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Pineapple program fights traffickers in Sierra Leone

By John Lyon, Special for CNN

Editor's note: John Lyon is the President and CEO of World Hope International. Based in the United States, WHI is a direct partner of Sierra Leone in the fight against human trafficking. In Sierra Leone, WHI helps trafficking victims find a safe, healthy life through emergency after-care and community education programs.

(CNN) – Selina was just 10 years old when her parents sent her off to Freetown to live with her uncle, who promised education and better opportunities.

Her parents, petty-traders in a small fishing village in Sierra Leone, barely made enough to feed their children.

The uncle's offer seemed like the break they had been waiting for – an opportunity to give their daughter a better life than the one they could provide for her. They never anticipated the nightmare that would ensue.

When Selina, whose name has been changed to protect her, arrived at her uncle's house, it quickly became clear she would not be getting the education she had hoped for.

Instead, Selina was immediately locked inside her uncle's house, where he proceeded to sexually assault her over the course of the next several months, often raping her multiple times a day.

Selina’s story is one of many that have been shared with World Hope International’s staff since we started anti-trafficking prevention and rehabilitation efforts in Sierra Leone in 2004.

Unfortunately, stories of exploitation and servitude are not unusual in this country where more than 60% of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.

Ranking 177 out of 187 countries worldwide on the 2012 Human Development Index, Sierra Leone is characterized by extreme levels of poverty, lack of education, food scarcity and stagnant economic growth.

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Desperation is high and breeds a thriving climate for traffickers who prey on women and children with empty promises for a better life.

The majority of victims originate largely from rural provinces within the country, where poverty is most severe.

Yet, despite the country's poor economic conditions, Sierra Leone has made advances in its fight against human trafficking.

Recently, the country improved from "Tier Two Watch" to "Tier Two" status in the annual U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report, an affirmation that victim identification in the country has improved, leading to better reporting of trafficking cases to authorities.

The improvement can be attributed to collaboration between government, NGOs and law enforcement partners on prevention, intervention and survivor recovery efforts.

Moreover, key anti-poverty tactics, especially those focusing on providing Sierra Leoneans with stable jobs and income via agriculture, are helping increase opportunity, decrease desperation and fight human trafficking.

In Sierra Leone, where meals are scarce and money is difficult to come by, the lure of a human trafficker's false promises are enticing – even more so on an empty stomach.

Traffickers commonly persuade victims with a warm meal, promises of work for wages and even the opportunity to find a new life outside Sierra Leone.

The reality, of course, is none of the above, but rather an indefinite period of serial rape through sexual exploitation or interminable forced labor.

Many Sierra Leoneans struggle daily to find a stable source of income that will allow them to provide for their families in hopes that they can avoid this entrapment.

Empowering families economically directly fights trafficking. That's how, as unlikely as it seems, one fruit is helping eliminate slavery in Sierra Leone.

World Hope International's (WHI) innovative agriculture program, "Planting Pineapples, Harvesting Hope", empowers smallholder farmers with education and economic opportunity.

68% of the farmers working with WHI are women. Overall, the program aims to assist smallholder farmers to cultivate commercially-exportable pineapples – a first for Sierra Leone.

This program is estimated to create 2,500 long-term and sustainable agricultural jobs, as well as year-round incomes for farmers.

The "Planting Pineapples, Harvesting Hope" program will work with 160 villages to enhance local pineapple farming by training and educating farmers to grow pineapples on a massive scale and improve their local institutional capacities to a level that will earn them steady income and jobs.

Moreover, farmers will have access to a direct buyer and guaranteed market for their fruit. Africa Felix Juice (AFJ) – the first manufacturer to export significant value added goods from Sierra Leone since the end of the country's 11-year civil war – will purchase pineapples grown by these smallholder farmers and produce juice concentrate to be sold all over the world.

By empowering these farmers to participate in sustainable business practices and by providing them with financial opportunities not available to them before, the program tackles trafficking head-on by limiting the economic power traffickers use to coax their victims.

As these women earn a steady income to spend on food, health and education for their families, traffickers have fewer vulnerable victims on which to prey.

In the interconnected world we live in, we can't begin to address human trafficking without also addressing poverty.

The anti-trafficking movement requires a multi-faceted response that starts from the ground-up.

The prevention side of the human trafficking battle begins with education and empowerment, by educating at-risk communities and empowering the most vulnerable with economic opportunity. This is where we will begin to see a difference.

Our battle against human trafficking is far from over.

What better time than now to take a stand against modern day slavery?

Starting is as simple as educating and empowering ourselves to help educate and empower the vulnerable.

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