OPINION: Elevating voices from the frontlines of the fight against slavery

Friday, 17 January 2020 15:45 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A labourer carries bricks in a kiln at Langolpota village in North 24 Parganas district in the eastern state of West Bengal, India, November 26, 2019. Picture taken November 26, 2019. REUTERS/Ranita Roy

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It is only by listening to survivors, their families, and their communities that we can understand what drives slavery and what is needed to end it

Nick Grono is the CEO of the Freedom Fund.

Dominika Kulczyk is the President of the Kulczyk Foundation.

Born to a poor family in a rural village in northern India, Tara faced gender and caste discrimination her entire life. After her father died at the age of nine, Tara began working at a brick kiln. Her entire family and most of her village were trapped in bonded labour, a slavery-like practice that is illegal but still common in India’s caste system.

The conditions at the brick kiln were appalling. Her employer forced Tara and her family to work under threat of violence and forbade them from leaving. He would often beat the workers violently, and one of them suffered fatal wounds. Tara couldn’t go to school and had no freedom to travel anywhere. Fearing for their lives, the workers at her kiln were too scared to speak out.

Thanks to the efforts of a local charity, supported by the Freedom Fund, Tara and the other workers were freed. Now an adult mother of two who runs her own small tailoring business, Tara is a leader in her community who has helped liberate more than 60 bonded labourers living in slavery. She travels from village to village to encourage solidarity among disadvantaged groups and educate them about their rights.

Tara’s work is inspiring, but sadly her story is not unique. Around the world, millions of people, the majority of whom are women and girls, are used and exploited for commercial or personal gain. They are forced to work in abusive conditions in factories, bonded into agricultural labour, kept in servitude as domestic workers in private homes and trafficked into the sex industry. They are denied their freedom and their voice.

A growing, global anti-slavery movement has made great strides toward ending the extreme exploitation of women and girls. However, far too often the anti-slavery sector has failed to incorporate the perspectives of people like Tara. This must change. The movement to end modern slavery begins with the people most directly affected by it. History has shown us that with the right support, vulnerable communities can access power to resist extreme exploitation. It is only by listening to survivors, their families, and their communities that we can understand what drives slavery and what is needed to end it.

The organisations that we lead, the Kulczyk Foundation and the Freedom Fund, provide support to frontline groups that work directly in communities most vulnerable to modern slavery. Operating in difficult and often dangerous conditions with limited resources, these local organisations work hand-in-hand with survivors like Tara and those at risk of exploitation to help them understand their rights and assert them.

For example, in Nepal the Kulczyk Foundation supports an organisation combatting human trafficking across the border of Nepal and India, where women and girls are particularly at risk. 3 Angels Nepal (3AN) are an organisation founded by a survivor of human trafficking and its employees are engaged in both preventative and rescue operations. At the borders where 3AN operates, women often look out for victims who don’t have the right papers and present worrying behaviour, like only responding when allowed by the person accompanying them, or presenting confusing reasons for travel. Without these dedicated women working on the frontlines, these cases would never be reported, let alone investigated.

Along with frontline organisations, survivors themselves must be at the heart of efforts to end modern slavery. Those leading the 3AN always ask the people who come to see them “What is your story” and what they hear are stories of trauma, exploitation and loss. We need to continue to support them and those rescued, to hear those stories, to help, to heal and to share them with the rest of the world.

At the Freedom Fund, one of our goals is to actively include survivor expertise in all aspects of our work - from program planning, to implementation and evaluation – and to making survivor inclusion an integral component of our mission. We are also exploring ways to support survivor employment in the anti-slavery sector and to help open up a wider range of opportunities for survivors to be involved in the anti-slavery movement.

Our experience working with those on the frontline of the fight against slavery has underscored the need to ground our work in the experiences of survivors and their communities, and to make their voices heard. We call on the global anti-slavery movement to actively engage survivors, especially women, and incorporate their views and experiences.

Today, Tara leads a grassroots community group that raises awareness about the dangers of debt bondage. Her efforts have helped mobilise communities in over 50 villages. And both of her children are in school.

Working together with survivors like Tara, we can bring an end to extreme exploitation and ensure that the world’s most vulnerable people have a brighter future ahead of them.