When you think of the Discovery Channel, you probably think of documentaries about sharks, bears and fishermen. But Discovery has teamed up with others to produce a series of short video segments highlighting barriers to education for girls and women in sub-Saharan Africa, specifically in the most underserved communities of Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya.
One of these segments will feature a former child slave in Ghana, Mabel, 15, who now can attend school after being rescued by FTS frontline partner Challenging Heights.
“It was an incredible privilege to work with Mabel, she is such a friendly and confident young woman who can talk really eloquently about the challenges she has faced and overcome in her life,” the video segment producer, Chris Morgan, tells us. “Even more inspiring is her positive view on her future and her determination to change her life through education.”
After her mother died and her father left the family, Mabel and her siblings went to live with relatives. There, Mabel was forced to work around the clock. She would wake up early in the mornings to collect wood and help cook maize porridge. By afternoon she was making lunch for everyone on the fishing boats, and in the evening she started prepping for dinner. Late at night she was sent out fishing, and was forced to wake up early the next morning to repeat this full day of work.
“I hardly slept at all,” said Mabel. “Every evening I hoped that there would be a storm, so I wouldn’t have to go out on the lake.”
Her relatives had children of their own who were allowed to go to school, but Mabel and her siblings were not.
One day, two case workers from Challenging Heights came to visit. They told Mabel’s relatives that the law states that children have to go to school and that they wanted to take Mabel and her siblings with them. When her relatives refused to let them go, the challenging Heights team came back with police to free them.
Mabel and her siblings now live in a Challenging Heights safe house and go to school. Mabel is delighted to be receiving an education, and says: “I want to become a nurse so I can prove to my family that I can make it in life.”
The Discovery Learning Alliance video segments will be used in classroom and community settings in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya to help teach the importance of education.
Editor’s Note: This is the third of three dispatches we will feature this week written by Free the Slaves Executive Director Maurice Middleberg during his recent trip to India.
DATELINE: Punarnawa Ashram, Purnea District, Bihar State, India
The girls are so young – 8, 10, 12, 15. Many are small and slight. All are victims of sex trafficking. By force, fraud or duplicity, each fell victim to a sex trafficker who sold her to a brothel.
Typically, the girls were raped as a prelude to their life as a sex slave. Many are given alcohol or drugs to make them more pliable and to deepen their dependence on the brothel owner.
Police raids and rescues are needed to free the girls from the clutches of the brothel. But rescue is only the first step in the healing process.
Punarnawa Ashram, which is supported by Free the Slaves, is the safe haven where the path back to normal life begins. The ashram is a large, verdant enclosure, where the girls can be secure and feel safe. There are dormitories, classrooms, a field to grow crops, a shed for three milk cows, a kitchen and play areas. Space is set aside for counseling and medical care. Between 25 and 50 girls are in residence at any time.
The ashram coordinator, Amita Gaur, is a soft spoken woman whose gentle demeanor overlays a fierce determination to protect and serve the girls in her care. Under her leadership, Punarnawa Ashram provides the care and guidance the girls need.
Girls are referred to the ashram by police or child welfare authorities after being rescued. The first seven days after arrival are a decompression period, when the girl is given space to rest and adjust to her new surroundings. During the first 30 days, a needs assessment is carried out and immediate counseling and medical needs are addressed. The girl’s family is contacted.
Girls stay at the ashram for at least six months, and can stay longer until the staff determines that the girl is ready for re-entry. The girls receive group therapy, medical care, basic education, vocational training and life skills coaching. Girls are provided with legal representation if they chose to participate in the prosecution of traffickers and brothel owners. They are also given space to play and take up hobbies.
Before a girl is released, there is an assessment of the environment at her home to be sure she can be successfully reintegrated. As needed, the ashram provides family counseling and education to overcome stigma or other counter-productive family behavior, so that the girl will be completely accepted and supported by her family. There is follow-up with the survivors during the first six months after they return to their families; telephone follow up can go a for as long as a year.
Girls sometimes return to the ashram to encourage and inspire residents, especially when there has been a successful prosecution of the trafficker.
Perhaps most remarkable and moving was seeing the girls being girls again – laughing, playing, dressing up an effigy for a Hindu festival, and dancing. With help, these children show amazing resilience.
Punanarwa Ashram is a remarkable place. With the help of our supporters, Free the Slaves is committed to sustaining and expanding the work of the ashram, so that the most wounded girls can be made whole again.
Learn more about Free the Slaves successes in India on our India program webpage. See our newest video of a rescue in India on our YouTube channel. (The slavery survivors pictured have agreed that their photos may be used in articles about the ashram.)
Editor’s Note: This is the second of three dispatches we will feature this week written by Free the Slaves Executive Director Maurice Middleberg during his recent trip to India.
DATELINE: Varanasi District, Uttar Pradesh State, India
In the space of 24 hours we saw the transition from slavery to freedom.
Our journey began with a visit to a village where men, women and children worked as slaves in brick kilns and rice paddies. In more than 30 years of working in developing countries, this was as abject a state of poverty as I have ever witnessed.
The village consisted of dirt-floor huts made of cow dung and mud. The only visible personal possessions: a few handmade cots made of wood and rope. The only visible assets: some pigs and chickens. Basic needs such as clean water, latrines, a school for the children or essential health care were missing. The scene in this village might have come from 1,000 years ago.
But even worse than the poverty – and at its root – was the fear. We had to hide in order to speak to the villagers, who said they could be beaten for speaking to strangers without the permission of the landlord. The man serving as a the principal spokesman for the villagers was visibly terrified, but nonetheless determined to tell their story. The anxiety among the villagers who gathered was palpable.
The village had been identified by the Indian nonprofit group MSEMVS, which is supported by Free the Slaves. As a first step on the path to freedom, MSEMVS had recruited a volunteer to teach the younger children. On the day we arrived, the children were gathered under a tree and she was teaching them basic arithmetic. The gathering of children and their mothers will become the catalyst for organizing the community to defend itself. (The local police cannot be approached immediately, as they are typically in league with the landlord.)
This portrait of fear and poverty is typical of the communities where Free the Slaves and its partners begin our work.
The next day we visited Sakdouri village, where a rescue operation had taken place one year ago. Eighteen families were trapped there in a brick kiln. One person managed to contact a previously-freed village, which in turn notified MSEMVS. This led to a rescue operation that freed 45 men, women and children.
FTS South Asia Director Supriya Awasthi participated in the rescue, personally leading survivors out of the kiln and on to waiting trucks. This led to a broader effort to organize the community to resist slavery.
The lively village meeting we attended in Sakdouri was marked by pride and confidence. It was held in a clean, brightly painted building that serves as the school. The village had organized a community vigilance committee, which acts to secure the rights of the community and its members.
Here is what the villagers said to us: “We know what is bonded labor. We help find bonded laborers and rescue them. We are now prosperous.” More than 100 people came to the meeting, some from surrounding communities that been helped to achieve freedom by the residents of Sakdouri. The emerald rice paddies are now worked by free people. Thirty brick houses have replaced outdated dwellings, and more are coming. The community is receiving health care from the local health center. The community is currently advocating with the local government to have a paved road that will reach the village.
Before we left, these former slaves sang a song of freedom:
We will stand up for our rights.
By organizing, we keep our rights.
We will walk the path of truth.
We will not fear sticks, guns or slave owners.
By hard work we will achieve our destiny.
Now is the time to show our power.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of three dispatches we will feature this week written by Free the Slaves Executive Director Maurice Middleberg during his recent trip to India.
DATELINE: Majgama village, Araria District, Bihar State, India
Ishtiaq Hasib was only 10 when the trafficker came. The man befriended the boy, and five of his friends, as they walked back and forth to school.
“Good jobs. Money,” he told the boys. “Clothes. Mobile phones.” All these could be had if the boys went with the trafficker.
But it had to be a secret. Parents were not to be told – they would be so proud when the boys brought home these treasures.
It was an enticing offer for a boy in Majgama, a very poor rural village where people earn $2 to $3 a day as laborers on farms. Cattle, water buffalo and chickens live side-by-side with people here in simple dwellings. The boys were dazzled by the trafficker’s promises.
Of course, the promises were lies. Ishtiaq and his friends landed in a factory in India’s capital city, Delhi, manufacturing bindis, the symbol many Indians wear on their foreheads. No wages were paid – only enough food for the boys to subsist.
“From the beginning, we were beaten because we didn’t know what to do,” Ishtiaq told me. The trafficker would slap them and beat them with tools. Ishtiaq saw one boy beaten severely, causing head injuries. Boys who were hurt too badly to work were thrown onto the street, he said.
“When my child was taken away it felt like I had been shot in the heart,” recalls Ishtiaq’s father, Mohammed Hasib.
Fortunately, Ishtiaq and his family were lucky. Four days after he arrived in Delhi, a police raid liberated 96 children from the bindi factory.
At this point, MSEMVS, a local Indian NGO supported by Free the Slaves, intervened to prevent future cases of trafficking in Ishtiaq’s village. His father agreed to lead the formation of a village committee dedicated to protecting residents from trafficking. Educational sessions were organized for villagers, including the children. These sessions have taught villagers about the perils of trafficking and how to recognize traffickers. The committee is also working to gain access to essential services and credit, so that people are less vulnerable to the lures of traffickers.
“We were unaware that such things happened,” Mr. Hasib told me. “Now we know, and the trafficker doesn’t come here anymore.”
With help from FTS partner MSEMVS, Mr. Hasib has reached out to four surrounding villages to help them organize committees that can educate and protect their communities. They are learning the danger signs of trafficking. Mr. Hasib and the MSEMVS activist have given their mobile phone numbers to the other villages so they can call if they see signs of trouble. Through this process, six missing children have been identified; one has been tracked down and rescued and efforts are underway to find the others.
“Traffickers are now scared of us,” said Mr. Hasib.
What is needed now is to expand this circle of prevention. That involves educating and mobilizing parents, children and communities. Free the Slaves and MSEMVS are working together to ensure that many more villages can protect themselves from the predations of traffickers. With the help of our supporters, we can ensure that there are fewer cases like Ishtiaq’s.
Congratulations to Lisa Kristine, who was honored last night at Carnegie Hall in New York as the 2013 Humanitarian Photographer of the Year!
The awards are presented by the Lucie Foundation, honoring the world’s top photographers in a range of categories, including fashion, fine art, humanitarianism, photojournalism and documentary.
“Lisa has gained broad recognition for her collaboration with the NGO Free the Slaves,” the foundation notes on its website, calling her 2010 book Slavery (published by Free the Slaves) a “breathtaking body of work.”
Lisa traveled to the front lines of slavery with FTS activists to capture images that reveal the pain of slavery and the hope of freedom.
Calling Lisa “a master storyteller,” the Lucie foundation says her photographs instinctively identify “the universal human dignity in all of us.”
“Awakening compassion and igniting action in a worldwide audience with powerful, broad-sweeping images of courage and tender intimate portrayals, Lisa elevates significant social causes – such as the elimination of human slavery and the unification of humanity – to missions. Her work resonates in the hearts of us all and moves us to act,” the foundation says.
If you haven’t seen Lisa’s TEDX talk about her journey to photograph slavery, you should!
More than 1.1 million people already have.
And you should consider helping Free the Slaves by buying the book Slavery, for yourself, for a friend, for a local library or school, or for your office.
It’s available on Lisa’s website. A portion of the proceeds benefit FTS anti-trafficking programs around the world.