India (MNN) — This coming Sunday, July 30th is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. The International Labour Organization estimates at least 21 million people are in forced labor and sexual exploitation today. The blight is widespread, not isolated to particular countries and communities, and is something several Christian ministries are combatting as an affront to God’s creation.
Food for the Hungry is one such ministry taking action against human trafficking. But they’re doing it both by rescuing victims and by getting in front of the problem. Food for the Hungry has partnered with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) to minister to the Banjara people in central India.
The Banjara people number around six million — the largest nomadic people group in India. Their culture is inundated in 500 years of Hinduism and many Banjara live in extreme poverty.
Gary Edmonds, President and CEO of Food for the Hungry, explains, “They realize that they’re poor, they’re often desperate, and so buyers and sellers of young girls will come along and the fathers will take and literally sell their daughters…and put them into a trafficked, sexual exploitation context where these young daughters then literally become prostitutes.”
To combat this issue, FH and YWAM together have established safe homes for rescued victims of sexual slavery. They are called Houses of Palms and act quite literally as an oasis for healing and hope.
“We take them into a home where they’re going to be cared for, they’re going to be nurtured, they’re going to be given clean clothes, they’re going to have house parents, and at the same time, spiritual formation and educational opportunities.”
Sometimes these rescued girls have become so brainwashed in their abuse that they think they somehow deserved it. And especially for those from a Hindu background, they believe it is Karma that put them in their position.
But the Gospel offers a different message to victims of trafficking.
“We realize that part of what we have to do with these young girls is to let them know in particular that this is not okay, this is not God’s will, this is not God’s intention for them, that they are people of worth and dignity. So in the rescuing of them, we have to let them know that there is a God of love, that there is a God of mercy and compassion, and the House of Palms and the people there represent God’s mercy, compassion, and grace.”
Edmonds shares the story of Lydia, a girl who was rescued out of trafficking and, in the process, found Christ.
“She found that there was love. We were able to go back and talk to her family, let them know that Lydia is now cared for, she’s in a school, she’s made a profession of faith to Jesus Christ, and at the same time, she’s being discipled. That’s opened the door up to be able to talk to Lydia’s family in ways that we were never able to talk to them in the past and say to them, ‘There’s an alternative right now. There’s a different way.’”
Getting in front of the problem
To get to the root of the issue, Food for the Hungry also asks, “What leads parents to sell their children to traffickers in the first place, knowingly or not?” The answer is most often poverty.
“We have to partner with local people. We’ve learned in these kinds of situations that you must engage the local population — that if you don’t engage the local population, if you simply try to rescue some of these young girls or these young people who have been caught up in trafficking or sexual exploitation, then it’ll turn around. Those who are the traffickers, they’ll go back out the following week or the following month and they’ll find others ones, they’ll buy more into their services.”
So something else FH does is go into poor communities in India targeted by traffickers, and they teach families about sustainable agriculture to raise them out of poverty.
“We are training and working about how to develop a whole community that can be self-sustaining where there’s good agriculture, where there’s education, there’s adequate health, and at the same time, train them and teach them how to mitigate from any kind of disaster. So that has to go hand-in-hand with the activity on addressing and counteracting sexual exploitation.”
From trafficked to transformed
Ultimately, Edmonds says FH is all about community transformation in the name of Christ, both to heal those who have been abused and to uplift those whose poverty and life situation makes them vulnerable to traffickers who would take advantage of them.
“We’re coming against it in a way to say that God has power, God has truth, God has grace and mercy to help these people, and it needs to be addressed in a very holistic way. Yes, we need to rescue these young children, these teenagers, often girls. But at the same time, we need to work with the whole community to mitigate those communities of the various factors that have led the communities to this kind of literal evil, destructive, degrading activity which is sexual exploitation.”
So what can you do to stop human trafficking in all its forms?
The problem can seem too big, but Edmonds encourages, “I invite you, I call you as a people to engage, not simply or solely with anger at that point, but simply to say, ‘Can we support, can we engage with groups and organizations who will actively be present in very personal, relational ways to not only rescue the victims, but at the same time, overcome and change all the factors of the communities that has brought about this kind of activity?’”