3 things Freedom Fund knows about eradicating modern slavery

Staff from the Migrant Worker Resource Center in Cambodia educates a group of women on safe migration. Photo by: ILO / CC BY-NC-ND

BANGKOK — It’s becoming clear that certain interventions work better than others in the fight to end modern slavery, according to a recent report from the Freedom Fund.

The Freedom Fund was founded to drive a more ambitious research agenda to identify — and invest in — the most effective frontline efforts to eradicate abuses such as sex trafficking and bonded labor. Over the past four years, the fund has supported more than 100 partner NGOs to deliver a broad range of interventions to combat slavery in contexts with a prevalent number of cases, such as Northern India, Southeastern Nepal, Ethiopia, and Thailand.

The group’s focus on quantitative measurement allows it to more successfully target its programs, according to Yuki Lo, Freedom Fund senior research and evaluation officer.  

“Traditionally, people start with small case studies, but we’re interested in understanding the experiences of the large cohort of victims, not just the worst cases. We want to know the proportion of workers who are owed money from their employer in back pay, for example,” Lo said of exploitative employers withholding employee wages.

Along the way, the private donor fund has recognized the disproportionate impact of trafficking on women. While slavery is not solely a female issue, of the 40 million people trapped in modern slavery today, about 70 percent of them are women and girls, according to 2017 research published by the International Labour Organization and the Walk Free Foundation.

The Freedom Fund’s recently released report, “Her freedom, her voice: Insights from the Freedom Fund’s work with women and girls,” draws on experiences from the fund’s last four years working with grassroots organizations as well as with both men and women in diverse trafficking hotspots around the world.

The group is continuing to fold the report’s lessons and recommendations into their own work and investment decisions, but wants to deliver on their goal of information sharing in the meantime, Lo said.

Devex caught up with Lo to find out what’s proving to work in the global fight to end modern slavery — and what’s not.

1. General ‘awareness raising’ activities aren’t a smart investment.

Broad awareness programs don’t work, especially in terms of warning people of the risks of migration, Lo said. There are any number of reasons that people choose to migrate, and “general messaging like ‘Don’t migrate’ or ‘Don’t work in the sex industry’… That’s not helpful,” she added.

Research by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, commissioned for The Freedom Fund’s Ethiopia hotspot work, found that safer migration programming should be informed by an understanding of migrants’ perceptions of risk, and their motivations about whether and how to migrate.

Including specific factors, such as “You might think you can make $500 a month if you migrate to the capital city, but most people end up earning X instead” can be more successful in gaining attention.

Another study found that Ethiopian women selectively listened to positive stories from returned migrants, while ignoring reports of abuse. In response, several of the fund’s partners in the East African nation began engaging returned migrants as change agents, inviting them to talk about their experiences to others who were considering making the journey.

2. Rescue’ without ongoing support is a bad idea.

The Freedom Fund supports liberations only where services for survivor recovery are provided — a policy they formalized with partners in July 2016. Since its start, the fund has liberated 13,552 people, according to Lo, whether through gradual change or shorter “rescue events.”

Though rescues are sometimes needed, raid and rescue operations to remove women and girls from situations of slavery can cause unintended harm, according to the report. A rescue can often leave survivors worse off financially, a stressful situation for those sending money home, and it can be psychologically damaging for those employees, especially children, who consider their managers — despite their exploitative practices — a friend or a caretaker.

Instead, Lo encourages those in the antitrafficking sector to consider that a “rescue” may be a much slower process with a longer timeline for full recovery. Support services like drop-in centers, shelters, counseling, and job training can encourage “a more gradual and informed exit,” Lo said.

“We don’t think of aftercare as only after the so-called rescue,” Lo added. “We’re providing similar support to workers still working in exploitative situations as well as those who have decided to exit.”

People who have been in more traumatic situations, for example in bonded labor for a long period of time, might not experience the trauma until long after they’ve exited the situation, Lo said. “That’s why we keep in touch over a long period. We’ve supporting a lot of people through two or three year journeys.”

The Freedom Fund’s partners are seeing positive results with their work to strengthen women and girls’ agency with programs aimed at training in judgment and other practical skills like basic numeracy. And to address local employment challenges, some of the group’s local partners in Tamil Nadu, India are offering programs that help women explore different career options, such as mobile phone repair and desktop publishing.

3. There’s little progress without wider community involvement — and prevention efforts.

The antislavery sector has become more united in the past few years, Lo said, with an increasing number of networks at the national and subnational level. But too often the big picture focus settles on economic constraints — like the fact that many trafficking victims in India have incurred high interest debt for health expenses — rather than the root causes.

“It’s not just about economics, it’s about having access to education and health care … and it’s not just about creating better jobs, a lot of it is about helping these communities access public services — or demand them for their government.”

In an effort to build more resilient communities, the Freedom Fund has invested in the creation of a range of community groups, from discussion groups challenging harmful norms, to savings and loans groups, to vigilance groups working to prevent traffickers from operating freely.

Still, an area of antitrafficking that doesn’t receive enough attention remains prevention work, Lo said. “We think that there is a lot of work that can be done at scale in prevention.”

Freedom Fund partners are working with young women in the textile sector, for example, to educate them in wage laws, the permissible number of overtime hours allowed, and stressing that verbal or physical harassment is not acceptable in the workplace. Other modules touch on some of the appropriate ways friends can help support each other.

“Even if they are already in bonded labor or in factory work or they’ve already agreed to migrate and paid a broker large sums of money, there are still knowledge and skills we can help them develop so they are aware of their rights and how to protect their rights,” Lo said.

To help instigate wider community change, Freedom Fund partners in Southern India are encouraging groups of adolescent girls to tap into elected village leadership to address issues of workplace abuse directly with textile mill owners. And in Ethiopia, partners are engaging with “iddirs,” a traditional local social structure, to develop an awareness-raising network that promotes knowledge of safer migration in the community.

Read more Devex coverage on ending modern slavery.

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.