AFRICA: Project rescues child soldiers

Saturday, November 10, 2012
the Star Pheonix
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Peace Processes

Though only 25, Cassandra Basnett has already made a significant impact for good on the world.

The Saskatoon woman does mission work in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya, and has established schools, initiated micro-enterprises so women can support their families, and established a ministry to rescue and rehabilitate young women in Kenyan brothels.

Now Basnett has taken a step further. The Freedom Project, as she calls it, rescues child soldiers from war zones in Congo and saves little girls from being exploited through sex trafficking.

"We were three-quarters of the way through building another school in Congo," Basnett says, "but we had to halt construction when the rebels invaded the area. We've put the 150 students in a church and paid teachers to educate them. Statistics show that the safest thing for a child when war comes is to stay in school. They are less likely to become targets for rape, abduction, and recruitment into the army. Also, being educated means they're being empowered and equipped to change the situation around them."

In Congo, the number of children forced to be soldiers is skyrocketing. Every boy in the village is a target. Basnett says, "Our unspoken marker is pretty much: Who will get them first, us or the rebels?"

In launching the rescue operation, Basnett connected with the sub-chief, with whom she and her team stay when they're in the Red Zone, and the person who acts as a "house papa" for the boys. "He started locating child soldiers. We rescued our first boys in September. We had to cross over into rebel-held territory to get them. It was a huge security risk, but so worth it."

Basnett says the The Freedom Project basically consists of demobilizing child soldiers and sponsoring them for education, food and counselling. "We move them to Goma, a safe city where we're based and where they are free from the threat of reabduction."

In Kenya, more and more little girls are being caught in prostitution. "We've learned it's a cultural thing - too big for simply rescuing a few girls into a home. My team is working hard at a holistic program to stop a lifestyle of raping children in brothels. We deal in prevention, justice/response and rescue.

"Our prevention work is the Can't be Bought Campaign, a curriculum designed for kids in school to learn about prostitution, trafficking, and their personal value and worth so they 'can't be bought.' Our first week, we reached roughly 500 kids. Our goal is 5,000 a week by February 2013. The children love the program. It's so beautiful to see them singing the little song we wrote for the campaign: 'I am not for sale ... my body's mine ... I'm valuable.' It brings tears to my eyes when I hear them sing it."

The justice/response segment is what Basnett and her team are doing to reach the dozens of girls who are currently selling their bodies for food or because of cultural peer pressure. By sponsorship in outreach programs and counselling, the goal is to empower the girls with education and love in an effort to stop the cycle of sexual abuse.

"Lastly," Basnett says, "we officially launched our rescue home, Bella House, in October. Bella House is for the young girls who have been sex-trafficked or forced into prostitution by family or neighbours. The home is a place of safety, restoration and family, with the aim of seeing healing come to the girls and empowering them with a future."

She adds: "Hearing all the rape stories from little girls and having them cry in your arms again and again gets you motivated pretty quickly."

A team of locals and internationals supervise and maintain the projects while Basnett makes scheduled trips out of Africa each year to raise awareness and funds for the initiatives. She will be the keynote speaker at a fundraiser in Saskatoon on Tuesday, Nov. 27, at 6: 30 p.m. at the German Cultural Centre (Concordia Club). The cost is $25 per person and tickets may be purchased from Wendy at 975-3745 or Arlene at 653-4402. Additional money will be raised through a silent auction and a dessert auction.

"The reason for the fundraiser is to give people in Saskatoon a voice and a means of helping," says Basnett. "I had always heard that love is an action, but after my time in Africa, I have also seen that silence is an action, too. Not everyone is able to go directly to rebel-held territory and rescue child solders or sit in a brothel and rescue a child prostitute, but nobody is powerless. With this event in Saskatoon, we hope to give people an avenue to get involved and make a difference. All the money raised goes directly to the projects."