By Tonny Onyuolo
KAMPALA, Uganda (OSV News) — Violet Babirye sits on the edge of the bed of her two-room home in the sprawling informal settlement of Kisenyi, Mbarara municipality in southwestern Uganda. Wearing a white blouse and black skirt, she painfully narrates the ordeal she went through in Kuwait at the hands of her employers while working as a housemaid.
Her journey to work in the Middle East began in 2019 when she could not raise money to pay school fees for her three children. A close female friend approached and informed her that there were many opportunities in Kuwait and that she would work in a hotel as a waiter once she arrived there.
“I was happy because I knew God had answered my prayers, and my life was going to change forever,” said the 35-year-old mother of three who asked OSV News not to reveal her real name. “I knew (with this job) I was going to educate my children since their father had abandoned us and married another woman.”
Babirye, who was working as a hairdresser in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, was told by her friend that she would earn $750 monthly. The salary excited her, and she traveled to Kenya to meet the agent who planned the trip for her and dozens of other women to Kuwait and other Middle East countries.
“When we arrived in Kuwait, we were placed in one room by the agent who received us at the airport,” she said, noting that the agent took away their passports without any explanation and told them they would be paid only $250 monthly.
“After the agent briefed us, I realized the Kenyan agent had duped me. I was going to work as a housemaid instead of a waiter.”
Babirye said people who would be their employers later arrived in cars and started buying them each at the price of $2,000. “I realized that I had been sold into slavery and had no freedom until I finished my three-year contract,” she told OSV News.
Babirye said her employer forced her to work not only during the day, but also at night, and she could only sleep for two hours. She revealed that the two sons of her employer used to sexually violate her, and whenever she would complain, her employer would remind her that she was a slave and “he paid a lot of money to get her,” she recalled.
“I became very sick after three months because they used to beat me and deny me food,” she said, detailing that she contacted Interpol, who rescued her and ensured she got an airline ticket back home. “I wanted to change my life while working abroad, but I returned home destitute, sick, traumatic and broken.”
She is among thousands of young and vulnerable women in the East African nation of more than 45 million people who are being duped into traveling to the Middle East in search of jobs — especially in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates — and then forced into inhumane working conditions and prostitution.
Government figures show that more than 24,000 Ugandans seek household jobs in the Middle East annually, driven out of the country by poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, and family breakdown. In 2021 alone, up to 28 Ugandan migrant workers died in the Middle East, according to Uganda Human Rights Commission.
The situation has compelled the Catholic Church to intensify awareness campaigns to end human trafficking in the country. Bishops, priests, sisters, catechists and other church leaders have been visiting homes, villages, churches and public places to educate the people on the dangers of human trafficking.
The church leaders want the government to strengthen and speed up efforts to reduce poverty and unemployment so that vulnerable Ugandans, especially girls and women, are not lured to travel overseas.
Lay catechist John Mukasa of the Archdiocese of Kampala said the church leaders have been conducting workshops and visiting homes to counsel survivors and educate parents and vulnerable girls and women on the risks.
“Human trafficking in Uganda is on the rise, especially of Ugandan girls and women being trafficked to Middle East countries,” he said, revealing that a shocking number of thousands of migrant workers have returned home without internal organs, mostly kidneys.
“As a church, we are educating people about the risks that await them in case of recruitment agents luring them to seek jobs overseas,” he added. “We are encouraging and supporting our girls and mothers to start small businesses so that they can financially support their families instead of risking their lives outside the country.”
Mukasa said the church also was sharing information with the local government leaders. He said once they detect a woman or a girl who is at risk of being trafficked to other countries, the church always informs the police for action.
“It’s inhuman for a person to sell other human beings for material benefit. We always report such cases to ensure the perpetrators are arrested on time,” he said. “We carry out counseling and treatment for those who have been lucky to come back, but are physically injured and traumatized.”
Bishop Joseph Antony Zziwa of Kiyinda-Mityana told OSV News that labor export companies are taking advantage of poor Ugandans unaware of risks for their own financial benefit. He said such companies were still flying girls and women to the Middle East, some fully aware of what awaits them at the hands of their employers.
“As a church, we have decided to fight this menace because it’s ungodly for some people who want to become rich to use others inhumanly, like subjecting fellow human beings to prostitution, cheap labor, torture and organ harvesting,” said Bishop Zziwa.
Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu in northern Uganda encouraged others, including human rights organizations, to join the church in tackling human trafficking, a plague of the country.
“We need each other to address this evil trade that is killing our people and subjecting them to inhuman conditions,” he said, urging the government to arrest anyone engaging in human trafficking.
“I appeal to church leaders and other stakeholders to spread awareness about the dangers of human trafficking and report any evils that promote this illegal activity,” Archbishop Odama told OSV News.
“Human beings should be treated with dignity. They are not goods or services to be sold to other people. Such evil practices should stop immediately.”