In recent years, an innovative program known as the School for Justice has been empowering young women who have survived sexual slavery in India and beyond. The initiative, developed by the Dutch group Free a Girl, helps survivors pursue a degree in law, social work, or journalism with the goal of bringing the perpetrators of human trafficking to justice. The program was established in India in 2017 and has since expanded to Nepal and Brazil.
Riya Parvin, a law student from West Bengal, India, is one such student who was sold into sexual slavery at the age of 17. After being held against her will for 15 days, she was able to escape with the help of a Bengali man. Unlike many trafficking victims, Parvin has not been defined by stigma, ostracization, and discrimination. Instead, she is pursuing a law degree to defend other trafficking victims.
“I have learned a lot and I want to work to get justice for girls like me,” says Parvin.
By helping young women attain degrees and jobs through which they can defend other trafficking victims, School for Justice helps break the cycle of exploitation. The program collaborates with local NGOs to identify trafficking survivors and assists them in obtaining admission to universities to pursue degrees. The girls receive an array of support and, after completion of their studies, the program assists them in obtaining internships and jobs at law firms.
According to the International Labor Organization, in 2021, there were 49.6 million individuals in modern slavery, of whom 27.6 million were engaged in forced labor and 22 million in forced marriage. More than half of these individuals were from the Asia and Pacific regions. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), set forth by the United Nations, aim to eliminate such forms of exploitation and to promote sustainability. In particular, SDG 8 seeks to promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.
School for Justice helps to achieve this goal by providing survivors of sexual slavery with the tools they need to fight against the perpetrators of human trafficking. The program also runs trainings and workshops on children’s rights, human trafficking, and cyber laws. Several of the School for Justice’s graduates are practicing in Sealdah court in West Bengal, India, helping to bring justice to those who have been victimized.
Sumi Sarkar is a product of such circumstances. At the age of 18, Sarkar entered the sex trade due to the lure of having money for decent meals. Within a year, she had been trafficked to a remote resort in Southern Bengal. She was later rescued by Vihaan, an anti-trafficking NGO, and the police in Kolkata. After escaping from slavery, Sarkar fell into depression and was plagued with guilt for being so naive. However, Vihaan introduced her to the School for Justice, which helped her pursue a career in social work where she could assist young women forced into the sex trade.
Today, Sarkar is pursuing a bachelor of social work degree at a reputed college in Kolkata as part of the School for Justice program. As part of her coursework, she has completed internships at NGOs like Women Interlink Foundation, World Vision, and Gana Unnayan Parshad, a women’s empowerment group. Whenever needed, she offers assistance to other School for Justice participants. The support from the program has helped her to continue her studies, forget her past, and face the future bravely. “I conducted many awareness sessions with young boys and girls, and I want to become an agent of change and support victims like me to fight against injustice confidently without being naïve,” she says.
The School for Justice program's success in empowering young women who were victims of human trafficking to become advocates for others is a positive step towards achieving the vision of a global society that prioritizes sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By providing education, training, and job opportunities to these young women, the program not only helps to prevent human trafficking but also promotes gender equality, access to education, and decent work and economic growth, among other SDGs. Ultimately, the program's impact goes beyond individual empowerment and contributes to building a more just and sustainable world for everyone.