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The ‘School For Justice’ turning Survivors into Agents of Change

A new program in India is helping survivors of child sex trafficking get justice for others like them ― by pursuing careers in the legal system.

The School for Justice, launched in April by Dutch anti-trafficking group Free a Girl, provides funding and other support to women who have escaped underage sex trafficking, so they can prepare for university and earn bachelor’s degrees in law.

Sangita, Survivor and School for Justice participant

The goal is to empower former victims to change how India’s legal system fights trafficking ― because all too often, perpetrators aren’t brought to justice, Free A Girl founder Evelien Hölsken told [us]. The program also aims to raise awareness of child sex trafficking.

The School for Justice’s inaugural class kicked off in April with 19 young women. Four were accepted to university and will start this month... The other 15 will study for another year or so before applying. To maintain their safety, the group is not releasing their full names, the location of the school, or the name of the university that some are attending.

[We] spoke by email with some of the women, who shared their stories and explained why they decided to participate in the program.

Credit: School for Justice

Sangita, a child sex trafficking survivor and School for Justice participant​

“Being poor, I left my family at 9 years old to work in domestic service in a large house. The gardener, gatekeeper, the sweeper and other men abused me there,” survivor Sangita said. “[Years later] I left the house, but I didn’t realize that without money or directions I would not be able to find my way home. I asked [a woman begging on the street] for help, but she took me to a brothel and sold me to it. I was 13 years old.”

“I want to fight against child sexual exploitation and help others like me,” Sangita added. “I am excited about becoming a lawyer and this is why I joined the School for Justice.”

J. Walter Thompson executive Bas Korsten

Millions of women and children are victims of sex trafficking in India, according to the U.S. State Department. Traffickers often promise them opportunities for employment or marriage, only to then force them into prostitution.

While India has strong laws against trafficking, they are not always enforced. In 2014, for instance, police investigated 3,056 human trafficking cases, including 2,604 sex trafficking cases, the State Department reports. Yet 77 percent of the traffickers who were prosecuted were acquitted.

credit: School for Justice

“The police rescued me, after someone working in the red light area tipped them off,” Sangita [said]. “The people in the brothel, they were not even arrested.”

Free A Girl founder Evelien Hölsken

The School for Justice helps survivors become lawyers by covering the cost of school fees, housing, food and transport as they pursue their degrees. The participants all live in the same house, run by staff members of its local partner, which rescues girls from brothels and provides them with housing and education. There, the students take English classes, basic law classes and get assistance applying to and attending university.

The idea for the school emerged after Free a Girl hired Amsterdam-based communications agency J. Walter Thompson to create an ad raising awareness of child sex trafficking in India.

Kalyani, child sex trafficking survivor and School for Justice participant. Credit: School for Justice

“You’re not going to change the system with 19 girls,” [conveyed] J. Walter Thompson executive Bas Korsten... “But you get the ball rolling: They become change agents, the issue gets talked about, international pressure builds on the system for it to change.”

One of the major challenges the School for Justice is tackling is the stigma that sex trafficking survivors face. After girls and women are rescued from brothels, for instance, their families won’t always take them back, Hölsken told [us].

What’s more, the Indian government often arrests survivors for trafficking-related crimes rather than getting them the support they need, the U.S. State Department reports. The problem isn’t limited to trafficking victims in India: In the United States, law enforcement officials often perceive sex trafficking victims as criminals and arrest them for prostitution and other related charges.

“Some parts of our society treat us as ‘something else’ or an insect that has no right to a life or to be a part of mainstream society,” survivor Kalyani [wrote] by email. “I am still not well accepted at my own home.”...

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