By Brent Swails, CNN
The mansion sits in the heart of Maputo, Mozambique. From the street it looks abandoned. Its walls are crumbling, the windows are broken and overgrown shrubs and trees hide the once grand entrance.
But inside there are signs that this place is still a home. The ceiling is black from cooking fires. In the bedrooms, mattresses line the floors and pages torn from magazines decorate the walls.
Local anti-trafficking activist Katie Magill often visits the mansion and other squatter housing in the city. She says its residents are at an age where they idolize the singers and actresses pictured on the pages. But they are much too young for the work they’re forced to do every night.
Many here say that Mozambique’s label of “the land of prawns and prostitutes” is well deserved. Prawns dominate trade by day, and at night, it’s Mozambique’s girls that are for sale.
Early last year police identified a network that trafficked up to 40 women and girls each month through Mozambique’s border with South Africa. They were allegedly being sold for $1,000 (US).
Inside Mozambique’s borders, buying girls for the trade can cost as little as $2 and the victims often know the perpetrators.
Ofelia says she was sold into prostitution at age 12. Four years ago, she escaped and found safety in Magill’s organization, Project Purpose. “I always had hope I could leave,” Ofelia said. “I feel good knowing that you can actually do it.”
Another former victim, Tachina, says she lost hope when she was trafficked for sex at the age of 15. “They’d do horrible things to you and then not give you money. Every minute was the worst. Only, when you’re in that situation, you can’t always see that,” she said.
The U.S. State Department’s annual trafficking in persons report notes an improvement in the Mozambique’s government’s efforts to end the trade. There have been several successful prosecutions since an anti-trafficking law was enacted in 2008. But enforcement remains difficult in this resource-strapped country.
A unit recently set up to deal with trafficking has only seven members charged with policing the entire country. Mozambique also lacks a national plan and a coordinating body. CNN requests for an interview with police went unanswered.
For now the fight against traffickers can’t do without people like Magill. Her organization rehabilitates young victims, many of them mothers, providing shelter for their children.
But she says it’s the ones she wasn’t able to bring to her safe house that continue to haunt her. “I cry now just thinking about the people who should have been in these buildings, the kids who should have a chance to live like that.”