By: MEGAN ABRAMEIT and JOHN COTTON RICHMOND
Women are leading the charge against human trafficking. Today, on International Women’s Day, the Human Trafficking Institute is highlighting a few of the women who are defenders against the exploitation human traffickers inflict on the vulnerable. These women are different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds, but they are united under one word: heroes.
Each one of these courageous women, when faced with the choice to turn away from other’s suffering, chose to turn towards hope. And even though the work is physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting, they keep fighting. They demonstrate that women have a unique role to play in combatting human trafficking. With empathy, they remind us that the people who traffickers trap in brothels, hotels, or factories could have easily been any one of us. In this work, they are not just advocating for victims of human trafficking but for all of us—for the chance to live in a world where femininity is respected, not exploited.
So, on this day, let’s not forget the women who are leading the modern movement for freedom. They are speaking out for the enslaved around the world who may never see the social media posts but will know of our advocacy when we turn awareness into action. It’s their day too.
“You can’t walk away from it. Somebody needs to be here, somebody needs to listen to their stories.”
When Sister Rosemary Nyriumbe took over St. Monica’s Girls Tailoring School in Gulu, Uganda, she knew it was an area that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) had terrorized for more than 30 years, trafficking children to be child soldiers and sex slaves. As some of these victims escaped from the LRA, Sister Rosemary quickly saw the need to provide a refuge for these traumatized children. They carried with them emotional and physical scars, lingering addictions, and even children born from the sexual violence they endured.
Sister Rosemary saw the school as a way to give these girls a new chance at life by teaching them sewing, a skill they could use to care for themselves, as well as providing them a safe place to live. She has helped hundreds of girls rehabilitate from their trauma and started the Sewing Hope Foundation, so the women could sell the handbags and accessories they make out of used soda tabs. As Sister Rosemary said, “We re-stitch a life thrown away and make it beautiful again.” Sister Rosemary continues to stand against human trafficking in all its forms throughout Uganda.
“I chose not to feel like a victim . . . I don’t want my face to be blurred because I should not be ashamed of it. The guys that have done it should be hiding their faces and they should be blurring their faces.”
Sunitha Krishnan is just 4’5”, but she is a mighty advocate for sex trafficking victims in India. Raped by eight men at 15, she says, “I do not remember the rape part of it as much as I remember the anger part of it…I derive power from that anger.” Krishnan emphasizes that the societal consequences of the rape—the isolation, stigmatization, and blame that followed the event—were as damaging as the event itself.
She knew other young women caught in trafficking were experiencing that same shame and injustice, so she started Prajwala in 1996 in South India with Brother Jose Vetticatil. Prajwala, meaning eternal flame, raises awareness about sex trafficking, rescues, and rehabilitates victims so they can reintegrate into society. Many learn trades and return to their family, live independently, marry and start their own family. Sunitha knows more than anyone the power of holistic rehabilitation, and Prajwala is a home and family for survivors until they can walk with dignity. Although Krishnan has been attacked 14 different times for her work with survivors, every day she gets up and fights again because she knows living a free and whole life is worth it.
“I didn’t have much money to give, and I wasn’t pursuing a career in social work, law, psychology, or any field that seemed to connect to making a difference, so I felt powerless. When I decided to align Dressember with anti-trafficking, it came out of that long-standing desire to engage.”
Blythe Hill used a dress to become an unlikely advocate for human trafficking, showing how one small step can make a huge difference. A survivor of childhood sexual molestation, when Blythe heard about human trafficking, especially the sexual exploitation of innocent women, it broke her heart. However, she felt powerless. Hill started off interested in fashion, and in 2009 decided to do a personal style challenge of wearing a dress every day in December. Soon her friends began to join in, and that’s when Hill had an epiphany. She started Dressember, a non-profit organization that fundraises every December for anti-trafficking NGOs. Women are invited to wear a dress every day of December, and men can dress up to show their support of Dressember. The beauty of Dressember is that it takes the dress, a traditional symbol of femininity, and turns it into a powerful protest against the exploitation of femininity and the vulnerabilities of all people. To date, Dressember has raised more than $5 million dollars towards anti-trafficking work, rescuing thousands from bondage and giving them new hope.
“You cannot buy intimacy. Buying and selling someone does not equal love, and what was done to this girl were not acts of love, they were ‘soul assassination.’”
Brook Bello describes herself as a “victim to survivor, survivor to thriver, thriver to champion.” Raped as a child, Brook ran away from her violent home at 15. She was approached by a man who offered to buy Brook dinner and help her, but that night he sold her to strangers for sex and kept all the money. What followed was nearly ten years of sex trafficking, drug addiction, and abuse.
Brook finally escaped from her trafficker while working at a brothel. Through mentorship at a church, Brook started rebuilding her life and became an actress. Since then, she has been a successful author, poet, filmmaker, and speaker as well as founder of two nonprofits, Youthiasm and More Too Life. She is well known as the author of Restorative Justice End Demand Education and as an ordained pastor, counselor, and chaplain. Due to her effectiveness in advocating and educating about human trafficking, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from President Obama in 2016. Brook offers a unique perspective into sex trafficking, a term she coins “soul assassination” for the psychological, physical, and spiritual trauma it causes in its victims. Brook’s life stands as a testimony that all victims can become champions.
“When my mother made a decision to sell me, I didn’t give up because I had designed a shiny future in my mind for myself.”
Sonita Alizadeh is a young woman who changed her destiny with rap. She was born in Afghanistan and grew up under the Taliban regime until her family escaped as refugees to Iran. It was in Tehran that she first heard rap music over the loudspeaker in a karate studio, and she was captivated by the rhythm even though she couldn’t understand the language. She began writing her own songs and tried to record music, which was challenging because it was illegal for women to perform solo.
Sonita’s mother shattered her dreams by deciding to sell her into marriage so that her brother could purchase a bride with her bride price. At 16 years-old, Sonita’s mother was about to sell her to the prospective groom, when Sonita met a brave Iranian filmmaker who agreed to do a documentary about her life. The filmmaker paid Sonita’s parents to delay the marriage and helped Sonita create the viral YouTube video “Brides for Sale,” where Sonita raps about forced child marriage in a wedding dress with bruises on her face and a barcode on her forehead. A U.S. non-profit saw the video and offered Sonita a scholarship to come to the United States to study, escaping child marriage. Many other girls are not as fortunate, compelling Sonita to use her voice to advocate against human trafficking and child marriage so other women can find theirs.
“I’m angry at the people who do this, who beat up a young girl, rape her and force her into prostitution so she’ll be traumatized for life. And I’m angry at society for turning a blind eye. It’s so unjust.”
Iana Matei is a Romanian activist working to rescue and rehabilitate sex trafficking victims with her organization: Reaching out Romania. Iana escaped from a brutal communist dictatorship as a young woman and started a new life in Australia. After years of working as a psychologist abroad, Iana returned for a visit to Romania where she witnessed homeless and vulnerable children with no one to help them. The condition of these children compelled her to come home and work at a Romanian orphanage, where she met young women who traffickers had forced to work as “prostitutes.” Even after these young women escaped from their traffickers, their pain continued. They faced a culture that did not embrace them as victims of sexual violence, but instead stigmatized and shunned them. Many were not even allowed to stay in orphanages.
To combat this, Iana rented an apartment to start taking care of victims, but soon it was overflowing. This inspired Iana to open the first shelter for sex trafficking victims in Romania 20 years ago, long before the world had started to identify “modern-day slavery.” Now, Iana continues to run shelters and helps the girls get the psychological, educational, and physical care they need, including teaching them life skills so they can reintegrate into society.
There Is Hope
Although the problem of human trafficking can feel overwhelming, these courageous female leaders are making a difference. We need strategic women working in law enforcement, the judicial system, and aftercare to effectively stop traffickers and rescue more victims. At the Human Trafficking Institute, we are working to stop modern slavery at its source by empowering police and prosecutors to stop traffickers.