A young woman, who 10 years ago was forced into child labour and sexual exploitation, is opening her own catering business inspiring other trafficking survivors in Sierra Leone.

Augusta Ngombu-Gboli found refuge in a shelter run by the Salesians of Don Bosco, who provided her with medical treatment, food, skills-training and education.

Like her, there are thousands more girls in prostitution, a number that has grown since the Ebola outbreak.

Together with Fr Jorge Crisafulli, who runs the service at the Don Bosco Fambul shelter for exploited girls in Sierra Leone, Ms Ngombu-Gboli was in Malta for the third edition of the Lost in Migration Conference, organised by the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society and Missing Children Europe.

The sexual exploitation of girls is one of the issues that lead to forced migration towards Europe. But the Salesians’ work with these girls helps them realise that there is a future in their home country. 

Fr Crisafulli believes that bettering the situation of children in countries of origin, and reaching out to families and traditional leaders, could help resolve the problem of trafficking.

The sexual exploitation of teenage girls is most likely when they have few other options, if any, for their future.  Originating from a rural area, Ms Ngombu-Gboli was 12 when she was told to go to the city for schooling.

Instead of receiving an education, she was forced into child labour, selling water on the streets. She escaped following a sexual abuse attempt and ended up on the streets until she met the Salesians. 

Then 13, she was immediately treated for any diseases she had contracted as a result of sexual exploitation and eventually started taking part in a new programme for girls like her, as a skills teacher.  She is passing on her catering skills to other survivors and will soon open up her own restaurant. 

“I had nothing and no one until I met the Salesians, who actually asked me what I really wanted to do in life.

Following the Ebola outbreak, the number of girls on the street increased

“They then provided the necessary education and I have just completed a catering course… I’m now trying to empower other girls. I hope that when they look at me they realise that their future could be bright – if I did it, so can they.”

For Fr Crisafulli, the best thing about Ms Ngombu-Gboli’s involvement in the Girls Shelter Plus programme is that she understands the girls as no one else can.

The Salesians are now taking care of 356 girls, out of 2,500 who are in prostitution in the area. 

They form part of a specific programme that kicked off in July of 2017 – with the youngest aged nine and the eldest 17.  The girls are provided with a general medical check-up and specific treatment, psycho-social support, food, clothing, the possibility of family reunification, and empowerment through education and skills-training.

“Following the Ebola outbreak, the number of girls on the street increased as many ended up orphans. Some were taken in by traditional foster families, but were discriminated against and instead of being sent to school, they ended up victims of child labour. 

Fr Crisafulli explained that the empowerment and shelter programme was “a stone in the shoes of traffickers”, who have even threatened the Salesians with their lives. 

The threats will, however, not put any spokes in their wheels. Fr Crisafulli said that even police officers have persecuted the girls, some exchanging sex for freedom.

“When we got to know this from the girls’ own testimonies, we documented their ordeal in a film called Love, which shows the struggle of these girls on the streets.”

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