The 2017 U.S. Department of State honored SLDI Alumna Sr. Vanaja Jasphine at the 2017 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report Launch Ceremony on June 27, 2017.
At the ceremony, Sr. Vanaja received the “2017 Hero Acting Modern Slavery Award” in recognition of her groundbreaking work in identifying a key migration trend to prevent human trafficking of Cameroonians in Middle East, and her dedication to ensuring survivors have legal support and assistance in reintegration.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump presented the award with these inspiring words:
“Sr. Vanaja Jasphine is the driving force behind and coordinator of the Kumbo Diocesan commission for Justice and Peace in the North West region of Cameroon. In this role, she has placed her organization at the forefront of the fight against human trafficking in Cameroon and has contributed to a renewed government commitment to combat human trafficking.
Rev. Sr. Jasphine has worked tirelessly to inform authorities and civil leaders, including those in the religious community and media partners, about human trafficking, especially on patterns of movements that creates vulnerability. She played a key role in recognizing the trend of Cameroonians traveling to the Middle East and being forced into domestic servitude or sex trafficking, and then spurred the government to take action including drafting migrant workers agreements and enhancing screening measures at airports…”
Sr. Vanaja is the driving force behind the Coordinator of the Kumbo Diocesan Commission for Justice and Peace in the Northwest Region of Cameroon contributing to a renewed government commitment to fight human trafficking.
Sr. Vanaja and her organization have identified more than 200 Cameroonian trafficking victims in the Middle East during the past few years. In 2016 alone, she facilitated the return of at least fourteen victims from the Middle East (Lebanon and Kuwait), including raising funds to sponsor return air travel for four of them.
How did she accomplish this you may ask? Sr. Vanaja says in an audio interview with NPR,
"As we heard that our children are trafficked to Middle East, we had a public demonstration. And it became a national issue. We contacted the government, especially the prime minister, the secretary general for security and the police commissioner. So in that process, we had the chance to meet the U.S. embassy. They supported us. They took our report. And they called the government to implement the law effectively to intensify the existing structures. Recently, it was not working, but now with the collaboration of U.S. embassy and our organization, we have really intensified the effort of task force."
In other situations, when Sr. Vanaja and her organization receive a trafficking case the first step is to investigate. Once they know the perpetrator, they try to negotiate to return the victim. If they will not negotiate, the case is taken to court. Sr. Vanaja said that the process, "...can go three years, four years. It is indefinite."
Reintegration Assistance for Victims
Sr. Vanaja also works to provide reintegration and rehabilitation assistance to survivors of trafficking. She has initiated several trafficking-related court proceedings and offers legal assistance to victims. Some victims receive startup capital for business or assistance in learning a trade or returning to school. The fourteen victims returned from the Middle East were also provided with psychosocial assistance.
Why does she go so far to help these victims? Sr Vanaja says,
“[Human Trafficking] is the breach of one's fundamental rights. And the hopelessness of the children made me to become more active, more committed. And I dedicated myself for that to restore their dignity."
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On August 30, 2017, a Pontifical High Mass officiated by Bishop MGR. George Nkuo. While at the Kumbo Cathedral in Cameroon welcomed Sr. Vanaja home. Members of the Kumbo Diocese and delegation from the Bamenda Archdiocese Justice and Peace Commission attended the celebration.
The Justice and Peace Commission expressed the need for support, as the challenges in the fight for human rights are heavy and demanding. Giving thanks to God to those that came to welcome her back, Sr. Vanaja raised important issues that still need to be addressed, such as the continuation of sensitization. She also spoke of the real heroes in this battle, stating,
“When I heard for the first time [about the award], I felt unworthy realizing that we are just instruments of the God of justice in building his kingdom. The real heroes are outside, the victims who are battling with their lives between the court and the daily realities of life, trying to gather their courage to face the unknown courageously. Today I salute all of them who went through hardship, let go their comfort, endured threats and stood for justice.”
Sr. Vanaja is a member of the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She is an Administration Track participant of ASEC's Sisters Leadership Development Initiative (SLDI) Program (2014-2015), completing the workshops in Cameroon.