Child abduction & trafficking: The social media fiction and the facts.
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Let’s have a show of hands how many of us have seen at least three videos about attempted child abductions over social media? How about the past week? Most of these are from unverified sources with no date or location.

While it has placed parents on high alert for snatch and grabs, it has diverted attention from real threats to our children’s well-being.  Let’s explore what leading anti-trafficking experts have to say and find out what protective rather than paranoid parenting looks like.

Missing children, child abductions and child trafficking: what’s the difference?

Not every child who goes missing has been abducted and not every abduction is trafficking, so it is important to get the terminology right.

  • According to an oft-quoted statistic from the South African Police Service Missing Persons Bureau, a child goes missing every five hours in South Africa. This number, however, refers to a 2013 estimate and more recent estimates have changed this number to one child missing every 10 hours.

“Some children may get lost and some may deliberately leave their guardians in order to escape an abusive home situation,” says Carol Bower, an anti-trafficking and children’s rights activist and founder of her own agency, LINALI Consulting, where she is involved in policy and lobbying of organizations and government on matters pertaining to human rights. “While over 70% are found within hours, there are about 23% that are not found or are found too late.”

  • Child abduction refers to the child being taken away illegally against their will. Motives behind abductions may be kidnapping for a ransom, or for access by the non-custodial parent. “Divorce often places children in the middle and they are the ones most scarred by it,” says Bower.

In an attempt to report the news quickly, the media often fails to do thorough investigations and abductions are quickly linked to trafficking. A recent child murder case was ascribed to trafficking, but investigators later found out that the motive was a personal vendetta against the mother.

“This means that on that day at that school, no other child was at risk, only this child,” says Marc Hardwick. With more than 13 years’ experience as a policeman in the Child Protection Unit, Hardwick founded The Guardian, an organization mandated to making childhood safer by reducing crimes against children across South Africa.

Diane Wilkinson of the National Freedom Network, a network of role players involved in combating trafficking and a channel of communication between these role players, civil society and government, explains: “According to the Prevention and Combating Trafficking in Persons Act 7 of 2013, trafficking is a process that requires three elements to be present to be trafficking: An action (for example, recruiting, leasing, buying or selling the victim), a means (the method of control such as situation, coercion, deception or abuse of power to keep the victim in that situation) and a purpose (where the victim is exploited in some way for the trafficker getting some kind of service).

“For child trafficking, the means fall away because no adult can give permission for the exploitation of the child. And child trafficking does not imply transportation: a child being prostituted by her grandmother would also be regarded as being trafficked even while remaining in the household of her grandmother.”

Reposted with permission from STOP (Stop Trafficking of People)


Why are children trafficked?

The promise of a better future is an almost certain lure for those wishing to escape poverty or an unhappy home.

  • Sexual exploitation: “We are seeing an increase in our South African operations of children who are forced to work in escort agencies, massage parlors or as prostitutes,” says Bower. However, she also cautions that the media often sensationalizes sexual exploitation while ignoring the other causes of trafficking.
  • Illegal adoptions:Also known as child laundering, illegal adoptions may involve the exchange of money or the removal of children by force.
  • Labour trafficking: West African cocoa plantations use child labour; the textile industries of Egypt exploit the small dexterous fingers of children for intricate designs, while sitting on the floor for extended hours cause their hips to become deformed; others are recruited as child soldiers for armies.
  • Trafficking for body parts: Either due to the demands of organs or for the muti  “A few years ago, we were alerted to a woman entering South Africa’s northern border from Mozambique, and the security found blood dripping from her boot, opened it and found children’s heads,” says Bower.
  • Domestic servitude: is a common form of exploitation and trafficking in South Africa. “Single parents may be offered the promise for their child to go to the city to go to school in the morning, while assisting the host family with a few domestic tasks in the afternoon,” says Bower. Children who are trafficked for domestic labor are often denied an education, which is also a violation of their rights, and are often sexually exploited by the males in the house.

How are they trafficked?

The snatch-and-grab picture that has played out over social media has imprinted trafficking into our minds, often to the extent of desensitising us to real danger.

“The problem is that irresponsible journalism has made what has happened more serious than it was,” says Hardwick. “Is organised child trafficking more serious than it was 10 years ago? Absolutely! Organised crime has become more organised, whether it is counterfeit goods, drugs or human trafficking.”

However, most abuse, whether it is a trafficking or sexual abuse of the child in his home environment, follows a grooming phase where the perpetrator is known to his victim.

“What we know now as people working in child protection is that strangers make up only 5% of perpetrators.” This is something Hardwick knows well as his job, in his own words, “is to chase paedophiles and send them to jail.” The other 95% of perpetrators may be known to the child and the family. “The person who goes out of his way to gain our trust is the one who is also grooming our children.”

In the same way that many children are baited into trafficking on the promise of a job or modelling contract and are vulnerable due to poverty, many are baited by the promise of love. “Anyone who is working in the field as long as I have will let you know that cyber grooming is a reality and the cyber world has added an insurmountable risk,” says Hardwick.

Another modus operandi is the sugar-daddy/“Blesser” or lover-boy persona, where a male (often significantly older) seduces a younger woman on the promise of a relationship and then forces her into prostitution.

The statistics in South Africa

“South Africa is a source, transit and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking” reads the US Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Both South Africans and foreign nationals are at risk of being trafficked across borders, but most trafficking occurs within our borders, moving children from rural to urban areas for labor and sexual exploitation.

Just how many children are trafficked each year is anyone’s guess, because many go unreported.

“Many oft-quoted stats are unverified because the NGOs have their own stats that do not always feed into law enforcement; all the different departments and organisations have been keeping their own stats and information and there is no one central database collecting all the figures,” says National Freedom Network’s Diane Wilkinson.

“We have lots of numbers but they are not comparable year on year, or not refined enough,” says Bower. “The only numbers we can work with are those that are reported. What we do know is that in South Africa, we murder children at twice the global rate. Oftentimes this is in error, or discipline gone wrong, which is why we advocate for the abolition of corporal punishment. Overall, we need to make childhood safer.”

Human trafficking is a global, not only South African, concern and children are trafficked even within first world countries. However, each country presents its own zeitgeist of factors that contribute to the vulnerability of children.

“Whenever there is a national disaster, such as an earthquake or typhoon, children go missing and we cannot say whether this is due to the natural disaster or because vulnerable children were being exploited thereafter,” says Hardwick.

“In this country, we have the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS. We have millions of vulnerable children who are AIDS orphans living in child-headed households, and traffickers thus have vulnerable victims. When a 12-year old comes in to the police to say that her six-year-old sibling is missing but has no identification or other documents, it is very difficult for police to investigate. Over and above that, we have many harbours and our border controls are not as tight as other countries. If I was an international human trafficker, this country provides both vulnerable children and the inadequate border controls that would make it easy for me to ply my trade.”

Response plan of action

Fighting trafficking is too big a task for any one organisation, and a sustained collaboration between parents, communities, police and anti-trafficking organisations is needed to safeguard our children and to ensure that if the worst-case scenario ever actualises, the response will be immediate and decisive.

Rene Hanekom, Resource Line Manager at the SA National Human Trafficking Resource Line, provides the following guidelines.

As parents, we should teach our children:

  • To react: Teach them to scream, make a noise, attract attention.
  • The right words: To have phrases such as “this is not my mommy” if they are grabbed, or that whoever is picking them up for school will have a password that only you and your trusted circle will know.
  • To seek help. When you are at the mall, teach children what to do if they are separated from you, for example, to go to a shop counter or security.
  • That there is safety in numbers. If using public transport or walking home from school, walk in a group. And never use a public toilet alone – always take someone with you.

“At the end of the day you do not want to instill a fear, but you wish to instill a healthy awareness of the world,” she says.

As individuals aware that a child may have been abducted or trafficked:

  • First, report to the police: Regardless of whether it is a case of trafficking, abduction or a missing child, report the case to the police immediately. You do not need to wait any number of hours to report a missing child. The sooner we react, the more likely we are to find the child unharmed.
  • Then, start engaging organizations like Pink Ladies. Send them pictures of the child. If you suspect that the child may be trafficked, contact the National Trafficking Resource Line: 0800 222 777.
  • Then and only then should the incident be reported on community social media groups and these should state the date and location.

As communities:

There is a fine line between being on guard to a possible perpetrator out in the public and being over-zealous and taxing police resources to a crime that has not been committed.

“We have taught staff at airports, for example, to look out for signs of children who seem fearful or are not engaged with the adults accompanying them,” says Hanekom.

“When people report a car taking pics outside of a school, they are reporting a crime that has not happened, and it is difficult for police to follow up,” says Hanekom. “But the most serious consequence is that it sends police to follow what may just be a smokescreen, and takes essential resources away from combating crime. On the other hand, if you gut says something is wrong, contact the security if it it at a mall, or call the police. “Generally, when it comes to human trafficking, we say that if you see something, say something.

As a nation:

“Trafficking is a really heavy workload on top of the already heavy workload of our police. We have the HAWKS, whose mandate is to handle the really serious organised part of trafficking, but they are not solely focused on trafficking,” says Wilkinson.

“We need more training from law enforcement. I am not saying that the specialised branches within the SAP do not have the skills,” says Hardwick. “However, the specialised investigators only mobilise after the first responders. We need to give the first responders the skills that they need.”

Instead of forwarding an unverified social media message, forward to your contacts the following numbers which every parent should have on his or her smartphone today:

  • National Human Trafficking Resource Line: 0800 222 777 (this is more than just a helpline, it is a resource line, and possibly a lifeline)
  • National Freedom Network: An organisation dedicated to collaborating with other organisations in the fight against trafficking.
  • The Pink Ladies: A group of volunteers dedicated to reuniting children with their families.
  • STOP (Stop Trafficking of People): An organisation dedicated to combating human trafficking through Preventative Awareness, Advocacy/Activism and Victim Support.

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g. You can choose to refuse cookies, or set your browser to let you know each time a website tries to set a cookie.

The personal information we collect

h. The information we collect about you depends on the Vodacom and Vodafone products and services you use and subscribe to. It may include (but is not limited to) the following:

i. your name, age group home language;

ii. your preferences for particular products, services or lifestyle activities when you tell us what they are – or when we assume what they are, depending on how you use our products and services;

iii. your contact with us – such as a note or recording of a call you make to one of our contact centres, an email or letter you send to us or other records of any contact you have with us;

iv. your account information – such as phone number, handset type, handset model,, whether you are a post or prepaid customer, dates of payment owed and received, TopUp information, the subscription services you use or any other information related to your account.

i. We will also get information on how you use our products and services, such as:

i. Where applicable, the phone numbers that you call or send messages to (or the phone numbers that you receive these calls and messages from);

ii. the date, time and length of the calls and messages you send or receive through our network, and your approximate location at the time these communications take place;

iii. the level of service you receive – for example, network faults and other network events which may affect our network services;

iv. your website browsing information (which includes information about the websites you visit, and about how you use our website or other Vodafone Group websites on your mobile or a PC;

v. the date, time and length of your internet browsing, and your approximate location at the time of browsing;

vi. your brand preference, preferred video categories, related preferences (e.g. team choice); and type of services you typically access.

Using your personal information

j. We may use and analyse your information to:

i. process the goods and services you have bought from us, and keep you updated with your order progress;

ii. keep you informed generally about new products and services (unless you choose not to receive our marketing messages);

iii. provide the relevant service or product to you. This includes other services not included in this terms and conditions, and services that use information about where you are when using your mobile equipment (location information) and to contact you with messages about changes to the service or product;

iv. you with offers or promotions based on how you use our products and services. These include your calling and messaging activities, location information and browsing information (unless you choose not to receive these messages – see below on 'How to opt-out';

v. send you targeted and relevant messages, based on your behaviour, permission and preferences. From time to time, we will send you a range of different messages, from Vodacom as well as brands, to keep you informed or simply for you to tell us what you are into. These are not just offers and promotions but messages from your favourite brands including new products, discounts, limited offers, gifts and more. It works by using information about you to send you targeted messages relevant to you;

vi. bill you for using any additional products or services, or to take the appropriate amount of credit from you;

vii. respond to any questions or concerns you may have about using the Service, our network, products or services;

viii. let you know about other companies' products and services we think may interest you (including offers and discounts we've specially negotiated for our customers);

ix. protect our network and manage the volume of calls, texts and other use of our network. For example, we identify peak periods of use so we can try and ensure the network can handle the volume at those times

x. understand how you use this Service, our network, products and services. That way, we can develop more interesting and relevant products and services, as well as personalising the products and services we offer you;

xi. carry out research and statistical analysis including to monitor how customers use this Service, our network, products and services on an anonymous or personal basis;

xii. prevent and detect fraud or other crimes, recover debts or trace those who owe us money;

xiii. provide aggregated reports to third parties (such reports do not contain any information which may identify you as an individual).

k. The information we use will be your approximate location, based on the nearest mobile cell site. As a result, this will change as you move around with your mobile phone.

l. We will store your information for as long as we have to by law. If there is no legal requirement, we will only store it for as long as we need it.

Sharing your personal information

m. We may share information about you with:

i. companies in the Vodacom and Vodafone Group (Vodafone Group Plc and any company or other organisation in which Vodacom owns more than 15% of the share capital);

ii. Mondia Media, partners or agents involved in delivering the Services;

iii. companies who are engaged to perform the Service for, on behalf of Vodacom (Pty) Ltd including Mondia Media (Pty) Ltd;

iv. where applicable, credit reference, fraud prevention or business scoring agencies, or other credit scoring agencies;

v. where applicable, debt collection agencies or other debt recovery organisations;

vi. law enforcement agencies, regulatory organisations, courts or other public authorities if we have to, or are authorised to by law;

vii. emergency services (if you make an emergency call), including your approximate location.

n. We will release information if it's reasonable for the purpose of protecting us against fraud, defending our rights or property, or to protect the interests of our customers.

o. If we are reorganised or sold to another organisation, we may transfer any personal information we hold about you to that organisation.

p. We will transfer your information to Mondia Media our service provider. Mondia Media servers are based outside South Africa in Germany where adequate data protection laws exist to protect the privacy and security of your information. We have also signed a contract with Mondia Media with data protection provisions to ensure the security and protection of the privacy of your information.

q. At your option, we may also share your information with partner organisations we've chosen carefully, so they can contact you about their products and services.

Keeping your personal information secure

r. We have specialised security teams who constantly review and improve our measures to protect your personal information from unauthorised access, accidental loss, disclosure or destruction.

s. If we have a contract with another organisation to provide us with services or a service on our behalf to process your personal information, we will make sure they have appropriate security measures and only process your information in the way we've authorised them to. These organisations will not be entitled to use your personal information for their own purposes. If necessary, our security teams will check them to make sure they meet the security requirements we have set.

t. Communications over the internet (such as emails) are not secure unless they have been encrypted. Your communications may go through a number of countries before being delivered – as this is the nature of the internet. We cannot accept responsibility for any unauthorised access or loss of personal information that's beyond our control.

How to opt-out

u. If you want to opt out of Mum & Baby notifications, alerts or messages, you may do so via the relevant prompts through the short code *117*6862# or by visiting You can choose to opt out of partner communications by sending an SMS with STOP to 30881.


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