An Ashoka Fellow and Aspen ILI Fellow, the Founder and Managing Director of Impulse Social Enterprises and the Founder Chair of the Board of the Impulse NGO Network, Hasina Kharbhih is a crusader in the war against human trafficking.
For 30 years now, she has been working to provide a sustainable livelihood in a safe environment for women and children. What started out as a mission in her home state of Meghalaya has today evolved into a global program that aims to put an end to human trafficking and exploitation worldwide. Join us as we learn more about her tumultuous journey.
Q. You had initiated the Impulse NGO at a very young age. How was the Impulse NGO formed?
I was a very active person in school. Academically, I was an average student but my extra-curricular activities motivated me to be more engaged in what I was doing with the community. So, I joined the leadership training services. We would be engaged in community work and outreach programs from our school. I was heading the community work outside the school. Every weekend I was completely engaged in visiting old age homes, orphanages, school activities and workshops.
After I completed my schooling, I realized that it was time that I did something beyond school. I realized that only people who were retired or who had more time on their hands were the ones who were engaged in social change. “Why can’t young people do that?” I wondered. So, I initiated the Alumni of the Leadership training services to take forward the school activities I was engaged in, having seen first-hand community development work and that all these activities were very charitable in their approach. And thus, the Impulse NGO Network was born.
Q. How did you try to curb child labour and unsafe migration?
When we initiated, I realized that the main problem existing in my hometown was that there were a lot of children on the streets who were working as domestic helpers. A lot of volunteers and young people got involved in mapping the entire exercise, in gathering data and information.
So, the first course of action was realizing that economic issues of rural communities were the reasons for unsafe migration leading to the trafficking of children for labour.
The second course was taking the data and information that we gathered to the respective local governments to make sure that their rights were to be fulfilled by constitutional law. That was the entry point for us. It was not just about providing shelter and services, but it was also about engaging the legal tools.
The main challenge was that people thought that we were too young to understand the severity of this issue. As we were trying to dive deeper, we started a livelihood initiative for economic development, so that children would not have to work was the pilot initiative. It grew and after 26 years now, we have ‘Impulse Social Enterprises’, which engages in the same. Unless and until we strengthen the sustainable livelihood of rural and even urban communities, unsafe migration will take place.
Q. Did you come across any certain incident that made you fight for this cause? If yes, could you tell us more about it?
The turning point for us was when I was invited to participate in the South-East Asia regional consultation in Kolkata way back in 1999 by the ATSEC, Action Against Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation of Children.
I was asked to share the problems existing in my state, Meghalaya and also the North-Eastern areas of India. I had this opportunity to listen to all these established organisations from South-East Asia talking about human trafficking and trafficking of children.
As I was still very young then, this allowed me to dive deep within myself to understand how this menace of slavery took place. We shared our perspectives and findings of our regions and realized what the entry of human trafficking looked like, how it took place and how people get exploited. This led me to the realization that human trafficking could also be one of the issues rampant in my region.
Since I had little to no knowledge on the subject of human trafficking I started collecting information, data and contacts from all the organisations that I had met, with the hopes of reconnecting and working with them. It was very evident that we had to work collectively because when we started off, it was due to the collective voices of young people that led to addressing the issue in my hometown.
I came back to Shillong and shared my experiences with my team. I realized that we needed to reach out and those were the initial years that the Internet came to our country. We didn’t have Wi-Fi in our office, so my team and I would go to cyber cafes and send e-mails. So, an email campaign was initiated to reach out to all the organizations I had met during the ATSEC consultation. We introduced who we were and the problems in our region and how exactly we could work together. I also informed them that if they ever found girls of the North-East in any region they were working in, that they could reach out to us and we will work together in ensuring the safe repatriation of these girls back home. We sent almost 80 to 200 emails.
In a few months, we got a response from Prerana, an organisation in Mumbai informing me that there were two girls rescued from the red-light area in GV road and that they need to be repatriated back to their hometown in Shillong. So, the process started, we had a case in our hands and we had to look for a solution and that solution was not ready-made.
Q. What is the Impulse model and how did it come into existence?
There was no ready-made solution. Every step of the first case to the next and the next and the lessons of dealing with each case from the legal and human rights lens in the last 15 years helped in shaping the Impulse model. We realised that collective leadership was very important and that led to the birth of the Impulse Model.
The model has 12 pillars which evolved over the years. The 12 pillars are the six Ps and the six Rs. The six Ps are Partnership, Prevention, Protection, Policing, Press and Prosecution, the core values and the heart and soul of the organisation. The actions are the six Rs, Report, Rescue, Rehabilitation, Repatriation, Reintegration and Recompensation. The Rs and Ps work together collectively as key stakeholders under a single window platform.
The model evolution and conceptualization were action-based, based on cases that we dealt with over the years. So, it’s an innovation that evolved out of the ground and out of every case. The solution that we got out of it earned the Impulse model the World Innovation Prize in 2012 from the Global Development Network and Japan’s Most Innovative Development Project.
Q. Could you share some of the best moments of this thirty-year journey of yours?
I think one of the best moments was when the Impulse Model was among the three finalists for the World Innovation Prize from the Global Development Network in 2012 and I was invited to Budapest to compete with the other two finalists.
The three finalist submissions were very different from each other, both in innovation and development. The moment I was announced the winner, I just felt deep down that the journey of 15 years, all the hardships, the struggles and the anxiety were worth it. When I had to go up on the stage, I felt so good that the initiative that I took up had so much value to the world and that it could be scaled further.
The second one was when we rescued a young girl and had to get her back to give testimony as a witness in court. This young brave-hearted girl, just under 16 years of age, made me braver. She was giving a statement in court to get her trafficker behind bars, even though we encountered many threats and were on the run. The trafficker got life imprisonment.
Her telling me that unless and until we strengthen the economic livelihood of the people, we can never stop slavery, it changed my whole perspective on the work that I was doing. The journey with her made me re-examine my work. Those words she said were a turning point in the model’s evolution in terms of prevention. These are unforgettable moments of my life that makes me believe that what I’m doing is worthwhile.
Q. When you decided to expose the atrocities of human trafficking, what were challenges you faced?
Breaking the nexus of a crime such as human trafficking which revolves around Mafias and networks of Mafias, I faced many challenges. Way back in 2009, I was threatened. My office was ransacked and I was even physically assaulted. In fact, my driver died on the spot.
I realized that when you break the nexus of the crime and when you break a business of crime which is feeding a 30-million-dollar business, it’s a thing nobody in the business would be happy about. However, I think that being able to stand by and being able to say, no, I’ll continue, was because of my determination.
At the same time, I will also say that, being a woman and doing what I was doing, it’s a field where you have more men be it the crime-specific, engaging law enforcement or engaging border forces, this whole space is very men-oriented, it has fewer women so that itself was a gender struggle I had to face but I think I coped with it to prove a point. My actions spoke louder than my words but it took some time.
Q. What do you believe is the true reason behind your success?
I think my belief in myself, the resilience not to give up even at the most difficult times, my hard work and the people who believed in my leadership, who came forward to engage themselves is what made me successful.
Q. Despite all the backlash and setbacks, what gives you the strength to continuously commit to your cause?
When I look at slavery and my experiences with human trafficking, I realized that someone has to stand up and make a change and if I don’t do it how would I get other people engaged? I don’t believe in just talking about it, I believe in standing up for it and so, I did what I had to do.