Jackson woman fighting child-sex trade in Africa

“Jackson native Lauren Edens, a 25-year-old Ole Miss graduate, quit her accounting job with Blue Cross Blue Shield in 2008 to move to Tanzania to help children caught up in child-sex trafficking.”

Lauren Edens was looking for adventure — not a calling — when she started searching for something exciting to do after graduating from the University of Mississippi.

A year later, Edens, a Jackson native, quit her job as an accountant for Blue Cross Blue Shield to go live and work in the African nation of Tanzania. Her mission: to help rescue children from the sex-trafficking industry.

After more than a year abroad, Edens is back in America to visit family and raise money for a group home where former child prostitutes can live and recover a semblance of their innocence.

“I feel more fulfilled than I ever felt here,” Edens, 25, said of her time in Africa. “When I was here, I was really restless.”

Two years ago as she neared graduation, that restlessness and the thought of a Christian mission had her searching for adventure. So, she Googled it. She searched the words “adventure,” “mission” and “Africa” and hooked up with Adventures in Mission, a nonprofit that sent her for four months to a camp near a garbage dump in Swaziland.

There, she worked with children. The experience ignited a tiny flame of indignation in Edens as she discovered how poverty and child-sex trafficking are interwoven in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the camp, families on the brink of starvation often sacrificed one child to prostitution for the income they could provide. It was devastating to Edens.

“From 6 years old up to 10 and 12 years, they had all had sex before, either to get food for their family or because they saw everybody else doing that,” she said. “I had never heard anything about that before.”

It was so hard to accept that Edens said she shut it out, finished the mission trip and returned to Jackson, where her new accountant job and life awaited.

“I came back home thinking I would get a job and just slip right back into the life of a 20-something,” she said. “But I just didn’t feel fulfilled here or comfortable here. Knowing the reality there, it was hard to live this way.”

Last year, Jenny Williamson, a family friend and the founder of the small California nonprofit Courage To Be You, took her on a planned three-week mission to Tanzania. Edens quit her job, packed her bags and has never looked back.

“I decided just to move there. Permanently,” she said.

Williamson, whose nonprofit works with young people lured into the sex trade both in the United States and Africa, said it’s easy to be impressed with Edens.

“She went alone, by herself, with no support and no strategic plan. She is amazing,” Williamson said of the Terry High School graduate.

Edens, a member of The Journey church in Jackson, is the sixth of seven children of Buddy and Elaine Edens. Her father said the news of his daughter’s decision caught him off guard.

“I knew that she had a call from God on her life, but I sure didn’t expect her to come to me and say, ‘I’m going to be a missionary and I’m going to Africa,’ ” he said.

“I told her, ‘I don’t want you to go to Africa.’ ”

Buddy Edens said he naturally was concerned about the danger in the work she wanted to pursue. “When you deal with that kind of thing (child prostitution), you deal with organized crime,” he said.

Since then, he has been impressed with his daughter’s independence and the strength of her faith. In an e-mail back home to friends and family, Edens drew comparisons to the Old Testament story of the Israelites’ search for the Promised Land.

“I know these children, these kids that are enslaved in prostitution; they are chosen by the Lord,” she wrote. “They are created to do great things. So the Lord is going to deliver them, just as he delivered the Israelites.”

While back in the U.S., Edens is trying to raise about $100,000 – $65,000 for the operating expenses for the house, $20,000 toward the purchase of a car and $15,000 for her personal living expenses for the year.

Tanzania is among the world’s most impoverished countries, and like many sub-Saharan countries, its government lacks the resources to attack child-sex trafficking. Earlier this year, the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime reported a large and complex web of human trafficking in Africa, both for prostitution and manual labor.

Edens said families often do not understand what is happening with their child.

“It’s a lot more organized. People go out into the villages and say, ‘We have a job for your daughter in town.’ So they send their daughter thinking she will be a house girl or something like that and she gets involved in prostitution,” she said.

Once trapped, it is hard for the children to get away.

“Once you are in that lifestyle, you are not respected by society anymore, so they begin to think they are not worth more than the $2 to $5 it costs for a night with them,” she said.

Joy Ezeilo, the special rapporteur on human trafficking for the U.N., said the continent provides everything the slave trade needs to thrive.

“Look at Africa,” she told the U.N.-sponsored magazine Africa Renewal in an interview this fall. “You have poverty, wars and political crises, bad governance, discrimination against women, inequality, a lack of education and illiteracy. These make people vulnerable, and the traffickers exploit them.”

There are not a lot of data about child prostitution in Tanzania. While prostitution is outlawed, the country did not have a specific law against human trafficking until last year, according to the U.N. report.

Edens approached the problem directly by finding out where the brothels were located and introducing herself. Not that she could have taken a less direct approach.

“A white girl on a scooter … kind of stands out,” she said.

Speaking in basic Swahili, Edens said she began talking and visiting with the children, playing games with them and telling them stories from the Bible. Every so often, she said, one of the girls would be called away.

The reality was heartbreaking, but without a more permanent solution, there was little she could do. The government does not have a mechanism in place for rehabilitating children rescued from the brothels, she said.

The group home she hopes to provide will be part of that solution, she said.
Additional Facts
how to help

Lauren Edens is raising money to support her work in Tanzania, including her living expenses and the renovation of a building to house former child prostitutes.

Donations can be made via Courage To Be You’s Web site, http://www.c2bu.org, or by mail at:

Courage To Be You

3031 Stanford Ranch Road

Suite 2, No. 433

Rocklin CA 95765

source: http://www.clarionledger.com/article/20091218/NEWS/312180002/1001/Jackson-woman-fighting-child-sex-trade-in-Africa

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