A Discussion with Sister Jackline Mwikali Mwongela, A Sister in the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary
April 22, 2023
Background: Sister Jackline Mwikali Mwongela, IBVM, has wide experience as a Catholic sister, focused on education for girls and support for women in families. Her sharp focus is on preventing human trafficking and she works as part of the global network, Talitha Kum, both in Kenya and internationally. This discussion with Katherine Marshall in Washington, DC, during a fellowship visit explored the different dimensions of her diverse career but focused, above all, on the work to support victims of trafficking and to work through education on prevention. She brings analysis and stories that give life to the challenges that take multiple forms in Kenya and other countries in the region.
The discussion with Sister Jackline forms part of a series of exchanges with the sisters participating in the Women in Faith Leadership Fellowship. The fellowship works to amplify the visibility, vitality, and voice of Catholic sisters in responding to the complex challenges and opportunities faced by women religious leaders within their organizations and communities. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Joint Learning Initiative on Faith & Local Communities, the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, and the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University have collaborated in the design and delivery of the Women in Faith Leadership Fellowship. Funding was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Sister Jackline is a fellow in the inaugural cohort, and this discussion forms part of a series of exchanges with the sisters in that context.
Sister Jackline’s thoughts on trafficking and the work of religious women:
The prayer life is a journey linked to the work I’m doing.
When we talk of the work we do, especially against human trafficking in Kenya, apart from the four “P’s”—prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnership—we have a fifth “P,” which is prayer. We pray for our victim, we accompany them in prayers, pray for the conversion of the perpetrators. Prayer is part and parcel of this kind of work.
I must tell you that fighting trafficking is a risky and insecure job in Kenya. I thank God that myself and a few sisters have the courage to talk about it openly, without fear. What I can say is that education is the main key, because as long as people are educated in the community about what is human trafficking, they will make the choices by themselves. It’s not a matter of telling them, “Do not do this. Do not do this.” We just tell them what is it, educate them about it, and let them make right choices.
Empowerment in a community comes about when the people have the right information and are aware of where to seek help.
We are many of us. Because we are working in a network within the Church (Talitha Kum International), we have synergy, and I’m able to know networks across the continent.
Our jobs are insecure. We face dilemmas, but the idea is to keep going. We will not keep quiet.
Please tell me about your journey. How did you become a sister?
I’m Jackline Mwongela, a Loreto sister. I’m a firstborn in a family of four. I’m the only daughter in my home. I was born in Makueni County, Kenya.
How did you know about sisters? Did you go to Catholic schools?
No. I just saw them when I was a child in church. My mother was Catholic. I was not a church-going person, but when I went to church, I used to see a sister handling us well. When we went to the dispensary, she was welcoming and efficient. That’s how I came to want to be a sister. My father is from another denomination, but he supported Catholicism. When I grew up and became an adult, I went for catechism. That is when I explored life, and I felt like this was my calling.
After college and working, I felt it was time to join religious life. I was an adult when I joined, 24 years old. This was after a time of prayer and discernment. I considered some of the work I had done, mostly with people in the community, in choosing which congregation to join. I felt I needed a congregation which did not wear veils and habits so that I can feel close to people. Luckily, I found one. I found the Loreto Sisters and was happy to join them. The life of the foundress Mary Ward was a real motivation in becoming a Loreto: the passion and zeal for justice, freedom, and empowerment of a girl child and women through education. Back in the sixteenth century, she believed that women in time to come would do great things.
Since I’ve joined them, I’ve been a happy person. I’m happy with the life and what it has, a full package. It was, though, a big challenge for me to adjust in the life, because I was working and had an independent life. When I joined, I found that we have the vow of obedience whereby you have to inform what you’re doing and abide by what the constitution says. We also have the vow of poverty and not earning every month. It took me a little bit of time to adjust, but I felt settled after some time. I serve in freedom and love to the people of God. That’s what I can say about myself.
What did you study?
I studied project management, community-based development, and sustainable human development.
Where are you living and working now?
I’m living in Nairobi, in a community of sisters, at Kangemi, but working at our offices at Tumaini Centre where the Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya are hosting us.
How many Loreto Sisters are there in Kenya?
We have many Loretos in Kenya. First and foremost, Loreto Sisters were founded in England in 1585 by a lady known as Mary Ward. Our charism is propagation of faith through education. We are well-known for education internationally. When they came in Kenya in 1921, they started schools. We celebrated 100 years just a year ago. Wherever we went, we started missions of schools. People know us in Kenya as educators, especially for a girl child. They changed over time and opened other ministries such as social work, counseling, spiritual direction, and fighting against female genital mutilation. We work with people at the grassroots where we live to bring about transformation.
How did you get into trafficking? Was it through your being part of it, or did you come to it before?
I became involved while I was at university: Tangaza University College. During my practicum, I was introduced to it by one of our elderly sisters, Sister Caitriona Kelly. Our congregation is well known for working to counter human trafficking, but in Kenya we were not so involved in the year 2017. She told me we could go and listen to what they did. When I went, I found an interest in it, and I saw this as part of what I’d love to do. I started working in the slums, just teaching young children what is human trafficking. I was involved through my practicum. Then as a religious sister, I needed to have an apostolate. Apart from the mission I had, I needed to reach out to vulnerable people. I found this as an outreach, so I treated it with love. The congregation leadership supported me in this. I used to go especially to a slum known as Kuwinda, teaching the vulnerable children with some of my colleagues in university. I drew passion and just started telling them what human trafficking is.
People working there in the group of the religious against human trafficking introduced me to Talitha Kum International. That is a group of sisters, religious people, and laypeople in the Church working just to fight against human trafficking. In the year 2019, because of the passion they had seen in me, they told me that I should represent them in Rome. I went to the international conference of Talitha Kum. It was a good experience for me. I found other sisters who are also passionate about human trafficking. Talitha Kum took me to a leadership course in 2020 from which I gained more knowledge in this field. We are mostly engaged in the prevention and protection part of anti-human trafficking.
In the year 2020, the Hilton Foundation saw the need of supporting religious people in Kenya in anti-human trafficking. Through our Religious Against Human Trafficking coordinator known as Sister Laura P. Llanes, we received a grant through the Hilton Foundation. We have had offices since last year at Tumaini Centre. We are hosted by the Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya and the Religious Superiors Conference of Kenya. We started more activities and grassroots outreach, and we are now traveling across the country, every place in Kenya, in the 25 Catholic dioceses.
We don’t work only with Catholics—we work with religious people of any denomination. We rescue victims within and outside Kenya. We do have a critical program to rescue people through partnerships, including the Directorate of Criminal Investigation, the counter-human trafficking in persons secretariat. We have created a network and partnerships that enhance our ability to reach out to many people.
What is the nature of trafficking within Kenya? Are you mostly focusing on women?
People are trafficked to urban centers for labor and forced begging, including sex trafficking and organ removal. There is every kind of trafficking, but we find that most people trafficked since we started this work are women and girls. The nature is complex since Kenya is an origin, transit, and destination for human trafficking.
We find that there is a lot of migration within the country. People are looking for greener pastures, especially the youths. We have push and pull factors, and poverty is one factor why people are moving from rural areas to urban areas just looking for jobs. And that’s how they find themselves trapped. Others sell their own children because they don’t have money and what have you. When they hear of any source of income, they are able to give up their own children to have money.
Who buys children?
Just people in need of exploiting the young. The issue of “house help” from rural to urban centers in Nairobi has fueled this process. Girls below 18 years of age are forced to leave school and go for domestic work. We had a case in Kajiado where a woman just gave away her child: “I’ll give you some amount of money and I’ll take your child to go and do this for me, after which I will enroll her for school.” That is a case we have encountered because of the situation where parents, maybe because of ignorance and the vulnerability of their situation, find themselves so trapped that they give up their children, even without knowing what are the repercussions of what they are doing. Sometimes they have to sign documents, but they’re not educated; they don’t know what they’re signing for.
Our work is to rescue. We reconcile the child with the parents and unite them for a new beginning. We sometimes help them with a business so that when this child goes back, they’ll be able to meet their needs.
That’s the rescue within Kenya?
Before I came, we rescued six Burundians who had been trafficked into Kenya. They were told, “We are going to look for jobs for you in other countries, but we’ll go to Kenya so that we can connect you.” So they came. But then they were locked up. They were youths and 15 of them were locked in one single room, young men and ladies, in their twenties, locked together in a room. But we managed to rescue six of them and repatriated them back to their country through the help of government.
We use a victim-centered approach as we engage them. Support in education and business start-ups, including grants.
Is it more men or women that you are working with?
Last year we rescued 51, just women, within Kenya. We had one Ugandan, but we rescued her from Northern Kenya. We repatriated her back to Uganda. We have also rescued more than 20 young women from Gulf States. We have partnered with organizations in the Gulf States so that when we find cases of human trafficking, we take them to hospitals and safe houses for psychological support. We have a free toll line which helps them reach out.
Is that through the Hilton Project?
Yes. Now that we have the resources, we are reaching out to many in a big way, creating an impact in the local communities through networking. This is through social media, information, education, and communication materials, as well as through training of trainers, awareness campaigns at the parish levels, small Christian communities, the Nyumba Kumi Initiative, border points, and other areas. We have gatekeepers who make it easy for us to reach the community. We are grateful for the Hilton Foundation.
Do you have a center? Are there different places in Kenya?
In Kenya, a challenge is that we don’t have a safe house as Talitha Kum Kenya. Instead, we partner with NGOs that have gender-based violence safe houses. There are not many and some are not up to our standards, but we have to work with them because that’s what is available for us. We keep our survivors there for some time. We would love one day to have a rescue safe house for us sisters that meets the standards in terms of sanitation, professionalism, and security. We don’t have finances so we have to work with what is there. It’s a big challenge in Kenya. Even the government doesn’t have a safe house.
A woman who’s been beaten by her husband and runs away is a bit different from someone who’s trafficked, though they both could come from the same community. They’re both desperate.
The needs for human trafficking are different from the needs for gender-based violence, but because we lack safe houses, we have to place them in a gender-based violence place, even when they should be in a safe house which caters to the human trafficking needs. That’s the dilemma. It’s a gap we have identified.
How much discussion is there about trafficking in Kenya? Is it recognized or is there stigma? Do you find it easy to work?
The issue of human trafficking is well-known in Kenya. How can I say? We have good laws in Kenya, but something is not working well. We’ve gone in media houses to amplify the issue. We have partnered with like-minded organizations.
We have the Counter Trafficking in Persons Act whereby the perpetrator needs to be arrested, but rarely do we get arrests of traffickers. Much needs to be addressed.
As the Church, what is the attitude and the link?
The Church is supportive. Pope Francis says that “human trafficking is an open wound in the body of Christ, in the body of all humanity, it is a deep wound that also affects each one of us.” We have Santa Marta, a group of bishops and police working within the church structure on ending human trafficking. I’m a Loreto Sister, and there are other sisters in Talitha Kum International, different congregations and networks working in ending modern slavery. It is a combined effort, but even in these efforts you’d find that it’s not easy. We are struggling. We are fighting against human trafficking as different entities, but it’s not stopping.
What’s the struggle? The struggle is that the problem is too big?
I would say the main challenge is that we are not addressing the grassroots of this challenge called human trafficking. We are addressing its effects, which is an actual need, but there’s a big challenge of looking at how the root causes are to be addressed. If that is done, then I think we can talk of zero human trafficking, in Africa and in the world.
How much is sex trafficking, and how much is labor?
I can say that the business of sex trafficking is larger. The traffickers are addicted to the income they get out of this inhuman business. Some of the sex trafficking victims, we have interrogated, are really misused, with more than seven men in a day. They victims are not paid, the women sleep with different men within a day, most of them are under drug influence.
So it’s very lucrative.
So lucrative. They earn lots of money. The workers earn essentially nothing. It is traumatizing to the person to such a point that when they come out of the situation, they are permanently harmed. We journey with them for physical and psychological healing.
So it’s both the sex trafficking and the labor, and sometimes they blur.
Sex trafficking is more prone to girls and women while labor trafficking follows.
Do you see yourself continuing to do this kind of work?
Yes. For me, it’s my passion and I’m happy, first because my leaders, my superiors have supported it, and it’s part of our mission as a congregation. I’m willing to do it until the congregation tells me, “No, Jackie. It is time to do something else.” I love doing it.
I love advocating for women’s rights because I’m also a safeguarding officer. Human trafficking is an exploitation of human rights and child rights, so it’s part and parcel for me of educating people about what are their rights are, to assure that they are not violated, that they stand up for their rights, and where to report abuses. Many do not know their rights, and they don’t know where to report problems.
But that’s not easy, including in Kenya.
It is not easy in our culture. It can be a challenge because some in the community will not allow you to address the discordance. But I have not found a community which does not allow us to move. We are making efforts, not only us religious but other organizations. Organizations agree that we are doing well in addressing the crisis levels, educating people to understand better what abuse is. Because some women are battered and say that "when a man loves me, he has to beat me." It’s so strange because their rights have been violated, but they’re content. It’s part of the tradition. The main challenge is educating these people to understand it. It will take years. I’m assuring you it’s not a one-day job, but we accept because transformation is a process. We will continue advocating for it until we find it makes sense to them. That’s what I tell myself. I’ll keep talking about it until it resonates and makes sense to the person and they get to understand that.
It's exciting and important work, working to build these networks, but also, as you say, to go to the basic causes.
Since we started, we’ve seen some impact, we went to a refugee camp, Kakuma. They didn’t know what human trafficking is. We taught them. Three months after we left, they managed to rescue several children. Children have been disappearing in camp. The children were rescued at the border of Ethiopia. A person was going to make them work in Ethiopia. They rescued 24 boys who were being trafficked. The good thing is that they were able to arrest the trafficker. The people in the camp have started rescuing their own children. That’s how powerful it is when people are educated and enlightened. They found that the trafficker is one among them in the camp who has been selling their boys for work in Ethiopia. This is a powerful story to show you that when the people in the community have the education, they are able to work for themselves, even without our intervention. By the end of the year, they were able to rescue around 40 young children being trafficked to other countries.
Many girls and young Ugandans, Karamajong, are here in Kenya trafficked for cheap labor. We’ll find them in the streets of Nairobi. We have a lot of challenged children, from Tanzania who are trafficked to Kenya for forced begging. An organization we work closely with tried to repatriate them back, but they came back again, because the root cause that made them come still exists. We are training the border police units in the dynamics of human trafficking so that they can maintain the border points free from human trafficking.