Juliana Robyn, Building Resilient Communities: Juliana's Journey Against Child Exploitation

Welcome to another enlightening episode of the Free to Fly podcast! Whether you’re a longtime member of our community or a newcomer, we’re thrilled to have you here.

For those just joining us, a special welcome! At Free To Fly, we’re more than just a podcast – we’re a dedicated counter child trafficking organization based in South Africa.

In today’s episode, we’re privileged to speak with Juliana, a dedicated auxiliary social worker with over 20 years of experience. Juliana’s journey, shaped by her own experiences of abuse and hardship, offers invaluable insights into identifying signs of vulnerability of exploitation in children. Join us as she breaks down complex issues and empowers listeners to make a difference in their own communities. 

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Interviewee:             Juliana Robyn  

Interviewer:              Amanda Mhluli 

List of Acronyms:   AM: Amanda Mhluli

                                         JR: Juliana Robyn

AM:  Welcome to the Free to Fly Podcast – my name is Amanda.  Free to Fly is an anti-human trafficking organisation which specifically focuses on child trafficking.  We rescue victims of child trafficking and we are currently in the process of trying to set up a safe house for the children, so when they do come out of trafficking, they can get all the counselling and rehabilitation that they need.  Today our guest will introduce herself: who she is, how she came to work in the sphere of helping children and being a safety net for young children.

JR:  Good morning everybody, my name is Juliana Robyn.  I work as a social auxiliary worker, I work in a community close by.  I wanted to do this because I wanted to help my community better.

AM:  How did you go about becoming a social worker.

JR:  First of all, for me, it was because I myself have been a victim to abuse in the home, and domestic violence, substance abuse.  That lead me to wanting to become a social worker, or go into that field.

AM:  I heard that you work in the same community that you grew up and lived in.  What was the reason you wanted to stay in that community. Is there a particular reason why.

JR:  There is a lot of similarities between what I went through and what I am experiencing and seeing in the children that are being raised in the community.  The same things are occurring, but on a worse level, so that is the reason I wanted to stay.  I’ve been working in my community for the past 25 years now.

AM:  So, if I understand you correctly, the situations you went through as a child, you see in the children in the community, and it has got progressively worse and so that is why you are anchored so much in your community and helping the children who grow up in your community.

JR:  That’s correct.  From my side, I have been offered many other opportunities, but because I want to be part of the change that I want to see lead me to stay on in my community, because I wouldn’t’t be able to see the growth that one has worked on if I moved out.  For me, it was that I want to be part of the change.

AM:  How does being a social worker in the community that you grew up in and that you live in right now – how does that affect your day-to-day life.  How do you interact with the community.

JR:  First of all, there is a lot of sacrifices that need to be made on a personal level.  For instance, I don’t necessarily serve – I am a born again Christian – I don’t necessarily serve in my community, I serve outside of my community.  I also don’t connect with a lot of people in the community.  So, I’m kind of isolated in a way, but it’s a choice that I made.  So when I have family time, I have it outside of the community.  I wouldn’t necessarily go to a party within the community, because a lot of people know me, and they might feel that you’re discussing their matters with other people, and I might make it awkward for them.  So then I chose to do things outside of the community.

AM:  Yes, you want to provide that safety net so that there is a sense of privacy between you and the people in the community: that they also feel safe enough to come to you if there is a problem, and know that you are not going to go around and tell everybody their business.  You work in the NGO sphere.  What does your career in the NGO sphere look like.

JR:  To be quite honest with you, if you work in the NGO setup, it is not a promising thing;  it is not a life full of roses.  However, if you are called for something, there’s nothing that can change that.  So my belief is, is that a career is something you paid for, but a calling is something you were made for. Hence I don’t necessarily go for money, or the perks, – what I can get out of it.  My satisfaction and my guarantee comes from the thank you of the community – the growth that I can see:  being part of that growth, being part the change – that is more of a satisfaction to me than money and materialistic things.

AM:  So that is why you went into a n NGO sphere – you feel it’s a calling -it’s something God has called you to do, to help the people who are around you.  In your work in the NGO sphere, and in your work in the community, what signs have you seen of child exploitation and what does it look like.

JR:  You know, it can take many different forms.  It can start off with a mother exploiting her children, whether it be trying to get some money on the road, at the robots.  It can be a mother that gives her child permission to sell potatoes, or veggies for other people – and then they get a stipend – always under age of course: children not attending school doing this type of thing.  It could be a mother who is poverty stricken and is so desperate, that the only way out is for her to -indirectly – sell her children, whereby they will do something for, maybe the drug lords, or some other entity that has some sort of illegal entity and they would in return then see to it that they have bread money, that they have electricity for the day.  They are literally paying their bills – the child is doing the work. So that is the type of thing you come across – it is something which became a norm; to the child it’s actually okay, because they are also getting things out of the deal:  they would get their tackies, they would have their track pants with the Nike thingy on, maybe a cell phone.

AM:  You spoke about poverty and how families are much more vulnerable to being exploited for trafficking if they are poverty stricken.  Have you ever seen a case where a child was exploited, but in a middle income home or from a rich family.

JR:  Middle income – yes.  There’s just such a lot happening – we have a lot of these cases.  I am the person who deals with these cases first, before they are allocated – either to child protection, whether the child is in need of care and protection.  I am the first person who has contact with the family – I have the first line of communication the when it goes to the others, it becomes secondary information, so I get it from the word go.

AM:  So you’ve had cases where a child is coming, not necessarily from a poverty stricken environment, but from a middle income household.  What does that exploitation look like.

JR:  It depends on what the need is at that point in time.  Sometimes the family becomes so relaxed, – like the child in the midst of the abuse – they are okay – they are coping with it very well, because they literally have their backs against the wall: there’s no way out for them.  If they don’t have an option that they can see.  When they have their backs against the wall and there is no way other option, it’s the only way, they want to please either their parents, the community, peers, you would go that route.   Its not whether or not you have money.  If it’s a child who’s looking for a sense of belonging, or a child who’s never experienced any sort of love, – whatever that looks like to us, it might be wrong, but for them its right, because of that sense of belonging.  They just want to belong, either to the community, or to a somebody, or to be a somebody.  Or, when there’s identity crisis involved, where they feel they don’t necessarily belong to anybody – that, in return, makes them react in a way where you would now have behavioural issues: children acting out – it can lead to a lot of things.

AM:  Would you say that child in a middle-income household could have an identity crisis because their parents neglect them, or are there other issues that are in play.

JR:  You cannot pin-point it as neglect all the time.  When it becomes an identity crisis, remember that that starts in the womb already:  if the child never felt wanted from the word go, you can try and instil whatever you want to, if that connection is not there, if there’s a loss of security, wanting someone to understand me, wanting somebody to just be here for me, whatever that might look like – if they don’t get that, it could cause them to not want to be part of society.  And that has a ripple effect, of course.  It starts, I think, with a disconnect from when the child is conceived before it is born even..

AM:  As you have mentioned, you have worked in this field for over 20 years, what would you say that people who are in the NGO sector who are working against human trafficking, child trafficking and exploitation, – what would you say is the main focus that they would need to focus on.

JR:  I think we – organisations, or private – I think we need to focus on family strengthening – on programmes where we can strengthen the family, because remember, the best option is to not remove the child from the home, from the family, because there is some sort of attachment which you will never be able to break.  Whether you place the child somewhere, or whatever, its not necessarily going to solve the problem.  You’re taking the problem to where you place the child.  You need to work on family strengthening and have an holistic approach around the family when you intervene.  Family strengthening, for me, is a very vital component in all of this.

AM:  So, as you are saying, family is a very vital component – how would you advise families today in order for them to not miss the signs.  What signs would you tell them to look out for in their children in order to ensure they are not being exploited.  What signs can they look for to identify whether or not the child is being exploited.

JR:  So its not just a case of looking for signs – it starts off with what have you set in place, what have you put in your child’s “backpack”.  So if you have taught your child how to keep yourself safe, this is what you’re worth, this is what you won’t go for, this is what you won’t accept in life, that child would know, when it goes out there, this is something that is not going to be a part of me – I’m not going to accept this.  If that child, first of all receives love and affirmation – it doesn’t need to get it from anybody else – it needs to get it from the parents.  If you are certain, and sure that you’ve given that, ,you’ve taught that child – their ‘backpack’ is packed – and they go out, they are able to face the world.  You don’t need to have a worry.  But, the same child – if you feel worried about it, will come back to you and say Mama, I feel uncomfortable about that.  So, if you can create that space for your child, you will have a child that will always be able to come back to you and say, this is not sitting very well with me.

AM:  There’s a trust and a bond. 

JR:  Yes.

AM:  As someone who has worked in this field for such a long time, have you seen any changes that social media has made in the exploitation industry.

JR:  I always look at advertisements on TV.  Then you would see the person needs to be skinny, slim.  That puts a child directly into another identity crisis:  where do I fit in, where do I belong.  Personally – adverts like that removes the child out of society, because the child is not fitting in.  I have a saying – you were born to stand out, not to fit in.  So if children, with that identity crisis, are being influenced by social media: that is what it needs to look like, and if I don’t fit that criteria, I obviously won’t be part of my community.  That is a sad thing for me.  That is what I have been experiencing: you need to have a certain level of either education, you need to look like this, you need to act like this, – in a certain way – , or you have to have whatever materialistic things there is, then you will be accepted.  That is the sad thing for me.

AM:  So, media influences what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and plays a huge role in how a child identifies themselves within themselves.

JR:  Correct.  For me personally, even though I have been through abuse and neglect, – not to the extent where I have been on the road, – but, – and remember what we see now as abuse wouldn’t necessarily have been abuse at that time, it wasn’t abuse, it was just them spanking us.  If I look at that now, you can see there is history repeating itself.  It is a generational thing – history that is just repeating itself.  Parents, at that time maybe, hadn’t dealt with their issues, in return, its spilling over on the kids.  In return, it will spill over on the peers – whoever you get into contact with.  And, that is what’s happening in our community.

AM:  So what does human trafficking look like in your community.  How do you identify it.

JR:  When you look at the words human trafficking, people mustn’t think it has to do with cars – with someone driving off with you.   It’s a mind game.  It starts off with building a relationship with the child, grooming the child, making the child comfortable, setting rapport.  So, there is a very long process before you even get to the actual human trafficking taking place.  It is not just something where a child is being vehicle out of a community – it can happen within the home, where the child is being exploited to somebody else’s benefit, whether it be the mother, the brother, the community.  It starts off with exploitation of the child.

AM:  What kinds of human trafficking have you seen, have you come across.

JR:  Mostly, the selling of things under a certain age, the poverty-stricken thing where the child is being exploited and being used to the benefit of the parents, where there is an income they can have on a daily basis.  Imagine, someone can sort out my electricity, there’s bread on my table, there’s food for my kids, there’s Christmas clothes for them, – they’re sorted, I can manage this.  Drugs, drugs.  Drugs.is the main contributing factor to the success of it all.  The drugs get sold, they get distributed, – you either get paid with drugs and some sort of money thing, – I pay your bills, or just money, -it can take different forms.

AM:  Now that you’re speaking of drugs, I heard something disturbing the other day about how these drug lords get young children addicted to their drugs so they ensure there is a customer there.  Have you ever come across such cases withing your community.

JR:  Ja.  Shockingly, we have children that are between the ages of 10 an 11 that are on mandrax already – full on.  What starts off with the vaping, whatever, then they mix either some substance, like dagga we call it pot. They will mix other things with it, and they would put some flavour in it, and that is how  – they smoke through these things, and you don’t think . . .  – You get cherry flavours, you buy these  pipes at the R5 shops, or the Chinese shops – the smoke through these things and with the flavours, you don’t smell the dagga, you don’t smell the other stuff, you just smell the flavour, and they get intoxicated.

AM:  This is 10 and 11 year olds/.

JR:  Correct.  That is something which is very alarming to us – it is something which has become the norm.in our schools.  It is very scary.  It starts off with that though.  Obviously we know, me also, having some insight on substance abuse with some history on and around that, we obviously know, your drug intake will determine your next level of dependency.  It starts off with that – it might even start off with a cigarette; from the nicotine . . . something stronger . . .  something stronger which leads into something that will get a name now –

AM:  Like a bigger drug – even cocaine, maybe.

JR:  That is correct.  And our teenagers are abusing these type of things, as we speak.

AM:  I this both genders – male and female.

JR:  Yes. Both.

AM:  Have you every had cases that were brought to court, that went to trial and prosecuted by the courts in relation to human trafficking.

JR:  Because of a co-dependency on either the drug lord, or the person that is exploiting them and their families, they don’t necessarily come forward.  It is not always the case where you can interview a child without the parent’s permission.  It is not always the case where you are successful.  You cannot probe with leading questions where you are going to lead the child to telling you stuff.  It starts off with things, and sometimes it just ends in the middle of nowhere.  The child maybe changes his testimony or what he said prior to that, you cannot now probe, wanting to force information our of the child.  So maybe it starts off with something, but it can end up with nothing at the end of the day because the child is not wanting to divulge any information.  So, no, we haven’t taken stuff to court pertaining to that.

AM:  Just lastly, for our listeners who are in the community, – this might not be happening to them, in their house, – what advice would you give then to help a family that they see may be struggling.  What advice would you give them to maybe identify such cases within their community and how should they go about helping people in these situations.

JR:  I am currently running a programme called ‘I am the child ‘ .  So that is my approach, where my organisation approaches all the pre-schools, the schools, churches, leaders in the community working with children.  I had this training going, which I’m very excited about.  If you can train the trainer, it will have a ripple effect.  If you can train that person, they will be able to identify which child needs protection, which family needs help. So that is what we are busy doing now: for people to look out for the children. In return, get somebody you can trust, like your boss, for the child it would be his teachers, it would be his coach.  Get somebody that you can trust.  Trust that person and share with that person what is happening.  God willing, if that person has been trained, they will be able to identify this is a matter for me to take forward.

AM:  Thank you very much Mrs. Julie.  Thank you for your wisdom, your time that you made for us today.  Do you have any parting words for our listeners.

JR:   What I would like to say is, start of with one child at a time.  If you can change the mindset of one child, you will be able to change the nation: it will have a ripple effect. Like a little stone – throw it into the water, and it will have a ripple effect.  It doesn’t start off with you necessarily, it starts off with your heart – what you’re all about, what is your intention, is this a passion of yours, what do you want to get out of this. So if you can go into it with a mindset that you’re wanting to help, and you’re wanting to be part of the change that you want to see in this world, it can have an amazing impact – it can make the world such a better place.  That is where I stand – I don’t just want to talk about the change and what I would like to see, I want to be part of the change that I want to see – hence I’m doing what I’m doing.

AM:  Thank you again Mrs. Julie for your time and your effort that you made today.  Thank you once again to you, our listeners who have stayed and listened to us.  I pray that you take Mrs. Julie’s words to heart and not only want and wish to see the change, but be part of the change and making sure that you are involved in organisations that are there to help uplift, educate and bring up the community in a healthy environment.  So I encourage you all to please go out there, join, help – there is someone that is out there who does need your help.

Thank you once again for listening to our Free to Fly podcast.  Have a blessed day further.

Ending: Dear friends and key stakeholders, thank you for joining us on today’s podcast. Our aim and heart for these podcasts are to bring awareness on human trafficking. To highlight the atrocity this crime is to humanity. A reminder that human trafficking is a multi- billion Dollar industry, which is sadly the fastest growing worldwide and second biggest crime after drugs. It is far more organized than many care to believe.

Our aim of the podcasts is to bring clarity and understanding of what exactly what human trafficking is and how it impacts victims, survivors. We hope to highlight the roles of various stakeholders and how we can all be part of the solution and bringing an end to what we know as modern-day slavery.

We invite you to join hands in fighting against human trafficking, follow us on our social media pages: @freetofly.org.za on Instagram and on Face Book, @freefly.org.za. Do check our website out and sign up to be a volunteer or donate towards the building and running of our safe house for children who have come out of human trafficking. All details will be put in the link below or our last slide.

For those of you who do not know, Free To Fly, are an organization that is currently starting up one of the first safe houses for children who have been rescued from human trafficking in South Africa. We will be offering a home that will provide a space to heal, recover and be set up to be free to fly. Please follow our journey on our website.

Till next time, take care and be sure to share and listen out for the next podcast. Thanks friends!

Free To Fly can`t be held liable about the content and views of our podcast guests.