I was brought to the United States to work in the household of a diplomat from my home country, Malawi. I grew up in a poor village without electricity or running water. I suffered abuse since childhood and was in an abusive relationship as a teenager. There was little hope for a better life. So when this family promised me an opportunity in the United States, and told me I could get an education while I was there and money to help my family back home, I was so very excited. I was going to break out of poverty and help support others in my village. When we got here though, nothing was what I had been promised.
My employer took away my passport, locked me in the house and disconnected the phone whenever she left home. I was made to sleep on the basement floor. I was so isolated from the outside world that I had no idea there was help available.
I worked all the time – literally all the time. I cared for children and cleaned and did all manner of household chores. My employer would allow her friends and colleagues to come over and bring their children and I was to care for them as well. She yelled at me constantly and was physically abusive.
On top of this, she married a man who owned a commercial cleaning business and I was put to work for him too. In the middle of the night I was taken to businesses and office buildings to clean carpets using heavy machinery. I worked all night then was returned to my employers home to work some more.
For all this, I was paid less than 40 cents an hour. I was used, like a piece of clothing you wear, like I was not a person. Everything was a nightmare, like a horror movie -except at a horror movie you can see what was happening. But for me, it was happening behind the door, so no one knew. I became physically sick. I thought I was going to die, here, all alone, and my family would never know. I thought she would just throw my body out and no one would ever find out what happened to me.
Some people ask then why I didn’t leave. Well there were very real physical concerns. I had no money, no passport, and I didn’t know anyone. I did not speak English well. But also I know now it is because of what I went through as a child. I did not really fully know that this was not normal, that a person should not be treated this way. I certainly did not know what trafficking was.
Finally though, I knew I had to get out. I think the final push was when I overheard my trafficker bragging about how she had made me sign a contract, in English, which I did not know how to read at the time. She told me when I was signing that she was going to pay me $980 a month. She was proud of this trick.
I had found my passport once when I was cleaning so I knew I could get it. I slept in the basement and could hear the garage door opening and closing so I knew when I was alone and it was safe to leave. I threw a few things I had into a trash bag, grabbed my passport and left. I went to someone’s home who I knew slightly who was also in the diplomatic community. She helped me to find a job with another family, which was good but I was so worn down that I got very sick. I had to be hospitalized and – I don’t know how this happened – my trafficker was actually allowed to come see me in the hospital. Eventually I got well enough to leave but I still struggled emotionally, physically and financially. Physical escape was only one step on the journey to freedom.
It took a lot of work and time to find a safe, supportive place to live and the help I needed. I had a lawyer and she helped very much as well. I learned English, mostly from watching cartoons and television shows! Today I am working, I am advocating for survivors of human trafficking, and I am studying to become a nurse. I am healing and I want to help others to do the same.
– Fainess Lipenga
Ms. Lipenga has consulted extensively in the anti-human trafficking field, fighting to ensure survivor voices are heard and survivor leadership is central to the work being done. She is the recipient of the Justice for Victims of Crime Award from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Washington, D.C. and is a certified nursing assistant.