A new program in India is helping survivors of child sex trafficking get justice for others like them ― by pursuing careers in the legal system.
The School for Justice, launched in April by Dutch anti-trafficking group Free a Girl, provides funding and other support to women who have escaped underage sex trafficking, so they can prepare for university and earn bachelor’s degrees in law.
The goal is to empower former victims to change how India’s legal system fights trafficking ― because all too often, perpetrators aren’t brought to justice, Free A Girl founder Evelien Hölsken told HuffPost. The program also aims to raise awareness of child sex trafficking.
The School for Justice’s inaugural class kicked off in April with 19 young women. Four were accepted to university and will start this month, Hölsken told HuffPost. The other 15 will study for another year or so before applying. To maintain their safety, the group is not releasing their full names, the location of the school, or the name of the university that some are attending.
HuffPost spoke by email with some of the women, who shared their stories and explained why they decided to participate in the program.
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“Being poor, I left my family at 9 years old to work in domestic service in a large house. The gardener, gatekeeper, the sweeper and other men abused me there,” survivor Sangita said. “[Years later] I left the house, but I didn’t realize that without money or directions I would not be able to find my way home. I asked [a woman begging on the street] for help, but she took me to a brothel and sold me to it. I was 13 years old.”
“I want to fight against child sexual exploitation and help others like me,” Sangita added. “I am excited about becoming a lawyer and this is why I joined the School for Justice.”
Millions of women and children are victims of sex trafficking in India, according to the U.S. State Department. Traffickers often promise them opportunities for employment or marriage, only to then force them into prostitution.
While India has strong laws against trafficking, they are not always enforced. In 2014, for instance, police investigated 3,056 human trafficking cases, including 2,604 sex trafficking cases, the State Department reports. Yet 77 percent of the traffickers who were prosecuted were acquitted.
“The police rescued me, after someone working in the red light area tipped them off,” Sangita told HuffPost. “The people in the brothel, they were not even arrested.”
The School for Justice helps survivors become lawyers by covering the cost of school fees, housing, food and transport as they pursue their degrees. The participants all live in the same house, run by staff members of its local partner, which rescues girls from brothels and provides them with housing and education. There, the students take English classes, basic law classes and get assistance applying to and attending university.
The idea for the school emerged after Free a Girl hired Amsterdam-based communications agency J. Walter Thompson to create an ad raising awareness of child sex trafficking in India.
“You’re not going to change the system with 19 girls,” J. Walter Thompson executive Bas Korsten told HuffPost. “But you get the ball rolling: They become change agents, the issue gets talked about, international pressure builds on the system for it to change.”
One of the major challenges the School for Justice is tackling is the stigma that sex trafficking survivors face. After girls and women are rescued from brothels, for instance, their families won’t always take them back, Hölsken told HuffPost.
What’s more, the Indian government often arrests survivors for trafficking-related crimes rather than getting them the support they need, the U.S. State Department reports. The problem isn’t limited to trafficking victims in India: In the United States, law enforcement officials often perceive sex trafficking victims as criminals and arrest them for prostitution and other related charges.
“Some parts of our society treat us as ‘something else’ or an insect that has no right to a life or to be a part of mainstream society,” survivor Kalyani told HuffPost by email. “I am still not well accepted at my own home.”
“They’re not seen as victims,” Hölsken said. “People think they are just bad girls or are too lazy to do other work.”
The School for Justice program costs around $3,400 per student per year. Private donors in the Netherlands have already funded expenses for the next two years, Hölsken told HuffPost, but the school is currently seeking more donors from India and elsewhere to fund a new crop of participants in 2018 and onward.
The program is just getting off the ground, and could face any number of challenges as it grows. The students are all dealing with trauma, Hölsken noted, which makes it more of a challenge to stay in school long enough to complete their degrees. But with a fresh crop of students starting the program each year, there’s a chance that a number of them will graduate.
Free a Girl is currently looking into replicating the program in Brazil and other countries.
“That’s why the stories of every single girl in the school are so important ― they were trafficked, they were sold, it was not a choice,” Hölsken told HuffPost. “They are so so brave, and we are so proud of them. If nobody dares to speak out, then nothing will change.”