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4 Jan, 2010 03:13

Victims of modern slavery seek justice in France

In France, women who have fallen victim to enforced domestic labor are struggling to bring their offenders to justice and find comfort after years of toil.

One of these women is Marie, whose real name cannot be revealed. She is originally from Dakar, the capital of Senegal, but left her home when she was only 13 years old.

One day, my mother told me not to go to school any more,” Marie recalls. “I would be going to school in France.”

However, as Marie says, this is not what happened. Instead, she left Dakar with people she did not know who took her to the home of a Senegalese family in Paris.

I arrived on a Friday night,” Marie says. “On Saturday morning they woke me early and asked me to take care of the children and do the housework.”

For the next 13 years, Marie was a slave.

They would beat me if I did something they didn’t like or if I made a mistake,” Marie said.

She is now free from the family that she accuses of keeping her and has recently sought help from a group called “SOS Esclaves” that helps victims of domestic slavery in France.

The group’s co-founder, Anick Fugeroux, says it is difficult to say exactly how many women are in the same situation as Marie because their captors keep them hidden.

We don’t know the exact numbers because the young women that find themselves in such a situation are separated from society,” Fugeroux explained. “They are in families, maybe waiting to be discovered and saved from this state.”

Fugeroux is now closely following the case of another girl whose name is Rose. However, Rose has refused to be interviewed for this story.

The French prosecutor is currently appealing the court’s judgment against the family convicted of keeping Rose and is pushing for prison time instead of a lighter sentence.

If Rose’s captors do receive a prison sentence, it will be a first for the French justice system and a victory for groups like “SOS Esclaves.”

Few people will be happier about this than Dominique Torres, a journalist and antislavery activist.

I was surprised. It is very good that the government itself has decided to react against the light sentence that the couple was getting,” Torres says. “This is the first time. It happened with Rose. It could have happened with someone else. It happened because suddenly people think this is too much. This is ridiculous, how come people are getting away with things like this?”

Torres has been exposing the problem of modern slavery for more than 15 years and says it happens all over the industrialized world. However, France is where the criminals who are caught have the easiest time, she says.

Now, however, Torres says she feels that things may be changing.

Before, the public was saying this is unbelievable and they were even thinking it’s not possible. Now they say it is happening and we want these people to pay,” Torres says.

In the meantime, there will not be any similar justice for Marie as the statute of limitations on her case has run out. Now, she is simply hoping to put 13 years of misery behind her.

Marie has found some solace in meeting and speaking with Rose and for the first time feels that she has hope.

I feel better now, because I met rose through the association,” Marie says. “We spoke and realized that we’re not alone in this. Rose is farther down the path than I am, but now I know I can have a real life after all this.”

Whether or not Rose’s case will set a legal precedent in France is unclear. Yet one thing it is sure to do is bring more exposure to the problem of domestic servitude and help more women break the chains of modern slavery.