The director of Manav Sansadhan Evam Mahila Vikas Sansthan (MSEMVS) in India, Bhanuja Sharan Lal, Ph.D., has been honored this morning by the U.S. State Department as a global anti-slavery hero in the 2014 Trafficking in Persons report.
His team of more than 75 front line anti-slavery activists has been progressively dismantling entrenched systems of slavery at brick kilns, farms and quarries in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They have transformed hundreds of communities into no-go zones for traffickers, fully eradicating slavery in more than 130 villages. The group’s name in English means the “Society for Human Development and Women’s Empowerment.” It has been a Free the Salves partner organization since 2005.
Led by Dr. Lal, the MSEMVS Sustained Liberation Program helps residents establish community vigilance committees, a process through which groups of slaves come to freedom by exercising collective power and by pressuring police to enforce anti-slavery laws. His strategy focuses on movement building, so that community-level committees are united in 14 district-level networks and a larger federation, through which they enable local government to address root causes of slavery.
MSEMVS teams are currently assisting in rescues of approximately 65 men, women and children every month, providing slavery survivors with follow-up reintegration support. Under Dr. Lal’s leadership, MSEMVS launched and manages a rescue shelter in Bihar, providing rights-based assistance and recovery to sex trafficking survivors. Currently, 14 village-based transitional schools are enabling more than 100 child slavery survivors to catch up on their education, so that they can successfully enter public schools within three years.
Dr. Lal became director of MSEMVS in 2003, and his leadership has been characterized by a commitment to ownership of anti-slavery efforts by those most affected, as well as by rigorous documentation of the program’s achievements, and tenacious engagement of authorities. He has guided many documentary filmmaking teams to bring the realities of modern slavery in India to a global audience. He has set a personal example of caring for and diligently assisting each person coming out of slavery – enabling those in slavery to understand their own unique human worth.
Quick Questions & Answers with Dr. Lal
How did you become an anti-slavery activist and why have you chosen this as your life’s work?
“There are so many sectors where bonded labor and child labor are being used, one can see the daily exploitation. The situation touched me, a lot. The laborers were not being paid; they were beaten up. They were chained in the carpet industry. And nobody was there to help them. So I started. I started to do my best to bring human dignity to their lives.
What impact is slavery having on the people and the economy of India?
“Many business owners are only thinking about profit, they are not thinking about the lives of the people who are working for them. This will have an effect on the Indian economy because of international efforts to avoid products made by bonded labor and child labor. For example: when the carpet industry was using bonded and child labor, sales declined because of international campaigns against Indian carpets. When the industry worked to cleanse itself, the Indian carpet industry began again to grow.”
How does your organization work to end slavery: what is the strategy or process?
“First: identify communities affected by slavery and trafficking. Many are identified when some of their members are rescued. Second: conduct systematic baseline research to assess the situation and needs. Third: form a community vigilance committee to develop and lead the community’s strategy to break free. Fourth: identify why slavery is happening in an individual community. Fifth: address the causes – communities build collective strength and capacity through skills training, legal literacy, independent income generation and accessing government entitlements, which empowers the community to challenge the grip of slaveholders and traffickers. Sixth: rescue slavery victims, rehabilitate survivors and in some places create transitional schools for former child slaves, aimed at establishing lasting freedom by ensuring the community can sustain its efforts.”
What is the most rewarding part of your work; what keeps you optimistic?
“It is whenever we see slavery victims and communities moving toward sustainable freedom and building their collective power against slavery. I have witnessed many individuals and communities doing this. It gives me courage, motivation and energy to work for the elimination of slavery.”
The world’s attention shifts to Brazil today, where Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull will open the FIFA World Cup tournament with the song Ole Ola (We are One), and soccer teams will begin competition to determine who is the world’s best.
But far from the soccer stadiums, a different kind of team is setting a different kind of global standard.
They are elite units that swoop in to free slaves from farms, mines and factories — then publicly shame traffickers on a national “dirty list” and persuade major companies to cleanse their supply chains of slavery-tainted raw materials.
Brazil’s innovative anti-slavery program is one of the world’s best, with more than 45,000 people liberated so far. A new FTS video profiles the woman whose inventiveness and leadership made it happen: Ruth Vilela, recipient of a Free the Slaves Freedom Award.
Her first raid “looked like an Indiana Jones movie,” Ruth says. “It was an adventure, surrounded by improvisation.” In the video, she reflects on her remarkable career as Brazil’s Secretary of Labor Inspection at the Ministry of Employment and Labor. “The truth is, I feel a little bit like the mother of this work,” she says, “but it is with great joy that I see other people now taking up this job.” Ruth retired two years ago.
Our thanks to Ruth for her tireless and invaluable contributions to the anti-slavery movement, and our congratulations to her as the most recent recipient of a FTS Freedom Award.
Although they’ve freed tens of thousands of people from slavery, there is still plenty of work for Brazil’s anti-slavery squads. The 2013 Walk Free Global Slavery Index estimates that there are 210,000 people in various forms of slavery in Brazil today.
To learn more about Free the Slaves programs in Brazil, visit our Brazil webpage. Many of the raids executed by government agents are triggered by investigations conducted by our front line partner group, CPT. As well, our front line partner Reporter Brasil publicizes every raid, helping forge a national consensus to bring slavery to an end in Latin America’s largest economy.
What do you call a room full of international development professionals? A golden opportunity!
That’s important because one of our key goals is to get activists who work on causes such as women’s rights, children’s education, micro-enterprise development and rural health to recognize that they should also join the fight against modern-day slavery.
InterAction, a “united voice for global change,” is an association of more than 180 organizations working toward a “peaceful, just and prosperous world.” InterAction fosters partnerships, thought leadership and high standards. FTS was carefully vetted by InterAction’s evaluation team before being accepted for membership earlier this year.
The FTS message at this week’s InterAction conference is that modern-day slavery and other international development causes are interrelated. People fall into slavery because of poverty, discrimination, corruption and a lack of social services. Those problems make them vulnerable prey for traffickers. By reducing those vulnerabilities, and organizing people at the community level to overcome those challenges, we will reduce slavery.
As well, many people don’t benefit from international development investments such as new schools and medical clinics because they are trapped in slavery. When organizations that are promoting education and health also target slavery, more people will be able to participate in development programs. (Read more in this FTS article in InterAction’s monthly magazine.)
FTS Executive Director Maurice Middleberg and our Nepal country director, Neelam Sharma, are spreading the word this week at InterAction that everyone can help end slavery. We’ll let you know how it went in a future post.
The anti-slavery movement is at an historic crossroads. We must do more than awaken the world to the fact that slavery still exists. We must convince the world that slavery can be overcome.
And to do that, we must prove that our work on the front lines is breaking slavery’s grip on the vulnerable communities where we work.
It’s a tall order for Director of Monitoring and Evaluation Sujata Bijou. But she’s never been one to shy away from a challenge. She’s already guided FTS through the process of refining our community-based model for fighting slavery.
Now, she’s begun a world tour to the trafficking hot spots where we’re helping our partner organizations combat slavery.
First stop: Haiti. Sujata traveled to Jacmel for a weeklong M&E workshop with Fondasyon Limyè Lavi (FLL). She explained the importance of rigorous monitoring and the different techniques we’ll be using to evaluate the effectiveness of programs. The goal is not only to demonstrate success; it’s to identify weaknesses in order to strengthen field programs over time.
“They enjoyed the training,” Sujata says, “they definitely learned a lot.”
How does she know? By formally evaluating the workshop, of course.
Next stop: Ghana. Sujata leaves soon to work with our Ghanaian partner Challenging Heights.
And true to form, she’s working to strengthen her M&E road show.
“We are hoping on taking the lessons learned during the training in Haiti and using them to make improvements in Ghana,” Sujata says. “I am really looking forward to it!”
Free the Slaves is pleased to announce that philanthropist, business strategist and biotech executive Daniel Elkes has joined the FTS board of directors.
Dan currently works in the biotechnology industry as the director of the pipeline and portfolio planning group at Genentech, where he uses his expertise in strategic planning, decision analysis and pharmaceutical development to help guide work developing treatments for life threatening diseases. He was previously employed at Medarex, where he was part of the team that developed a revolutionary immunotherapy for oncology, and has also served as a management consultant.
Dan received his Ph.D. in genetics from Harvard University, and earned a Certificate in Public and International Affairs from his undergraduate studies at Princeton University, where he graduated with an A.B. in molecular biology. He has a strong background in Japanese culture and language, and learned Japanese and studied Japanese business practices at Matsushita Electric in Hirakata, Japan.
“I am delighted that Dan has decided to join the board,” says FTS Executive Director Maurice Middleberg. “He brings a great passion for eradicating slavery and a superb, diverse set of skills, including a remarkable capacity for thinking long-term and strategically. His commitment and ability to “think big” will be great assets to Free the Slaves.
“We are pleased to welcome Dan to the board,” says FTS Board Chair Jane Covey. “He brings deep personal commitment to ending slavery as well as strategic thinking, both of which enhance our capacity to govern effectively.”
Dan has a passion for service and has dedicated his career to the mission of improving the quality of life for those around him. He serves as a trustee of the Elkes Foundation and lives in San Carlos California with his wife and three children.