First-Person: An inside look at human trafficking in Johannesburg
Dec 22, 2011
International Mission Board

SOUTH AFRICA (BP)—The odors of liquor, smoke and sweat permeate the air. One small bulb lights the alleyway. Traffic is light on the main road, but this side street keeps busy.

“Mister!” yells a young woman to a car driving past. “You’re the daddy. I’m your little girl, and I got what you want right here!” Another woman hides in the shadows, quietly crying. The pimps’ laughter rises as they share jokes while smoking and playing cards.

Two young women share a bottle of alcohol to give them courage to approach the cars driving through the side street. A client parks in the shade, waiting for a woman to join him in the backseat. Another client follows a woman into her pimp’s apartment. Thirty minutes later the man leaves.

BEFRIENDING VICTIMS Charntel Paile (right), an outreach worker who ministers to prostitutes in South Africa, visits with Najia, a trafficking victim, before Najia is admitted to a drug rehabilitation facility. Unfortunately, after the six-week program was complete Najias trafficker convinced her to return to a life of prostitution. IMB photo
One after another the clients pick up the women, but somehow there is an endless supply. As one woman leaves, another arrives. Two young women stand in the shadows, hesitant and afraid. Suddenly a pimp approaches and provides them with more drugs. The women begin to sell themselves again.

I was convinced I could never end up in a situation like these women—hooked on drugs and alcohol, forced into prostitution and sold from one man to another. I could never be a slave. I could never be trafficked.

One afternoon with a pimp in the park changed my perspective. I knew who he was and what he did. He knew nothing about me.

Diallo* was adept at slyly pulling information about my life and passions. I’m not hesitant in sharing my faith, and soon Diallo learned I’m a Christian. Moments later, he invited me to attend church with him.

The scenario is all too common. A strong, handsome young man meets a single woman. He is lively and charming. Best of all, he says he’s a Christian. New to the area and looking for friends, it would be easy for a woman to fall into his grasp. The innocence of the moment can soon turn into a nightmare.

TRAFFICKED AS A TEEN Lisha was trafficked as a young teenager and has spent nearly 20 years trapped in forced prostitution in South Africa. Just a few days after this photo was taken, Lisha was almost beaten to death by her pimp for trying to escape to a drug rehabilitation center. IMB photo
Just one prearranged meeting is all he needs. An unopened drink that’s already been drugged, a friend or two lying in wait or a short walk down a deserted street. He takes you, arranges for men to rape you, forces you to take drugs and then, once you are under his control, he sells you to someone in another city or country.

Through a fellow Christian in the area who has a ministry to these women, I’ve learned that approximately 90 percent of the women working the streets of South Africa’s urban centers are trafficked—deceived, taken against their will, sold and transported into slavery.

One of these young women, Lisha,* invited me inside her small, bare apartment—no bigger than a dorm room. The only “furniture” was a blow-up mattress. The dirty kitchenette was dimly lit, and dust gathered along the floor. A moment passed before I realized Lisha and I were not alone.

Kaniz* was curled into a ball in the corner of the room, weeping silently. Her pimp had recently purchased her in another South African city. Lisha immediately became Kaniz’s protector, taking her beatings and making sure that only “good” clients picked her up. But Kaniz had just learned she was going to be sold again and separated from Lisha—her only friend.

Lisha and Kaniz desperately want to escape this life of forced prostitution. So why don’t they leave it all behind?

Their lives are not their own.

“[The pimps] just tell you in your face—straight—‘There’s your house, here’s your wake-up [time], go to the streets next.’ And you can’t say nothing,” said Lisha. “You are far from your [home]. You must go, no matter what, whether you like it or not. It’s by force. … And if you don’t want to go, they beat you well. And you still have to go out after they beat you.”

Alcohol and drugs become the only “relief” in their lives. “Heroin is a very complicated drug,” said Kaniz. “You must smoke it so it doesn’t give you time to think about anything important in your life.”

STRANDED IN SOUTH AFRICA Young men from other parts of Africa travel to South Africa in hopes of job opportunities they find out do not exist. Stranded in South Africa without any savings left, many of these men get into the human trafficking business to make ends meet. IMB photo
The night after visiting Kaniz and Lisha, I found myself standing in an alley with 13 other women. It was after 10 p.m., and most of them had already been working for more than 12 hours. As always, the pimps were within view. I leaned against the fence, absorbing the sights and sounds of the “business.”

Periodically the women stepped away from the curb to join me at the fence for companionship and conversation. “It’s my birthday,” said Najia.* “You’re the first person I’ve told.”

Little did I know that a few weeks later my Christian friend and I would be helping Najia escape from her pimp to join a drug rehabilitation program. I broke into tears the day I found out that Najia’s pimp—whom she called her boyfriend—convinced her to return to him after six weeks of successful rehab. Her need for love made her vulnerable to the very man who bought her, abused her and forced her to sell her body to others.

Many of these girls have never received genuine love. They desperately need to know the love of Jesus.

Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the Cooperative Program help Southern Baptist missionaries around the world share the Gospel. Give to the offering through your local Southern Baptist church or online at, where there are resources for church leaders to promote the offering. Download related videos at

*Name changed. Martha Richards is an IMB missionary serving in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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