The only known archipelago in Uganda is Kalangala (Ssese islands), which consists of 84 islands located in the southwestern part of Lake Victoria, Africa's largest and the world's second-largest freshwater body.
Apart from the lake, the islands have vast canopy of lush green vegetation, tropical rainforests, oil palm plantations, crop fields, distinctive and pleasant weather, making it a touristy island district, and a melting pot of diverse cultures from within and outside Uganda.
Behind all of this admirable environment and beauty, however, there is something too sinister to the islands. They are silently becoming a haven for human trafficking, one of the most heinous crimes not only in Uganda, but across the world. Exactly who the top leaders of the silent practice are, remains a mystery that is far from solved.
Teddy Nakasujja, Shivan Nannyonga, and Esther Namuyanda are some of the human trafficking survivors. All these women were rescued in coordinated intelligence operations by police, Army and local authorities. Some were just so lucky to be abandoned by the men they were forced to marry.
They are among a group of young women (18-25 years old) who have gathered at the Maria Theresa Foundation (MTF) in Kalangala town council to chat about ways of starting a new life. MTF is a Community-Based Organization (CBO) in Kalangala District that assists trafficked women and single mothers.
According to the survivors, most of them single mothers, they were duped and recruited from Kasese, Luwero, Masaka, Mityana, Mubende, Mbale, Fort-portal, and respectively various regions throughout the country by unknown individuals who promised them good job opportunities with favourable terms and working conditions in Entebbe.
Typically, desperate girls between the ages of 13 and 17 and young women between the ages of 18 and 25 end up in Mazinga sub-county (Ug-Tz border), Bubeke sub-county (Ug-Kenya), and some parts of Bugoma main island, which houses the district and town council headquarters.
“Actually we did not know where the jobs were. We were driven in a car up to the ship. However, everything deviated from the original plan upon arrival. Some were taken for forced labour, commercial sex, forced marriage, and drug smuggling, among other inhuman and illegal activities,” Nakasujja, who was sold into forced marriage, recounted her ordeal.
Others, she adds, were forced to work in bars, restaurants, and homes across the islands, as well as in Kenya and Tanzania without pay, hence forcing them to turn to prostitution for survival.
"Mazinga and Nkose/Lujabwa islands are the most common trafficking bases, with Bubeke, Namisoke, and Jjanna islands coming in second," Nakasujja explained.
Sharon Nannyonga, another survivor, recounted how their handlers would mistreat them and even threaten to kill them if they attempted to flee. To her, unlike the main island (Bugala), it is difficult to escape or be rescued from other islands such as Mazinga and Bubeke without a serious human trafficking rescue operation.
"It was my first time visiting an island, and I was so excited hoping everything was okay but I had the worst time. I had no idea such things existed in my life because there is always a handler to watch over you at all times,” Nannyonga said, adding that this practice is too deep to notice due to a sophisticated network.
She said, in addition, that you may judge a waitress in a bar or a commercial sex worker because you don't know their story. "They may be victims of human trafficking and you are unaware of it. The government should step up its intelligence efforts to protect innocent people from such exploitation," she urged.
Esther Namuyanda, who was sold into marriage, revealed that the pimps are just violent and sometimes they would sexually abuse you and you don’t have anything to do about it. “Especially, the girls and women who are sold into sex trade, go through hell. The new and good-looking girls can have between 4-5 men a day or more depending on her demand,” she said.
A boat operator at one of the landing sites in the district, who chose to speak on condition of anonymity, fearing unpleasant consequences, said they are sometimes hired to transport trafficked girls and women from one island to another. “It’s quite a fortune since we double our price to run errands for our clients (pimps),” he added.
About notifying authorities, he fears it would ruin his transportation business and even land him in trouble after making a bunch of enemies. “I am telling you this because it's growing in Ssese islands and innocent girls are suffering,” he stressed.
Gerald Kalyango, the Mazinga sub-county Councilor, confirmed that domestic trafficking involving people, especially women and children occurs in different communities but there’s little that can be done if the victims do not report to the local authorities to receive assistance.
According to Kalyango, trafficked females are usually promised good jobs, but when they arrive on the Mazinga islands, things change. "We understand some are intimidated and choose to remain silent, making it difficult for us to follow up and rescue them," he explained.
Kalyango further claims that some of the victims who have come forward to the authorities have been rescued and reunited with their families. The cases are then reported to the police, and the suspects are apprehended.
We've also learnt that men will pay pimps to get 'wives'. As a result, the unfortunate females get duped and brought to the island, where they are eventually forced to marry.
"People are still unaware of the law on human trafficking (Anti-trafficking Act 2009), and the government should intensify mass sensitization. It should also establish various stations where they can seek assistance in order to combat the crime," he said.
Not only Ugandans are trafficked in Kalangala, according to Kalyango. Women are also trafficked from Tanzania and sold in Mazinga and other places where they are unable to return home.
"In the same way, Tanzanian traffickers frequently visit Kalangala islands where they meet women and take them to Tanzania where they force them into marriage and other illegal businesses."
However, Paul Kabinga, the Bubeke sub-county Councilor, dismissed the allegations of trafficking, claiming that commercial sex workers usually visit Bubeke and leave at their leisure. "I served as LCIII chairman for Bubeke for ten years and am now a district councilor but I have not seen anyone being trafficked unless otherwise." He said.
Willy Nkumbu, the Kalangala Senior Probation and Social Welfare Officer, confirms that, while the problem (domestic human trafficking) is gradually reducing, it has remained one of the islands' most pressing issues that need to be solved collectively.
Between October 2023 and February this year, the department has been able to rescue more than 10 boys from forced labour and over 15 female teenagers from prostitution and forced marriage thanks to public awareness and an intelligence network with local authorities, police, and other stakeholders.
"Some have been reunited with their families, while others have been rehabilitated by our department and partners," he explained.
The most recent case involves a young woman who was brought from the Luuka district under the pretext of a well-paying job and good education, in the islands, only to be forced into marriage. According to Nkumbi, the girl was abandoned after giving birth which prompted the authorities to take up the matter.
Nkumbi, on the other hand, stated that they were able to rescue her andwhile the offender is being held in detention at Kalangala Police station pending the court after complete investigations.
"Most of the victims and survivors of trafficking are children from poor families, the hopeless, and those who are mistreated by their guardians, and when someone presents an opportunity for them, they cannot fail to take it up," he explained.
What Police Says
A total of 421 human trafficking cases with 1,149 victims were registered in 2021 compared to 214 cases registered in 2020 with 666 victims, according to the Annual Police Crime Report 2021.
The trafficked people are traded for forced labour, commercial sex, forced marriage, and hawking drugs among other inhuman and unlawful dealings. They are forced to work in bars, restaurants, and homes within the islands, and in Kenya and Tanzania.
The law enforcement authorities and several NGOs/CSOs and human rights activists operating in these islands say the traffickers use the ship, and boats to transport their victims. They add that they have tried to make significant efforts to eliminate trafficking in the most affected islands.
Unfortunately, they lack the financial resources to do effective operations to save, reunite them with their families or resettle the victims in their respective communities.
When contacted for comment, Twaha Kasirye, the acting Masaka Regional Police Spokesperson, stated that as a newcomer to the region, he was unaware of such crimes occurring and that it would take him some time to confirm the fact.
While the probation authorities conform the problem Cellicious Bainomugisha, the Kalangala District Police Commander (DPC), denied knowledge of any human trafficking-related incidents in the district.
Maria Theresa Foundation (MTF)
The organisation was founded by formerly trafficked survivors and single mothers. It gives hope, resettles, rehabilitates and empowers the survivors and single mothers in the district to start a new life.
Kalangala, according to Olivia Kyakuwa, the Coordinator -MTF, also a former survivor, is one of the destinations for trafficked people, primarily children and women. Human trafficking, she argued, is thriving and is blamed on unemployment, which traffickers use as bait to attract and trap their victims.
Kyakuwa stated that so far this year, they have received two cases involving three human trafficking survivors. One is from the Bwendero landing site in Bujumba sub-county, where two females (25 and 15 years old) were trafficked and brought under the guise of jobs. When they arrived, however, they were forced to sell Khat leaves, also known locally as Miraa or Mairungia, and perform other unpaid tasks.
Another case involves a 20-year-old female who was rescued over two weeks ago from a Kitobo landing in Bufumira sub-county, where she was allegedly sold into forced labour and sex trade. "However, she remains at the Kalangala Police Station and we have yet to reunite her with her family," she explained.
“Women and girls are informed about job opportunities in Kampala and Entebbe. When they arrive in Entebbe, they are loaded onto boats and taken to remote islands where it is difficult to escape from. Mazinga, for example, is about ten hours' sail from Entebbe's Nakiwogo landing site, and Kasenyi landing site to Bubeke is about eight hours," she added.
According to survivors' testimonies, Kyakuwa revealed that upon arrival on the respective islands, the pimps force them into prostitution, forced marriage, operating bars, restaurants or hawking drugs, mostly marijuana, without paying them.
“Because they are strategic border islands, pimps can sell the girls and m to Kenya and Tanzania more easily. Since they are well-connected with high influence, they instruct the boat owners and operators not to transport the girls/women anywhere without their permission," she elaborated.
“Since they are physically and psychologically devastated, So, as MTF, we give them psychosocial support. Some contract Sexually Transmitted Infections such as HIV/AIDS and need medical attention. Those who want to stay within, are given decent Income generating activities like poultry, and piggery, to mention a few, to start a new life and look after their children,” Kyakuwa clarified.
For single mothers, the organisation offers their children sponsorship to relieve them of the school fees burden. However, Kyakuwa noted that the survivors whose life has stabilized have visited their families and willingly returned to Kalangala in peace.
Human Rights Defenders
Last year (2022), the Kalangala Human Rights Defenders Network (KHRDN) together with the local authorities rescued ten trafficked girls under 18 years, thanks to the deep-rooted intelligence network. They include three girls from Bukomansimbi, two from Kyazanga in Lwengo district, one from Rakai, and others from Masaka villages.
According to Deo Miiro Mpolampola, the KHRDN Coordinator some had spent over two years and others one year in different islands. He claims there are so many domestic trafficking cases but we get few every year mainly through our operations.
One of the tricks the traffickers use, he added, is to first assess the situation before approaching parents and guardians. They then ask to hire the idle children as maids and perhaps women as waitresses in restaurants or bars, promising to pay them well.
When they arrive on the islands, they are sold into marriage, sex trade, or abandonment in bars where they are forced to work without pay, starved, mistreated and must fend for themselves. As a result, he claims, some women become pregnant, while others contract deadly sexually transmitted infections such as HIV.
“We have made numerous attempts to communicate with concerned community members in order to strengthen our intelligence. They always notify us when they come across stranded children or young women," he said.
He also blamed the vice on the district and community leaders' laxity in reporting these cases, as well as the poverty that traffickers utilise to lure victims or persuade families to accept the offer.
Anti-trafficking Act 2009
Section 3 (1a) of the Prevention of Trafficking In Persons Act 2009 states that a person who recruits, transports, transfers, harbours or receives a person, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation, commits an offence and is liable to imprisonment for fifteen years.
In addition, Section 3 (1b) stresses that recruits, hires, maintains, confines, transports, transfers, harbours or receives a person or facilitates the aforementioned acts through force or other forms of coercion for the purpose of engaging that person in prostitution, pornography, sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery, involuntary servitude, death bondage, forced or arranged marriage; also face the same sentence.
National Action Plan 2019-2024
The Situational Analysis of the Crime of Trafficking in Persons indicates that Uganda has remained a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to various forms of exploitation including forced labour, child sacrifice, street begging, child marriage and sex trafficking, according to the National Action Plan For Prevention Of Trafficking In Persons In Uganda 2019-2024
Given that human trafficking involves child prostitution and forced marriage, Betty Amongi Ongom, the Minister for Gender, Labour, and Social Development, has rallied cultural and religious, faith-based organisations, and other stakeholders to champion campaigns to combat child marriages and teenage pregnancies in Uganda.
To achieve the goal, the minister said prioritising and investing in massive sensitization and routine engagements with the leaders and society can be rewarding.
On February 15, 2023, Amongi met the Ambassador of Denmark to Uganda, H.E Signe Winding Albjerg, at the Ministry's headquarters in Kampala.
The Danish Embassy is working on the new Country Strategic Framework, which will include various activities aligned with the Women, Adolescents, and Youths (WAY) Programme.
** A story by Maria Nakitende**
This story was produced with support from African Institute for Investigative Journalism (AIIJ) in partnership with Aga Khan University-Kenya