basement. As a result of harsh working conditions, inadequate food, and a lack of access to healthcare, Lipenga lost 12 teeth, suffered from extreme malnourishment, and psychological trauma.
Domestic servitude is a form of human trafficking found in distinct circumstances – work in a private residence – that create unique vulnerabilities because victims are not in public view. It is a crime in which a domestic worker is not free to leave his or her employment and is abused and underpaid, if paid at all. Many domestic workers do not receive the basic benefits and protections commonly extended to other groups of workers. Moreover, their ability to move freely is often limited, and employment in private homes increases their isolation and vulnerability. Domestic workers, especially women, confront various forms of abuse, harassment, and exploitation, including sexual and gender-based violence.
Even in countries like the United States with comprehensive anti-TIP and labor rights laws, victims like Lipenga can still suffer abuse. Lipenga’s recollection of her time shoveling two feet of snow in her trafficker’s driveway was particularly heart-wrenching to hear. With neither gloves nor boots, Lipenga was forced to shovel snow in her trafficker’s driveway. She recalled that many cars drove by, but did not stop to ask if she needed help. Her neighbor, a policeman, saw her in the cold, but did not question her working conditions. She spoke of the isolation she felt after this incident and the lack of empathy she felt from others, saying, “I wanted to die, I didn’t want to live anymore. I felt like a slave.”
Lipenga fled her trafficker after three grueling years. She spent a month in the hospital where she was treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and malnourishment. She then stayed at a homeless shelter where she learned English by watching cartoons at night. She received legal support from American University Law School, The Human Trafficking Legal Center, and the pro-bono team of a major Washington law firm, who opened a civil case against her trafficker. After years of tireless work, a judge in the District Court of Maryland awarded Lipenga a $1.1 million judgment to compensate her for the wages she never received from her trafficker. Lipenga's trafficker fled the country, so she was never able to collect, but Lipenga has focused her energies on aiding other victims. Ayuda has assisted trafficking survivors from 28 countries with legal and social services over the past three years. It has also handled approximately 150 trafficking cases in the last five years, 72 percent of which dealt with labor trafficking.
Lipenga stressed that ordinary citizens play a vital role in bringing about the end to human trafficking. She said that people need to show compassion and need to find the courage to speak up and get involved. If you observe something that doesn’t feel right, say something. Follow your instincts. Ask questions and report to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
About the Author: Sarah Frost and Liz Veale serve at the at the Foreign Press Center in Washington, DC.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.