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Forced labour, prostitution and child marriages: Rescuing victims of trafficking in Malawi

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Lunzu market in southern Malawi. WFP/Greg Barrow

The six men from Nepal believed they were heading to the United States for work. Instead, after a long journey which took them through six countries, they arrived in Malawi. They were locked in a house and their passports were taken away.

A husband and wife were offered lucrative jobs on a tobacco estate in neighbouring Zambia. Once there, they were treated badly, deprived of food and not paid at the end of their contract. 

But the job turned out to be very different from what they expected – they were forced into prostitution.
All these people were victims of human trafficking.  

Malawi: a transit country for trafficking

Malawi is also a transit country for victims of trafficking who are taken to other African countries, including South Africa, Tanzania and Mozambique, and to parts of Europe.

“The Government of Malawi accepts that more needs to be done to tackle this crime and there are gaps in the current approach,” says Maxwell Matewere, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) National Project Officer on Trafficking in Persons. “It also appreciates the expertise that we can offer,” he adds.

Following a request from the Ministry of Homeland Security for support in the implementation of the national Trafficking in Persons Act, which was developed with the assistance of UNODC, Mr Matewere recently spent three weeks mentoring law enforcement officers.

“The on-site coaching took place in Blantyre, Phalombe and Mchinji. These are the regions of the country with the highest prevalence of trafficking,” he says.

During the sessions, the UNODC expert reviewed cases to establish whether the law enforcement and protection officers had followed the correct procedures.

Positive results

“We did discover that in many cases this had not happened, but it was encouraging to see the commitment of the participants,” says Maxwell Matewere. “They are all determined to improve on the areas of weakness we identified and learn from our expertise.”

Officials who are responsible for responding to human trafficking, investigating cases, supporting victims and prosecuting the perpetrators took part.

“I learnt about the required standards and procedures we must follow when providing assistance to the victims of trafficking,” explains Stephano Joseph, the District Social Welfare Officer for Blantyre. “So, I will follow these now in my work.”

Caleb Ng’ombo, Coordinator for the Blantyre District Inter-agency Committee against Trafficking in Persons, says there are a number of lessons he learnt during the mentoring including the significance of putting the needs and rights of the victims at the forefront.

“I heard about the importance of supporting the victims to minimize the risks of retraumatizing them, which can happen during criminal proceedings.”

Advice on ongoing cases was also provided, which has already led to positive results.

‘Basically working as slaves’

“I’m receiving reports from some participants who have managed to successfully and properly identify victims of trafficking based on the learnings from the mentorship,” says Mr. Matewere. “Based on the guidance I gave, 52 Malawian victims of human trafficking have been rescued and five suspects have been arrested. There are five different cases. Three of the cases of trafficking were detected during my coaching and with my technical support”.

“In the other two, the police were not sure if the people involved were actually victims of human trafficking.  I helped them with information how similar cases have been interpreted in other jurisdictions to confirm that they were indeed victims.”

“One case involves 28 victims of sexual exploitation. In another case, there are eight victims of forced labour. They were made to work on a farm for many months without any payment and also working for long hours. They were basically working as slaves. Six further people were rescued in transit to a destination where they would have been exploited in the commercial sex industry.”  

“The other two cases involve trafficking for forced or arranged marriage. One girl who was rescued is 13 and pregnant. She is now living in a shelter.  Other vulnerable victims are also in shelters, while others have been returned to their homes.”

Over the past two years, UNODC, through its Global Programme against Trafficking in Persons and with the support of the United Kingdom, has assisted Malawi in its efforts to combat human trafficking. 

National strategies have been strengthened, legal frameworks brought in line with international standards and the country’s system to assist and protect victims has been improved. 

The mentoring has had an immediate impact as the officials who took part are already using their newly acquired skills and knowledge.

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Human Rights

Cindy Sirinya Bishop new UN Women Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Asia Pacific

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Cindy Sirinya Bishop, UN Women Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Asia and the Pacific. Photo: UN Women/Ploy Phutpheng

Thai celebrity and rights activist Cindy Sirinya Bishop is working to stop violence and other abuses against women as the newly appointed UN Women Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Asia and the Pacific. 

Bishop, 41, is a model and actress who is best known as the host of Asia’s Next Top Model, a television show broadcast in most countries in the region. 

During her 2-year appointment, which began in September, Bishop is representing UN Women to promote gender equality and other UN Women priority goals, raise funds and build partnerships. She is promoting public awareness through education, dialogue and cooperation with schools, communities and governments. 

“It is truly an honour to become the first UN Women Goodwill Ambassador to Asia and the Pacific,” Bishop said. “My mother instilled in me very early on a strong sense of justice and fierce belief in the resilience and strength of women, and these values continue to guide me today. I am so deeply grateful for the opportunity to work towards achieving greater gender equality in the region, especially in the areas of eliminating gender-based violence and in providing equal opportunity for girls and women to realize their full potential.” 

Bishop is one of Thailand’s leading campaigners on ending violence against women. 

In early 2018, she came across a newspaper headline about Thai authorities telling women to not look “sexy” if they want to avoid sexual assault during the Thai new year festival. Having experienced violence herself at the festival, Bishop spoke out in a social media video hashtagged #DontTellMeHowtoDress. #DontTellMeHowtoDress quickly evolved into a movement championing gender equality and has been extensively covered by local and international media. 

In July 2018, Bishop collaborated with UN Women to organize the Social Power Exhibition Against Sexual Assault. The exhibition was supported by United Nations agencies; the governments of Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore; the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; embassies; the media; and civil society and youth groups. Bishop worked with civil society organizations in the Philippines and Singapore on #DontTellMeHowToDress. 

In November 2018, Bishop received the “Activist of the Year Award” from the office of the Prime Minister of Thailand. 

Bishop also is the Knowledge Director of Dragonfly360, a regional platform that advocates for gender equality in Asia. She is writing a series of children’s books on safety, rights and respectful relationships.

“Your strong commitment to ending violence against women, demonstrated through your creation of the #DontTellMeHowtoDress movement and your work with UN Women so far, has shown you to be a compelling and eloquent advocate,” UN Women Regional Director Mohammad Naciri said in inviting Bishop to be UN Women regional goodwill ambassador.

UN Women is the United Nations organization dedicated speeding up progress on gender equality and the empowerment of women worldwide.  

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Misuse of terrorism laws during conflict creates ‘unmitigated calamity’

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All UN entities engaged in counter-terrorism must ensure the full application of international law, including international humanitarian law and refugee law. IOM/Amanda Nero

The misuse of terrorism laws during conflict situations often leads to an “unmitigated calamity” on the ground, an independent UN expert has warned. 

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, told the General Assembly on Thursday that what are being billed by some governments as counter-terrorism measures, are being applied frequently to address domestic strife and in complex humanitarian settings.

In these cases, they can have a catastrophic impact on civilian populations, she said, which are being “squeezed by broadly framed terrorism laws and practices with little or no recourse, when misuse occurs”.

Protecting rights, enforcing norms

The independent expert identified a “profoundly” worrying pattern whereby some States are ignoring or undermining humanitarian rules because counter-terrorism “offers a more open-ended, under-regulated and opaque set of tools”, to manage complex problems.

Her report tracks the essential relationship between protecting the human rights of the most vulnerable – including the elderly and children – in complex and fragile settings and enforcing basic humanitarian norms, including providing humanitarian assistance.

“I am profoundly troubled by the failure to apply humanitarian exemptions for activities that are humanitarian and impartial in nature”, said Ms. Ní Aoláin. 

“Such short-sighted tactics of withholding or criminalizing humanitarian assistance only prolongs conflicts, alienates those who are needed to ultimately resolve such conflicts, and hurts the most marginal in society”.

Affirm compliance

In her report, the Special Rapporteur acknowledged the Security Council’s “persistent and unequivocal affirmation” that counter-terrorism measures must “always and fully” comply with the overarching norms of international human rights law, international humanitarian law and refugee law.

She called on States to review existing sanctions systems to make sure that they are rule of law-compliant and provide “meaningful opportunity to challenge, review and end sanctions practices for affected individuals and their families”.

The UN envoy also applauded the work of impartial humanitarian actors, who carry out their duties in extreme conditions and under significant stress to protect the vulnerable. 

“The challenge now for States is to acknowledge and protect these actors effectively”, she spelled out. 

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Bolivia elections, an opportunity to defuse extreme polarization

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UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. UN Photo/Antoine Tardy

The UN’s top human rights official has called on all actors in Bolivia to remain calm and refrain from any action that could undermine the peaceful conduct of the general elections, taking place on Sunday. 

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Bolivians to use the polls as an opportunity to “defuse extreme polarization” plaguing the Latin American country over the past few years. 

“Everyone should be able to exercise the right to vote in peace, without intimidation or violence,” she said in a statement, on Friday. 

“These elections represent an opportunity to really move forward on social and economic fronts, and to defuse the extreme polarization that has been plaguing Bolivia over the past few years.” 

In light of the political and human rights crises unleashed during the previous attempt to carry out the elections a year ago, Ms. Bachelet expressed hope that Sunday’s elections would take place in a calm, participatory and inclusive manner, in an environment that ensures respect for the human rights of all people in Bolivia. 

Bolivia fell into crisis last October after President Evo Morales declared victory in disputed elections that would have granted him a fourth term, prompting mass protests. Dozens were killed and hundreds injured, amid reports of widespread human rights violations and abuses. 

Mr. Morales later stepped down and left the country.

‘Serious concern’ over inflammatory language 

The High Commissioner also voiced serious concern at the inflammatory language and threats made by some political actors in recent weeks, as well as the increasing number of physical attacks that have been taking place. 

“It is essential that all sides avoid further acts of violence that could spark a confrontation,” she said.  

“No one wants to see a repeat of last year’s events, which led to extensive human rights violations and abuses, including at least 30 people killed and more than 800 injured – and ultimately to everyone losing out.” 

The UN human rights office (OHCHR) deployed a mission to Bolivia in November 2019. The mission remains in the country, to monitor and report on any human rights violations and abuses, including in the context of the elections. 

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