While the search for jobs among millions of unemployed Ugandans rises, the youth, especially girls, are seeking employment in Middle East countries such as Dubai, Oman, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia as housemaids, commonly known as Kadhamar/Shagarah.
Many are exported through unscrupulous channels and later subjected to inhumane treatment with cases of death in the extreme circumstances, conviction without trial, hard labour and illegal detentions.
Marriam Mwiza has individually been soliciting funds and other means to bring such girls back to Uganda not only to end their suffering but also to reunite them with their families.
For this interview, I find Mwiza at Entebbe International Airport where she is condoling with a grieving family whose 24-year-old daughter died mysteriously in Oman. The family had waited for more than six weeks to see their daughter’s body brought back home until concerned individuals and family raised more than $4,000 (about Shs14.7m) to repatriate the body.
Even though the grieving family swears never to let any of their siblings seek employment in the Arab world, Mwiza looks on worried as a group of other girls dressed in bukhar and sharirjah wait to be cleared to set off for work in several Arab countries at the airport.
Her calling started in 2017 after a girl recorded a video that circulated on WhatsApp asking for help. She had been held in Jordan without being fed and her passport confiscated. Mwiza rallied her peers and fellow women to solicit funds to repatriate the girl whose bosses demanded a refund of $2,000 (about Shs7.3m) before she could be released. Mwiza, whose struggle started with a WhatsApp group, yielded results when she collected the required money and after payment, the girl was released.
How she does it
Mwiza’s approach is to rally concerned people for funds which she uses to free these girls and calling out those still seeking employment to stop using dubious companies and individuals who care only about making money. While traversing schools and communities, Mwiza, who is self- funded, talks to grieved families and acts as a link between them and concerned authorities to fight for the plight of victims.
“I thought I was helping one person but in the end I am handling similar cases everyday. From the oppressed to the dead, cases are continuous,” she says.
Recently, Mwiza was at the centre of repatriating two girls who had been incarcerated in Oman (Muscat). Resty Namusisi, 24, and Joyce Nanyonjo, 20, were reunited with their families back home in Uganda after two months of continuous negotiations between Mwiza and their employer in Muscat.
The girls said they had been held after failing to fulfil their duties due to ill health.
“Many victims usually report being sexually harassed, subjected to hard labour and all sorts of ill-treatment with evident claims of victims being denied medical care when they are unwell,” Mwiiza adds.
Among the many who she has rescued include Shiba Viola Ahabwe, Deborah Kyomugabo, Sharon Kusasira, Hope Kusiima, Rose Nanziri, Grace Nasanga and Joanita Nakiranda whose fate was in shambles after failing to comply with the dubious contracts that they unknowingly signed while in the United Arab Emirates.
Mwiza says most girls are promised free travel logistics and later subjected to dubious dealings where they get their travel documents confiscated, sold on stalls in Muscat and also made to sign contracts that bar them from complaining, making phone calls back home and working 24 hours and sometimes, denied access to basic health.
Fighting human trafficking
Even though she is always threatened by traffickers in and out of the country, the daring Mwiza has not hesitated to keep alerting authorities on who the traffickers are, their routes and dealings.
However, Mwiza who believes that hers could be a calling from God, says sometimes she is frustrated when authorities fail to foil traffickers but she keeps fighting on. She says until measures and punishment is put in place, trafficking will not end since it is a lucrative venture for dubious individuals even in public offices.
“We usually identify the traffickers but sadly they are often released after a day or two days of questioning,” Mwiza says, adding that some are rich individuals who also happen to bribe authorities to drop cases.
Motivated and focused
Mwiza says her motivation are the people who continuously come to her rescue when cases arise and whenever she feels like giving up, she gets held by absence of justice for the victims.
Mwiza says she is gearing up to start a formidable initiative to continue the fight at local level sensitising families, communities and the vulnerable girls.
Reports indicate that human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar venture rivaled only by the international trade in illegal drugs and arms. Even-though Uganda legalised labour export, a number of unscrupulous companies and individuals are still at large and these lure unsuspecting individuals to countries in promise of employment but circumstances change the moment they arrive there.
Norah Nakalyoowa, mother
“She helped me bring back my daughter Joyce Nanyonjo who had been trafficked to Oman. I had given up and all I was waiting for was a death announcement.”
Kusasira Sharon, a victim
“Marriam helped me when I was enslaved in Saudi Arabia. My fingers are scarred due to the harsh treatment subjected to me but God is good she helped me.”
William Mpaata Otako, executive director, End Child Trafficking Uganda
“Marriam is an unsung hero who has helped many girls out of slavery. She does it at the risk of her own life since it is a hard job to dare traffickers.”