Gender and the face of Human Trafficking in Zimbabwe:

The case of Zimbabwean women who were rescued from Kuwait​

In this blog we discuss what has been noted to be the ‘extreme’ case of human trafficking in Zimbabwe, involving women and girls who were rescued in and subsequently repatriated from Kuwait by the Zimbabwean government between 2016-17.

The repatriation of the Kuwait survivors became news which was widely publicised. In particular, the arrival in Zimbabwe of the first group was captured by a heavy media coverage, which heralded the Kuwait case as evidence that the country was under human trafficking threat and helped to produce a humanitarian narrative built on a politics of vulnerability and victimhood.

Lured to Kuwait and forced into 'sexual slavery'

According to the media reports, about 200 Zimbabwean women were lured to Kuwait on the promise of better paying jobs but ended up being forced into ‘sexual slavery’.

Watch the media report

Correspondingly, increased visibility of women in the media, as the face of human trafficking crisis unfolding outside Zimbabwe’s borders, helped to create a public (and false) image of human trafficking as mainly a case of transnational organised crime and a gendered issue as well as necessitating the conflation of human trafficking with sexual exploitation.

Sexual exploitation of Zimbabwean women in Kuwait

A petition about the sexual enslavement of vulnerable Zimbabwean women in Kuwait which was launched by a local newspaper not only demanded for the punishment of the perpetrators, but also linked the case to the 19th century Arab slave trade which exported 28 million Africans to Muslim Middle East and 11 million to Christian western world. Through these moving and sensational media stories, alarms about the trafficking of Zimbabwean women into sexual exploitation in the Gulf country of Kuwait led to a public understanding of the rescued women as a homogeneous group of sexually victimised women.

While this mirrors what has long been established to be the major problem with the global dominant discourse of anti-trafficking efforts – its increased focus on the sexual exploitation of women (and children) – in the Zimbabwean context, such a discourse has had serious implications on the women survivors’ ability to successfully re-integrate into the society.

Women survivors' painful stories and experiences

Through secondary analysis of the data that our NGO partners hold on the case, we have been able to gain access to the women survivors’ painful stories and experiences since they returned home, including stories of women who faced rejection from husbands and family members on arrival under accusations of prostitution. 

Others have continued to face stigmatisation in the communities they live. The lessons we need to learn from this case are that, we must be more cautious and far more responsible when it comes to the information that we circulate in the public realm, if we are serious about protecting and promoting  survivors’ privacy, dignity and human rights.

What makes human trafficking possible in Zimbabwe?

Meanwhile what is often lacking are focused accounts of the underlying issues that make human trafficking possible. The women survivors’ biographies reveal that some of these women were university graduates who could not find employment in Zimbabwe. Others were nurses and teachers who because of the low salaries (and high inflation) at home, had seen migration as the only option to ensure family survival. In other words, these were women who had willingly travelled to Kuwait with the hope of getting jobs in various sectors as promised by their recruiters, and as a strategy to improve their lives and those of their children and families.

The definition of trafficking

The internationally acceptable definition of trafficking in persons is provided in the Palermo Protocol. Section 3A states that “The trafficking of persons shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments o benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation”.

Factors forcing women to Kuwait

The Kuwait case reveals that these women were not forced/coerced by another person or abducted when they moved to Kuwait, but they were in a sense ‘forced’ by their own personal circumstances and as a result of compelling structural factors, including poverty, which prevented them from adequately supporting their families and plan their futures. 

These factors are unfortunately not always considered in talks about human trafficking. 

Furthermore, when the women travelled to Kuwait, they did so under a recognized work visa, hence they travelled as legal economic migrants. It was when they arrived in Kuwait that they learnt that they had been recruited through what is known as the Kafala system which is a legal sponsorship that ties the employment of a domestic worker to a specific employer – a practice well-known for creating opportunities for exploitative work relationships. 

Indeed, the women had been deceived by their recruitment agents, but the case study also reveals that what starts as a legal way of migration may lend people into complex exploitative forms of employment. This means that the idea of force or coercion can happen at a later stage during one’s migration process, which challenges the simplistic portrayals of human trafficking, which collapse the experience of women into a single story.

Negative consequences of publicisation

The assisted return of the women, together with the wide publicisation of their stories (mainly those relating to sexual exploitation) fed into political and public discourses and constructions of migration as a danger, problem and threat, and saw Zimbabweans being urged to stay at home and to enjoy the little they have in peace and quietness with their families. These narratives have had all kinds of negative consequences.

Despite the direct consequences on survivals’ lives and futures, the portrayal of human trafficking as a transnational crime and the conflation of human trafficking with sexual exploitation have the danger of sending the wrong messages that exploitation can only happen outside the country’s borders, with sexual exploitation of women being the only form of exploitation that warrants protection. This in turn may render many victims of different forms of exploitation that happens within the country invisible, especially when it comes to groups such as children, and those whose situations do not attract public and media attention.