What inspired you to support the movement against child sexual slavery and exploitation?
So many events in my life have culminated to this point: a life dedicated to combating sexual violence and trafficking. When I entered university, I learned about a trafficking case that took place right across from my dormitory at UC Berkeley. Lakireddy, a Berkeley landlord and restaurant owner, came under investigation when a young woman died in one of his apartment buildings. He was convicted for both sex and labor trafficking. This made me realize that what makes modern-day slavery so elusive is that its existence lies in the most seemingly normal terrain. By this point, issues of sexual violence and trafficking had crept into so many facets of my life, from my own personal experience, initial exposure to the issue in post-tsunami India, in my backyard at Berkeley, in an Indian restaurant in the same area, and countless other instances. There was no escaping it, and I was as sure of it being my calling as I’m sure the sun rises and falls every day. From here, my interest and activism on the issue has grown exponentially.
A a survivor of sexual violence myself, I feel both a very personal and professional connection to the issue. My personal and professional growth as an activist has involved both a maturation of my own thinking (from blaming myself for what happened, to recognizing this isn’t my, my family or anyone’s fault, but the perpetrator) and expansion of my professional and academic knowledge of the multifaceted issue of sexual violence and human trafficking, through learning from colleagues and other survivors.
How did you go about setting up your non-profit organisation?
Early on in my career, I had a lot of ideas to experiment with my personal love of technology applications (in particular map/social media mashups, mobile/SMS technology, databases etc) and anti-trafficking efforts. This was around 2009 when I was finishing up the Zimmerman Fellowship at Free the Slaves. It was hard to get these ideas off the ground with existing NGOs, either because people were skeptical about the ideas, or liked them but just didn’t have the budget to support it. My former professor and mentor from my community college days took me under her wing and provided our organization, Freedom Connect (formerly known as Survivors Connect), with 501c3 sponsorship so we could jump start our activities, without being weighed down by the difficulties of formal registration.
Freedom Connect will soon be under new leadership. I have since transitioned on to work as a Training & Technical Assistance Specialist at the Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center (OVC TTAC). I’ve only been in this role for four months, but it has been an incredibly enlightening experience working from the government-side of anti-trafficking, after being in the public sector for over five years.
What are the aims of your organisations and what are the plans to achieve them?
Freedom Connect (formerly known as Survivors Connect) is a non-profit working to enhance emerging anti-trafficking efforts through the power of innovative communication technologies such as social media, mobile, crowd sourcing, digital storytelling and more. We envision a world where anti-trafficking advocates are made more powerful through intelligent and thoughtful use of connective technology.
We started out as an NGO working to promote survivor-led anti-trafficking efforts, and one of our first projects was a survivor-led SMS helpline system. Our constant tinkering with technology helped us realized that we could use these same technologies, along with several others to improve anti-trafficking protection, prosecution and prevention efforts even in the most challenging settings. Building on this early success, we have supported eleven organizations to use technology to improve their anti-trafficking activities in over five countries.
Today, we have a broad toolkit of technologies, including software we’ve developed inhouse as well as open source software created by other organizations. We continue to help our partners, including one of our founding projects, the Survivors Connect Network, which is an online support and advocacy network of survivors of trafficking, and we could not be more enthralled to see this project thrive.
I am also working on a new start up on nights and weekends called Breaking Heels. Breaking Heels is a social enterprise where we’re utilizing the power of fashion to combat human trafficking. I am designing a crazy height-adjustable high heel shoe that fully transforms from a high heel to a flat, making it ideal for day or night. The inspiration and idea for the invention happened haphazardly after I experienced an accident wearing high heel shoes. The name ‘breaking heels’ arose while I had my iPod on shuffle on my way to visit engineers. My iPod shuffled to a song called “Can’t stop pimpin’” by Lil Jon. When I was an undergrad, I used this song as an example of the pervasiveness of trafficking imagery in popular music and culture. In it, there is a phrase where he says, “bitch break your heels off and make me rich.” When I heard this phrase, I looked it up in other places, only to realize that it’s a popular street term to refer to women who are forcefully prostituted by pimps and asked to meet their quota at any cost. It was then that I decided that my product could be called Breaking Heels, as a way to claim the phrase back as a positive statement against trafficking. With each purchase, we change the meaning, and we’re ‘breaking heels’ to end trafficking.
With any new product invention, it comes with crazy amounts of investment, time and legal issues involved. We’re still finalizing prototypes and our patent. When we’re past this stage, we will launch our survivor fashion workshops to design the first seasonal line of shoes. When we’re finally on sale, a portion of the proceeds will go towards establishing a scholarship fund for survivors for academic/professional development, as well as a fund for targeted demand reduction programs that work with youth to emerge as leaders against sexual violence in their community.
What have you learned on the job or in training that has been particularly useful to you when working to rescue victims of child sex slavery and exploitation?
The most important thing I’ve learned is that one needs to approach this field with humility and openness to accepting different viewpoints and experiences for what they are. This issue very quickly inspires people to join together for action, but somehow also just as quickly, creates divisions among advocates. These debates tend to revolve around the idea of legalization, best practices in service provision, needs of foreign nationals vs. domestic victims, policy strategy and more. I understand that we’ll never be rid of debates entirely (let’s face it, in many cases its healthy!). However, let’s meaningfully engage on these issues and not alienate people in the process.
Another thing I’ve learned on the job is just how important survivors voices are. When I first got involved in the issue, I met survivors often in the capacity of NGO spokespersons. Today, I see networks and associations of survivors who come together in one voice advocating for social and political change on this issue. It’s so inspiring. Their voices and experiences are so critical to the fight against trafficking. We can only deliver victim-centered, culturally and socially appropriate services and legal change with their input.
What legal improvements or changes would help to abolish child sexual slavery and exploitation? Do these same improvements and changes apply to abolishing the human trafficking and sexual slavery of adults or should different measures be taken instead of, or in addition, to those?
I think oftentimes legal changes are really attractive advocacy activities for emerging activists: it’s a concrete goal, and when achieved, can be easily identified and celebrated. While there are many areas of the United States and countries globally that can stand to pass more robust laws to combat trafficking, no problem is ever fully eradicated by legislating it out. I think the bigger issue is implementing what is already in the books. I’ve had the privilege of meeting very skilled lawyers who have put into practice ‘strategic litigation’ in order to create change in the legal system, and teach others how you can use existing laws to build stronger sentences against traffickers. We need more strategic litigators so it becomes a quick, regular, and most importantly easy process to nab those who are guilty of this heinous crime.
I also think we need a serious shift in societal and cultural norms about sexual violence. We need to evolve where it’s abundantly obvious that exploiting children and sexual violence is just NOT okay. I know this seems obvious, but if it truly was, we wouldn’t have this issue.
A shift in societal attitude takes time. It took a few decades of strong advocacy for drunk driving to become a big ‘no-no’. Now, choosing a designated driver before a night out is just good sense and common practice. It also took several decades for society to understand the cycle of violence involved in domestic violence, and why it’s so difficult for people to leave their abusers. Similarly, with the issue of safe sex – for many, sex without a condom is unthinkable. It’s common enough that even the subject is often substance of comedy in major sitcoms. There are many issues that were once socially acceptable (even institutionalized slavery!), but are now considered unthinkable by popular culture and society.
In order to change our current ways of thinking, we need to approach the issue in the same way, by embedding its unlawfulness in mainstream thought. Time and thoughtful awareness raising will get us there. Keep in mind too, that this isn’t just a shift in thinking for the general public; it’s also a shift in thinking for people in professional capacities. For instance, law enforcement needing to look beyond the black/white lens of innocent vs guilty, or a border patrol agent needing to look beyond the black/white lens of illegal vs legal immigrant. A nuanced understanding is required all around.
This is one of the reasons I am super excited about Breaking Heels. It is my hope that the product involves everyday consumers to talk about the issue and start internalizing its relevance to our daily lives. I want the survivor-inspired shoe and other products to be a conversation starter, and make the issue well known.
For anyone else who wants to be involved, what can other people do to help?
In my professional career, I realized that I found a passion for the cause, before I found passion for a type of work I wanted to do, which made it difficult to decide how to get involved. For example, a biology or pre-med student may have their heart set on being a doctor, but they often don’t know their specialty until they get into practice or med school. In my case, the specialty found me first (anti-trafficking), but my work could be conducted in so many ways: as a writer, policy advocate, lawyer, social worker, counselor/therapist, NGO leader, etc etc. which to choose?!
If you’re new the the issue, there are two key things you need to do 1) READ UP and 2) SPEAK UP. Trafficking is an incredibly complex issue; it involves U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, various forms of labor, sex, men, women, transgender, adults, children, and more. Unlike historical/institutionalized slavery, modern-day slavery and trafficking is indiscriminate. In order to be a good advocate, you should READ UP as much as you can about the issue, about organizations working on the issue, various arguments and views about solutions, best practices in the field, and more. The second thing is to SPEAK UP. Friends, family, Facebook friends, Twitter followers, blog subscribers etc. Let them know you care and why. The number one way that people become aware or come to care about an issue is when someone close to them cares. The more who share, the more our movement grows.
If you want a career in anti-trafficking, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. I tend to get this question a lot and would be happy to help you think through it.
If you want to get involved as a volunteer, definitely reach out by email as well. There are an endless number of organizations that need support, either with fundraising, outreach and awareness, survivor mentoring and more.
Recommended websites/books/films/further reading:
Sign up for free Google Alerts for ‘human trafficking’ so you get the latest news on the issue.
Want to find anti-trafficking organizations in your area? Check out Freedom Datamap at www.freedom-connect.com/datamap
For more about technology application against trafficking:
Technology Helps Breaks the Slience Against Violence in Haiti: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/01/19/mobile_message_survivors_connect_haiti/
Days in The Life of (Me): Google Women in Technology Project: http://googlewit.blogspot.com/2012/09/days-in-life-with-aashika-damodar.html
SMS Joins the Battle Against Trafficking: http://www.kiwanja.net/blog/2010/01/sms-joins-battle-against-human-trafficking/
USC Annenberg School: Technology & Human Trafficking Report: http://technologyandtrafficking.usc.edu/2012-report/#.UQ1Is0o3nzp
Freedom Connect (formerly known as Survivors Connect) www.freedom-connect.com
Breaking Heels www.breakingheels.com
Office for Victims of Crime, Training & Technical Assistance Center (my current employer!) www.ovcttac.gov
My own website www.aashikadamodar.com