The People I Met in India, And What I Learned About Human Trafficking

I’ve been to dozens of countries and seen a lot of notable things, but my trip to India this month will stand out the rest of my life. During my first week home I didn’t get a good night’s sleep, in part due to jet lag, but mostly because stories, images, and people I met were rolling through my mind.

I work on the staff team at Life.Church. We’re passionate about supporting people in a crisis, ensuring people have a way out of poverty, and doing everything we can to protect vulnerable people. One way we work on these causes is by granting funding to partner organizations. In the past three years we’ve granted $9.1 million to six global organizations and 62 local organizations.

If we’re connected on social media, this is why you may see me travel to various places around the world.

A few times each year we assemble small groups from our staff to learn more about the work of our six global partners by seeing it first hand. Learning in this way helps our church feel connected to the impact these organizations are making. And, while on the trip, we also evaluate how the partnership is going and how grant funds are being utilized. Facilitating all of this is part of my job on the Life.Church team.

The group the visited India. Robby Doland, Tiffanie Taylor, Brian Clarke, me, Joey Armstrong, and Erin Crain.

This time we traveled to India to see how our partnership with HOPE International and Tearfund, both world-class organizations and two of our global partners, are addressing the issue of human trafficking.

India is fascinating. It’s always been one of my favorite places in the world, for several reasons.

My first trip to India, fifteen years ago, left a huge impression. Each time I’ve visited has been an occasion to learn more nuance about India’s rich culture fascinating people.

People of India energize me. They are noticeably industrious and intelligent. Whether it be in a rural setting or the packed streets of a major city, there a constant buzz. It’s like a beehive. Streets, businesses, and homes pulsate with rich, vibrant color and human energy.

People of India are beautiful. Bright eyes, dark skin, beaming smiles, and friendly hearts. The famous head bobble — the Indian way of nodding “yes” — adds an air of artful finesse that is unique the world over.

Spirituality is a part of daily life in India. We arrived in India on the second day of Ganesh Chaturthi, a ten-day Hindu festival to honor the elephant-headed god Ganesh’s birthday. Ganesh shrines were everywhere and it seemed a celebration to worship the idol was occurring on every corner.

For the first time, the problem of human trafficking became very real to me. The scope of the issue globally is staggering.

Observers estimate there are more than twenty million slaves in India and that one new person is trafficked into slavery every ten minutes. Some slaves are forced to do manual labor as a house servant or doing hard, backbreaking labor. Some are forced into prostitution. Trafficking isn’t just a problem in India. It’s a global issue, even in my own city.

While in India, we met women who are forced to work as a prostitute in the commercial sex industry. I can tell you that I’ve never seen anything more dark and evil in my lifetime.

A handful of Tearfund staff who operate a drop-in center — where women who are forced to work in the sex trade can visit for community, encouragement, and even rescue — walked us through a twelve-square-block brothel section in one of India’s largest cities. (I’m not naming locations to protect the local staff.)

One of the women who Tearfund is working with at a drop-in center invited us into the building where she lives and works. This is her home. It is essentially a large locker (around 30 square feet) where she lives with her son and it’s also where she entertains her clients. Out of her earnings, she has to pay $100 in “rent” to the owner of the brothel. That means she is paying around $3 per square foot, which makes this among the most expensive space to rent in the world. The brothel owner gets rich while the poor and vulnerable are taken advantage of.

There are eighteen three-to-four story buildings in the brothel section where 25,000 women live and work in forced prostitution. These women — from teenagers to women in their sixties — service 8–10 clients each day. To see it on such as large and systemic scale was just staggering.

Trafficking is not kidnapping. It happens when a person is isolated and desperate for income.

I didn’t fully understand this until recently, but it is rare that a person is abducted into a trafficked situation. In reality, trafficking happens when a child or a parent feels trapped, alone, and can’t find enough work to make ends meet and take care of their family.

Along comes a “job broker” who manages to build trust then promises a job, education, or a brighter future in another city. So parents will send their daughter off with the job broker in hopes they are giving her a better life. Or dad will head out to take a “job” in rock quarry across the country. Or maybe mom will leave her small rural town for the promise of a domestic servant job for a wealthy family in the city.

Then reality sets in upon arrival in the new city. The “job broker” charges a “fee” for the job placement and to cover the travel expenses, so on day one the person is now in debt as they discover the job is either hard labor or forced prostitution. Abuse and intimidation are almost always involved.

Tearfund coordinates a network of local churches who rotate in shifts on these train tracks to watch for adults transporting kids they have trafficked from the rural areas of India. If they spot someone who looks suspicious, they will confront the person and call in law enforcement. The day we took this photo FIVE kids were rescued from traffickers at this station and turned over to law enforcement. Today they are re-united with their families.

The promise of a brighter future turns into a nightmare as the person is trapped, in debt, with no money, and no way to get back home. Feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness become overpowering as a person slowly gives into the situation. Days turn to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years. The business owner — whether it’s a brothel, a quarry, or a sweatshop — gets rich at the expense of an enslaved workforce.

In the midst of this evil, we also met people with astounding stories of hope, leadership, and dignity.

The local church in India is fighting to get women out of sex trafficking. Through the drop-in centers operated in partnership with Tearfund, they help women walk through the journey towards restoration.

With Tearfund’s help, this lovely young lady is working her way out of slavery. She’s been working as a prostitute in the brothel since she was a teenager, but is near to paying off her “debt” when she’ll be free to go. In the meantime she is learning job skills (sewing and jewelry making) and is working through the emotional rehabilitation needed to overcome such a terrible past. She is surrounded by a local church that provides her with love and support and will be there for her through the rest of her journey towards restoration.

But it is important to know that rescuing a person who is trapped in slavery is incredibly difficult. Slave owners are violent, law enforcement is slow to respond (or doesn’t help at all) and the emotional and physical damage is so deep and the the rehabilitation process so long.

All this to say that, while rescue and restoration must be done, it cannot be viewed as the solution to the problem. The solution is trafficking is preventing it. Prevention must be focused on the core issues: isolation and lack of income. This is where HOPE International and Tearfund place most of their efforts.

Local churches, the real heroes in the fight against trafficking, are using Savings Groups as a tool for prevention.

We spent two days with a group that has been starting new churches in central India for the past twenty years. Across the region, there are several dozen groups of first-generation Christians who are committed to serving their communities.

Two years ago, through a partnership with HOPE International, this network of churches introduced the concept of Savings Groups throughout throughout several communities as a poverty alleviation tool.

This is a Savings Group meeting. The participants were gracious enough for us to sit in and observe the meeting to understand how it works. Participants build strong friendships as they meet weekly to learn, pray together, and save money together.

A Savings Group is comprised of 10–20 people who meet together once per week for 1–2 hours. They build trust and become a support to each other. They learn from the Bible together (though a person in a Savings Group is often not a Christian). And they save a small amount of money together each week. It turns out that Savings Groups are a powerful tool in the prevention of human trafficking.

When a person becomes involved in a group, they build strong friendships and are no longer isolated. And they gain economic strength, which makes a person far less desperate to reach for a job opportunity that leads to slavery.

Kids are also involved in Savings Groups. These kids are learning early on the power of community, the hope there is in Christ, that they have the dignity and strength, and that they can leverage money they save to develop economic strength and earn a living.

In eighteen months, this network of churches has started 180 Saving Groups. Some participants are church members, but most are not. The first few were hard to start because it was a new concept, but word of mouth is so good that people are now clamoring to get into a group. Their problem now is training enough facilitators to meet the demand.

Two people I met, Vasanth and Radya, are flourishing and free from the vulnerability of human trafficking because of their involvement in a Savings Group.

We arrived at Vasanth and Radya’s home after sunset and during a rainstorm. They live about thirty minutes outside of the city in central India. I pulled on a rain jacket and headed into the downpour and towards Vasanth and Radya’s home. (I’ve changed their names, but the story is true).

Vasanth and Radya are sitting in the middle, and Vasanth is holding their baby boy. Vasanth’s brother and sister-in-law and their kids also joined us. They welcomed me with flowers which are around my neck. I’m showing them pics of my family on my phone.

Their home is constructed with sheet metal, tarps, and ropes, sort of like a permanent tent. They don’t own the property they live on nor do they pay rent. Along with 15–20 other families they’ve settled on open space and set up a small community — referred to as a slum — near the rock quarry where most of the families are employed.

We talked, drank Chai tea, and shared about our families for over an hour. Vasanth and Rhadya both work eleven hours per day in a rock quarry. He breaks rock and she loads the broken rocks into a container. There’s no child care so their 18-month old baby goes to the quarry with them. Together, they make roughly $8 per day, barely enough for a basic existence. Vasanth is very vulnerable to being trafficked. The promise of a job could lure him into trouble very quickly.

Vasanth, their baby boy, and Rhadya.

But that’s not their story. Vasanth is ten months away from having enough funds to buy an auto rickshaw (sort of like a taxi). Then they’ll both quit working at the quarry, he’ll work as a rickshaw taxi driver, and she plans to be a full time mom. They are fast to give the credit for their progress to the community in their Savings Group. The friendships give them support, they’re saving money to buy a rickshaw, and have become followers of Christ due to the group. Families in India who work in hard labor like Vasanth and Rhadya are so vulnerable, yet these two are moving towards strength.

As a church we’re fighting human trafficking in seven ways through our partnerships with HOPE International and Tearfund.

1 — Helping families build a way to make a living, so they’re less vulnerable to fall into the lure of a promised job that ends up in slavery. 
2 — Connecting people to each other in groups and helping them to learn the Bible together, creating community and spiritual transformation.
3 — Leading families to save money, which enables them to be prepared for emergencies, have a greater sense of dignity, and become less vulnerable.
4 — Creating awareness of the issue of trafficking so church leaders can spot and confront traffickers working in their communities. 
5 — Rescuing kids who enter large cities on the train by confronting the traffickers attempting to smuggle kids into the city. 
6 — Rehabilitating children, men, and women who want to get out of a trafficked situation and restored back to their communities. 
7 — Advocating to law enforcement on behalf of vulnerable communities and individuals who are already caught in trafficking.

When you give a dollar to Life.Church, the impact of your giving extends through our partners HOPE International and Tearfund in some pretty remarkable ways.

As followers of Christ, it is our job to be about restoring the broken aspects of the world.

My mind can’t even get around how the evil of human trafficking is possible. I take comfort in the fact that Christ protects and restores, so I pray He will do that for each person I met in India.

But, for me, prayer must be accompanied with action. I pray that God gives me the focus, strength, and tenacity to appropriately mobilize resources to address the issue of human trafficking, both in my own home state and around the globe.

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