William is a 14-year-old orphan from Uganda. After his parents died, his mother’s relatives took him in to live with them in Kampala. They paid for him to go to school and provided him with room and board. In return, he worked for the family. He fetched water, cleaned the house, looked after the younger children and cooked the meals. Sometimes, if he made a mistake his uncle would beat him the way a parent often beats his child. He was not paid in money for his work and he never had a day off, but he felt blessed – many families in Uganda took in orphans in this same way, but there were many orphans left without homes and without the chance of going to school.

One day, an exciting opportunity presented itself. The family’s neighbors were going to Geneva to work at the World Health Organization. They wanted someone to work for them, and they knew that William was hardworking and wanted to pursue his dream of going to university. They promised that if he came, they would send him to school and feed and clothe him better than in Uganda. He decided to go.

When he arrived in Geneva, the father took his passport to keep it safe and showed him where he would be sleeping – on the floor of a small room behind the kitchen. The family explained it was too late for him to go to school this year because they had arrived after the school year began. They said it was not safe for him to leave the house alone, and he should only go out with the family to church. His work was easier than it was in Uganda – he did not have to fetch water because there was running water. The family had a dishwasher, a washing machine, a vacuum cleaner. The mother shopped for food herself so all he had to do was prepare it. But William felt lonely and afraid of his new family. They were quick to beat him and he felt that he made many more mistakes here than in Uganda. He thought he just needed to learn the ways of this new country. He waited and waited, hoping to start school soon.

One day the next-door neighbor saw William sweeping the back patio. She noticed bruises on his arms and a swollen eye. She asked him his age and why he wasn’t in school. William explained. Two days later, there was a knock on the door. It was a white, Swiss woman who spoke to him in English. She explained she was from an anti-slavery organization and she was here to help. She asked questions and explained that his neighbor was worried about him and believed he might be a slave. She offered to take him with her but he decided to stay. She gave him her card.

The next Sunday, William found a moment to tell his pastor what happened and seek his advice. The next day, the pastor took William to the woman’s office. William sat quietly as the pastor confronted her: “This boy is working to further his education. He is an orphan and the family that brought him here are good people, giving him an opportunity. In our culture, this is what we do for each other. We take orphans if we have the means. We all look out for one another, even if we cannot pay to send all of these children to school. And you come here telling this boy that he is a SLAVE? This is cultural imperialism. You are imposing your own values on this child and on this situation. Leave him and his good family alone.”

– From Assisting Survivors of Human Trafficking

Is William a slave? Certainly his conditions violate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. His treatment is illegal in Switzerland. His situation would come under the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons.

But for William, his conditions are normal. This treatment of orphans is so
widespread in his home country that it is lauded as an admirable, charitable Christian act to take in an orphan in this way. In Uganda, and many parts of the world, families simply do not have enough money to send all children of a family to school. They are forced to choose the brightest and most promising. There is more housework to be done, many mouths to feed. Due to diseases such as AIDS, malaria and typhoid, poor access to adequate healthcare, and armed conflict, orphans abound. There are not the institutional mechanisms to care for them all. So distant relatives take in the sons and daughters of their cousins or siblings or nieces.

Orphans feel indebted to the families who take them in. It is common for
children to not be in school, to work without pay, to sleep on the floor. And these dynamics are deeply interwoven into the fabric of society. Working families rely on the household help of children; the government relies on working families to house orphans. Orphans rely on the “charity” of wealthier families.

Of course, there are child advocates in Uganda and elsewhere who are
challenging the status quo. And anti-slavery organizations who are trying to help. The question is, in a situation like William’s what is the most effective approach?

Cultural competence is not cultural relativism. William, and any child, has the right to go to school, live free from violence and exploitation, and be treated with dignity. But approaching this issue from only a rights perspective may cause more harm than good. If the family is penalized, if charges are brought, if William is removed from the home, William may find himself in a worse situation than he is in currently. It may result in William being returned to Uganda, shame on his adoptive family back home, and a limit to William’s prospects in the future.

So how might the anti-slavery organization handle this? First, the family needs to be made aware that they are breaking the law. They may know this, but they may not. The pastor is another entry point. He can be gently brought on board not only by informing him of the law but asking his advice on the best way to ensure that William gets to school and is not beaten. Collaboration with the church is likely to offer up increased access to more children who may be in similar situations. The church can also play a critical role in reducing William’s isolation and may be able to prevent future exploitation as well.

In dismantling trafficking we need the laws and the conventions and the lobbies. But in the particular, these become very blunt tools that risk doing more harm than good. Along with the power of the law, we need the soft skills of empathy and cultural insight to strategically disentangle children from slavery.