Three years ago, Kristi Van Es sat down at a table for a chat with people from an organisation who rescue young girls from sex trafficking in Mumbai. She had no idea the meeting would dramatically change the course of her life, but as she heard the shocking statistics on just
how widespread the problem was, her jaw dropped.
Today, nearly 21 million men, women and children are trafficked for commercial sex or forced labour, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, global report on trafficking in persons. Human trafficking is the fastest growing international crime, and sexual exploitation accounts for the highest form of trafficking among girls and women. Van Es, who was volunteering at the time, felt compelled to take action – she just didn’t know how.
The 32-year-old Australian school teacher spent a year travelling around India to learn more about the issue and did a three-month internship with an anti-human trafficking organisation, A21. Then in March 2014 she got on a plane to Kolkata where she established the Offspring Project, which helps young women rescued from sex trafficking move on with their lives through vocational training, education and empowerment.
“I honestly couldn’t think of anything worse that could happen to someone,” Van Es says. “No-one should be subjected to sexual exploitation on any level, let alone being forced and tricked, with often no way of escaping. “I just want to do anything I can to help these young women have some sort of normality in their lives again, while letting them know that they are precious and valuable despite the price tag some people have put on them.
“Nothing you read in an article, or see on the news, is as hard as being in a room with someone who is sharing her personal experience of being trafficked; the trauma of being tricked, beaten, abused, locked up, then forced to do something she doesn’t want to do. They’re not just statistics – they’re real human beings.”
Small wins, big wins
“Our response is to provide a holistic approach to caring for each young woman once they have been rescued. So we want to be part of that transition from rescue to recovery in a safe and nurturing environment.” Although Van Els faces challenges every day, she believes that helps the organisation grow and improve, and considers every small win as a big one. “Finding an office space was a big achievement, finding our first staff member was a big achievement, welcoming our first trafficked survivor was a massive achievement,” she says.
Van Es finds satisfaction in seeing the women she works with feel excited and empowered by what they do in the programme. “It may be them finally being able to have a small conversation in English, or using the sewing machine without the instruction of the trainer,” she says. “In amongst pain and suffering, seeing the smiles and laughter of these precious lives is what keeps me going. I can’t tell you how much joy they bring.”