To most travellers, the gleaming facade of the departure terminal of an airport is a gateway to an exciting opportunity for leisure or business travel. For others it holds the promise of a new beginning. But for a growing number of women it is the prelude to a life behind bars.
Drug traffickers are always on the lookout for vulnerable women to ensnare. They lure them with promises of quick money and the false hope of a better life. These women are often forced to swallow condoms filled with cocaine or other drugs, or duped into carrying drugs on them as they pass through customs. On occasion they may be pregnant; this is a favoured tactic of traffickers as pregnant women may sometimes clear customs easier.
Traffickers are ruthless and often sacrifice one woman by tipping authorities off in the hope of ensuring that a second drug mule successfully clears customs. The unwitting victim is stopped, searched and apprehended. Alone in a foreign land, often unable to speak the language and isolated, they are sentenced to imprisonment and sometimes even death.
This is the fate that has befallen many local women who have seen their hopes and dreams of a better life turn to an unending nightmare.
For pregnant drug mules the horror is even worse, as they often give birth in prison. Raising a child in a stable family environment is challenging at the best of times; having to do so behind bars creates complexities for both mother and child. Mothers in prison are unable to provide optimum physical, mental and emotional support to their infants in a harsh, child-unfriendly environment. Most countries only allow children to remain with their mothers in prison for a limited period, compounding the matter.
As we prepare to celebrate Women's Month we should not forget our countrywomen in foreign jails. Their plight is a reminder to all of us that the fight to emancipate women from the bonds of economic and social oppression is far from over.
The Minister for Social Development, Ms Bathabile Dlamini recently travelled to Brazil to secure the repatriation of two minors whose mothers are currently serving prison sentences in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The children, aged 10 months and one year, were placed in temporary safe care while awaiting foster care placement.
The department intervened as government is obligated to protect children from harm in line with our Constitution, The Hague Convention and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
On her return from Brazil, Minister Dlamini said: "We are deeply concerned about the growing number of young South African women who are arrested for drug trafficking in foreign countries. Many of these women are recruited by drug cartels operating in South Africa with sophisticated criminal networks throughout the world.
"In most instances, these women are lured into the drug trafficking business by drug cartels who promise them easy money, a better life and greener pastures."
According to Minister Dlamini, traffickers often recruit young and economically vulnerable women from far-flung areas such as Bushbuckridge, Ntunjambili and Kimberley.
The scope of the problem is brought into sharp focus by statistics from the Consular Services of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation. There are 337 South African women in foreign prisons for drug trafficking.
The government is committed to fighting drug trafficking and abuse, which continues to destroy the lives of families and individuals. We remain steadfast in our resolve to protect young vulnerable men and women from exploitation at the hands of ruthless drug cartels.
The government and its partners are implementing the Anti-Substance National Plan of Action and National Drug Master Plan, which guides our efforts towards a South Africa that is free of drug abuse. The Central Drug Authority (CDA) will implement this plan, which offers a roadmap to better coordinate and strengthen the work of government in the fight against alcohol and substance abuse.
These efforts are further bolstered by the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Combating Alcohol and Substance Abuse, which ensures a coordinated approach to prevention, community mobilisation, treatment and law enforcement efforts.
We are also aware that tougher law enforcement is needed. Our criminal justice system is geared towards dealing with the impact of substance abuse and to act decisively against drug traffickers and peddlers.
The battle that lies ahead will not be easy, but it is a fight we are determined to win, as emphasised by Minister Dlamini on her return from Brazil.
"We will continue to implement the Anti-Substance Abuse Programme of Action, with particular focus on reviewing existing and introducing new legislation,'' she said.
"We will also intensify community mobilisation campaigns to raise awareness and to educate the general public on the dangers of alcohol and substance abuse, including illicit drug trafficking, and promoting the participation of local communities in our prevention efforts."
Phumla Williams is acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)