Lessons from two Decades of Casework: How to Restore Survivors and Communities to Safety and Strength

Gary Haugen, founder and president of International Justice Mission

Ponencia presentada a la

Pontificia Academia de Ciencias Sociales
Trata de personas: Consideraciones más allá de la criminalización

17-21 de abril de 2015
Casina Pio IV, Ciudad del Vaticano



Throughout the developing world, fear of violence is part of everyday life for the poor. In fact, in developing and middle-income countries, poor people often name violence as their “greatest fear” or “main problem.”[1] The scale of this “everyday” violence is massive. One in five women will be a victim of sexual violence.[2] Nearly 2 million children are exploited in the commercial sex industry.[3] In the developing world, impoverished children and families are uniquely vulnerable to violence because their justice systems do not protect them from violent people; they find that “police and official justice systems side with the rich, persecute poor people and make poor people more insecure, fearful and poorer.”[4]

His Holiness Pope Francis has rightly drawn international attention to one of the most pervasive crimes against the poorest of the poor: slavery. In his 2015 New Year address he called on all nations to fight “modern forms of enslavement” and human trafficking, stating:

Yet, even though the international community has adopted numerous agreements aimed at ending slavery in all its forms, and has launched various strategies to combat this phenomenon, millions of people today – children, women and men of all ages – are deprived of freedom and are forced to live in conditions akin to slavery.

Many in the slavery abolition movement use the terms “slavery” and “trafficking” interchangeably, as is the case in this paper. Because the term “trafficking” is commonly associated with cross-border activities, it is important to clarify that under international law (specifically the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (also referred to as the Palermo Protocol to the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime)) defines trafficking as:

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”[5]

Many of the people living as slaves in the world today are citizens of their own countries subjected to exploitation within their own nation’s borders.

We have learned that victims can be restored, communities made whole and vulnerable people protected.

Nearly 36 million people are held as slaves.[6]

The crime of slavery is simultaneously a gross abuse of an individual’s right to life and freedom and a profitable economic arrangement for those who perpetrate it. The institution of slavery also degrades whole communities of people who live on the margins of society: the low-caste or tribal group, the ethnic minority, the despised and stigmatized – the poorest of the poor. 

Because the sheer numbers of those victimized are so great and the violence they experience so acute, it is reasonable to ask whether the monstrous injustice that is slavery can be curtailed and its victims restored. IJM answers both of those questions with a very strong affirmative. Our belief that slavery can be stopped and its victims and their communities restored is based upon nearly two decades of work in slavery-burdened countries. With our local government partners, we have innovated processes to rescue thousands of victims of labor slavery and of commercial sexual exploitation and restore them to lives of freedom.

At IJM, we help local authorities combat slavery in Africa, Latin America, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Our approach is to work with the authorities to make their own national laws against slavery real for the victims whose labor and lives are exploited and abused for the enrichment of others. At the heart of our work of combatting slavery is the rescue and restoration of individual victims. For all of the talk of slavery today, remarkably few victims are actually rescued from the control of slave-owners and restored to freedom.

IJM has undertaken to engage in that actual rescue, and in so doing, we have learned a great deal about the impact of slavery on individual human lives and on whole communities. And, by walking with victims of slavery from the moment we identify them until they are restored and living in freedom in their communities, we have learned a great deal about their needs and how best to address them.

Meet Marian*

In early 2012, Marian* was selected to be one of the first four IJM clients to join the S.M.A.R.T. mentorship program. The program trains trafficking survivors who have demonstrated consistency in making healthy choices and proven a desire to lead others in the same journey of restoration.

At a training for the S.M.A.R.T. mentors, Marian stood before her peers holding up a piece of paper with an oak tree crafted from colored pieces of paper.

She says the tree is like a metaphor for her life, at first without leaves: “It is not nourished; it’s leaves are gone, dry. It’s practically dead. In my life before…it’s as if I was no longer in this world.” Remembering the trauma she endured she says, “It’s as if I was no longer here.”

But now, says Marian, her tree has green leaves and many fruits.

Everything is different.

*A pseudonym has been used for the protection of this IJM client.

Figure 1 Marian, a survivor of sex trafficking, holding up the tree she has drawn that she says is a metaphor for her life, now full of growth and joy.

We believe the experiences from nearly two decades of working on behalf of tens of thousands of slaves offer some lessons for the modern-day abolition movement.

We have learned that victims can be restored, communities made whole and vulnerable people protected.


IJM’s anti-slavery model is based on investigation of the crime, which involves locating actual victims in their places of enslavement. We work with local authorities to remove the victims from exploitation and our social workers accompany them throughout the restoration process.

It is important to recognize that care for victims of slavery is not only required as a matter of moral necessity, it is also an essential component to actually ending the crime itself. Why?

Because slavery will only end when perpetrators are brought to justice and punished for the crime. Survivors of slavery have an essential role to play in that process.

Their testimony in local courts is almost invariably the most important evidence of the crime.

Without it, perpetrators will walk free and are almost certain to find other vulnerable people to take the place of those who have been rescued.

In our companionship with and assistance to thousands of victims of slavery (including both labor slavery and forced sexual exploitation), IJM has found that with psycho-social support, physical security and the assistance of our lawyers and social workers, many victims of slavery are not only able to testify in court against those who abused them, but they are eager to do so.

We have found that the very act of standing up in court and telling their stories – and frequently seeing perpetrators held to account for their crimes – has an extraordinary healing effect on victims.

They are believed, their suffering is acknowledged and someone is held responsible for it.

Furthermore, particularly in the collectivist societies where IJM works, the altruism of testifying is often an incentive to participate – victims feeling they are part of protecting others, preventing additional victimization of others. This is not to say that all survivors should participate in legal processes against perpetrators. IJM strongly opposes engaging survivors in legal processes against their will. IJM also opposes conditioning survivor benefits on their willingness to engage in prosecutions.

In IJM’s anti-slavery programs, thousands of courageous individual survivors of slavery have testified against their abusers and thereby secured the convictions of hundreds of traffickers, pimps, brothel owners, and slave owners. Each individual case makes fragile justice systems work better the next time. Years of successful prosecutions actually start to dry up the prevalence of the crime itself.


Despite the fact that international law and every nation’s own domestic laws prohibit slavery, there are shockingly few occasions in which slaves are actually rescued and restored to freedom. The most recent data available in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report indicated that in 2013, there were 45,000 slaves identified. We don’t know if all of those identified were rescued, but if we assume that they were, that number represents .12 percent of the estimated 35.8 million slaves alive today.[7]

In most of the countries where we work, we at IJM have experienced the first meaningful rescues of slaves that the authorities have ever conducted. For example, when IJM began working with police to rescue individual young children enslaved in brothels in Southeast Asia, it was to our knowledge one of the few occasions where such interventions had occurred in these communities. When we rescued the first group of bonded labor slaves in South Asia we attempted to secure for them an official document that acknowledged their former enslavement and their release from it. No such document existed because no slaves had been rescued in those jurisdictions, despite the fact that bonded labor slavery had been illegal on the sub-Continent for five decades. 

How can we explain the very low numbers of slaves rescued? There are several factors.

First, poor and powerless people are overwhelmingly those who are trafficked and exploited, thus slavery is often erroneously considered to be an extreme form of poverty, as opposed to the violent crime it actually is. Thus government institutions and leaders in many countries simply shrug off slavery as the natural consequence of poverty, or, at worst, a labor violation.

Another factor contributing to the low number of rescues is that local authorities in slavery-burdened countries are frequently complicit themselves in the enslavement and exploitation of children and adults.

Corruption of local authorities is common – indeed, IJM has experienced it in every country where we have worked. In our early years of engagement, rescue operations (particularly on behalf of children in the commercial sex industry) were routinely tipped off.

Though degrees of police complicity in trafficking-related crimes is rampant, it is a mistake to think it can’t be corrected.

The impact of such support on the institution of slavery is profound. We have also seen in Asia, Africa and Latin America that even the most broken and under-funded law enforcement institutions include people of integrity and good will who are committed to upholding the law.  We partner with those individuals, providing training, capacity building and political support.


When IJM began working in Cambodia in 2002, the open sale of prepubescent girls for sex was wholly tolerated by authorities. There were virtually no arrests and convictions of those who sold children as young as four to sex tourists. The police, including the special anti-trafficking unit, were themselves complicit in the exploitation of children.

In 2002, for example, police “rescued” a number of minor Vietnamese girls from Phnom Penh brothels, and then promptly arrested them for immigration violations. Some of the girls were taken from the police station and returned to the brothels by the police themselves. This is a perfect example of abuses committed in the context of supposed “rescue” that has generated cynicism about the possibility of a legitimate law enforcement response to the crime of sex trafficking.

Yet today, things are very different in Cambodia’s sex industry. While police investigators still occasionally find a 16 or 17 year-old girl in a massage parlor or brothel, the routine sale of young children on the streets of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and other cities has ended.[8] Over 100 trafficking perpetrators have been convicted and jailed; deterrence is growing throughout Cambodia.

This deterrence has been made possible by the increasing excellence and professionalism of Cambodia’s Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Police (AHTJP).

Under effective national leadership, the anti-trafficking police went from taking kickbacks from traffickers to becoming their fiercest opponents. IJM has partnered with the AHTJP and provided over 10 years of professional training, mentorship and support, to over 500 of its officers. We have witnessed their clear progress over the years: improved capacity, increased cases moving through the justice system, consistent numbers of victim rescues and criminal convictions, child-friendly procedures consistently utilized and strong government ownership over the fight against trafficking.

Today, Cambodia’s anti-trafficking police are proactively, independently and successfully pursuing and responding to sex trafficking cases and public trust in the force is growing.

IJM has seen similar evidence of police professionalism elsewhere. When IJM began working in the Philippines in the early 2000’s, for example, police did not routinely rescue children from prostitution nor did they apprehend traffickers and customers. Bribes to the police from brothel owners offering minor girls for sex were common. But years of training, mentorship and most important of all, collaboration between IJM, the National Bureau of Investigation  and the Philippines National Police (and its specialized regional anti-trafficking units) on hundreds of individual cases of child sex trafficking has resulted in a sea change in police professionalism.[9]

Today, the model of a regional anti-trafficking police unit that was piloted in the Philippines’ second largest city of Cebu has been replicated in Manila and Pampanga with similar excellent results. The government of the Philippines is now poised to replicate the model throughout the country.

IJM has also seen superb results when individual specialized anti-trafficking units are deployed to rescue victims and apprehend perpetrators of bonded labor slavery. The south Indian state of Karnataka has over the past year trained and deployed its police anti-trafficking units to rescue bonded laborers. It is having a visible impact on bonded labor and reflects extremely well on the local authorities and the state police. 


The modern-day abolitionist movement is still young, but best practices with regard to care and restoration of slavery survivors are available.

In collaboration with our partners, IJM has developed standards of care for all aspects of care, including shelter, community reintegration, economic self-sufficiency and trauma recovery.

Because all forms of slavery are violent, virtually everyone who is removed from exploitation requires specialized care and services, including psycho-social and medical services for mental and physical trauma, and protective care to reduce the risk of re-victimization. IJM has found that with assistance and collaboration, quality care and restoration of trafficking survivors are possible even in some of the poorest countries in the world.

For example, when IJM collaborates with local police to remove minor children and forced adults from brothels, our social workers are present at the rescue and accompany the victims every step of the way, from their first statements to police until their last court appearance and then for many months thereafter as they are restored to independent healthy lives. In Cebu, the Philippines, the Department of Social Welfare and Development in partnership with IJM has secured a separate facility outside of the police station so that victims of commercial sexual exploitation have a clean private space to rest upon rescue and be interviewed separately from pimps and brothel owners. The model is now being replicated in Manila. 

Figure 3 A trafficking survivor was taken to a safe temporary shelter where she received crisis care from Philippine Government social workers and IJM staff. Cebu, the Phillippines.

Similarly, survivors of labor slavery also require sensitive procedures, particularly with regard to interface with law enforcement. Many victims of labor slavery (as well as sexual exploitation) have experienced local police in a highly negative way. In South Asia, for example, we have cases in which slave owners rely on local police to return runaway slaves to their masters. Because slaves have not generally experienced police in a positive light – and have been warned by their owners against contacting police – they are understandably frightened during rescue operations. In our collaborative cases with local police and magistrates, IJM accompanies the victims/survivors throughout the process of telling their stories to officials and alongside the public prosecutor represents in court those individuals whose cases are prosecuted.

An essential element of recovery is safely processing traumatic experiences. Although training in trauma-focused therapy is not commonly offered in social work curricula in the developing world, IJM’s Aftercare Department, led by a licensed psychotherapist, created its own training materials and protocols so that our social workers, who are citizens of the countries where they work, can offer our clients the care they need. IJM also provides training in trauma-focused care and other best practices to government social workers and care-givers at partner organizations. 

In addition to trauma care, every IJM client receives an individual treatment plan based on a needs assessment, developed by the aftercare team in collaboration with the survivor. There is no “one size fits all” plan for everyone. Each survivor of sex trafficking has had a unique experience and therefore has specific individual needs. A young child needs something very different than an adult woman held for many years against her will.

A treatment plan will cover everything from medical care (including, for many of our clients, HIV treatment), education, life skills training, job training and placement, housing, and, where possible, family reunification and community reintegration. IJM works with various partners, including government social service providers and non-governmental after care homes, job-readiness training centers and other local non-profits to provide opportunities (including job skills training or education) and connect survivors to a supportive community.

Even in the midst of seeing significant progress for individual clients, providing services without a clear understanding of the long-term impact for individual survivors is insufficient. IJM needed a tool to measure the extent to which these services contributed to clients’ successful restoration and ability to function in society in safety. Thus IJM developed and implemented the IJM Aftercare Successful Outcomes (ASO) form. After a review of the literature and a search for relevant organizational tools, the ASO form presents as the most comprehensive evaluation tool available for each of IJM’s casework types. The form categorizes areas of client need into domains of care relevant to restoration, based on IJM field experience, including economic empowerment, health, protection, social supports and trauma recovery. 

IJM is in the process of validating the assessment tool and improving our aftercare programs with the findings we have obtained. It is our hope that in the near future the tool can be useful to other organizations that serve survivors of trafficking and slavery by measuring their clients’ progress and restoration. 


When we look back on centuries of chattel slavery in the United States, no one is in doubt about the extraordinary violence that was a lynch pin of the institution. Today, slavery is principally characterized by this same extraordinary violence. Beatings, murder, kidnapping and rape are common tactics used by those who exploit the bodies and labor of adults and children to terrorize them into submission – and warn others against escape.

In short, slavery is at its heart a violent crime: for every trafficked and enslaved child, woman and man, there is at least

Figure 4 Today, slavery is principally characterized by extraordinary violence. An estimated near 36 million people are living as slaves today.

one person who inflicts abuse, restricts movement, confiscates earnings, and benefits financially from the victim’s coerced labor or exploited body. 

Because poor and powerless people are overwhelmingly those who are trafficked and exploited, some modern-day abolitionists view slavery less as a crime than poverty at its most extreme.  Through this lens, assistance to make local and family economies less precarious represents a key anti-slavery initiative. Education, health and income generation programs are valuable in their own right. But these funds have not had a measurable impact on slavery. Why? Because they do not affect the calculations of the central player in every situation of enslavement and exploitation: the perpetrator.

Perpetrators of trafficking, slavery and debt bondage, whether they are unscrupulous labor recruiters in Qatar, brothel owners in Southeast Asia, or pimps in the U.S. have one thing in common. They are making money from the subjugation of others.

Consider Ghana, a lower-middle income, democratic nation that has had robust economic growth for the past five years. Ghana is a favored partner of the World Bank, whose current grants, loans and credits total $3.49 billion. The U.S. Government is a generous donor, as well, providing $154 million for health and development last year. 

Figure 5 Ghanaian EMT officials participate for the first time in a rescue operation to free children from slavery on Lake Volta. Here they provide urgent care as soon as the boys are on board the boat.

But a third of Ghana’s children work, and neither economic growth nor foreign assistance protects thousands of them from actual enslavement in fishing, domestic servitude, artisanal gold mining, begging and prostitution. Prevalence studies conducted by IJM on Lake Volta over the past 18 months revealed that 60 percent of the children fishing on the lake were clearly slaves, bearing tell-tale signs of violence, depredation and terror.

IJM, the U.S. Government and other donors are partnering with the Government of Ghana to modernize, equip, train and deploy anti-trafficking police to rescue children and apprehend slave owners. Child slavery prevalence will go down, not because Ghana is less economically disadvantaged but because traffickers will respond to increasing prospects of apprehension, conviction and stiff jail terms. Fishing and other enterprises will have to hire – and pay – adult workers.


A dozen years ago, Cambodia had one of the worst records in the world for child prostitution. Prepubescent children were readily available for exploitation and Cambodia was a magnet for foreign sex tourists, because there was perceived and actual impunity towards this crime.

In other words, it was common knowledge that there was virtually no risk whatsoever for selling or buying a child for sex. Statistically reliable quantitative data is not available from this earlier period, but various studies estimated that children represented 15 to 20 percent of those in the sex industry. The Cambodian Government’s own estimate was that children comprised 30 percent of those in prostitution.[10]

But after more than a decade of concentrated effort by the Phnom Penh government, by NGOs, and by foreign donors (including the U.S. and Australia) there has been a transformation in Cambodia with regard to the exploitation of children for commercial sex.

In 2012, IJM and several partners conducted an intensive prevalence study in Cambodia’s three largest cities – formerly the areas of highest availability of children for sexual exploitation. We found that young minors (ages 15 and younger) represented less than 1 percent of those in prostitution. Older minors (ages 16-17) represented only 7.41 percent of the total.

Since then, IJM’s experienced undercover operatives and police partners have investigated every single potential lead provided on child sexual exploitation throughout Cambodia. We’ve found almost no children under the age of fifteen and a substantial reduction in older minors (age 16-17) in entertainment venues.[11]

A country that was once “ground zero” for child exploitation is now a model for how to develop effective law enforcement, prosecution, and victim restoration in the fight against trafficking.

We’ve seen similar results in the Philippines. In 2007, IJM received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to begin operations to reduce child sex trafficking in the Philippines second largest city of Cebu. Before we began our collaboration with local police, IJM contracted with an independent criminal data collection firm to execute a baseline prevalence measurement of commercial exploitation of minors in Cebu’s substantial sex industry. To our knowledge, it was the first scientifically-based, statistically-significant prevalence study of child sexual exploitation ever conducted.

The lesson we learned from our on-the-ground field experience is that the crime of trafficking and slavery is uniquely responsive to effective law enforcement. 

The purpose was to measure the impact of law enforcement on the crime. We at IJM had anecdotal evidence that law enforcement had a substantial impact on child sex trafficking from our work the Philippines and elsewhere. But we did not have the quantitative data to support those observations.

IJM initiated collaboration with the Philippines National Police (PNP) in Cebu to rescue minor girls from sexual exploitation and apprehend perpetrators. With our Philippines Government partners, we developed best practice protocols for victim rescue, forensic interviewing, data collection, apprehension of suspects, victim-friendly courtroom procedures and victim care.

Over the next three years, IJM and its PNP partners investigated hundreds of establishments, rescued over 225 victims of trafficking, and apprehended 77 suspected perpetrators.

Because trafficking is a non-bail offense under Philippines law, those suspects remained in jail, many of their businesses shuttered.  Professional enforcement of laws prohibiting sex trafficking had a marked impact on social norms in the Philippines’ sex industry.

Figure 6 The independent investigators conducted a mid-term study and a final study at the end of the 3-year period. They found that the availability of minor girls had plummeted by 79 percent in Cebu.

When those offering underage girls for exploitation faced increasing risks of apprehension and prosecution, they got out of the business. The independent investigators conducted a mid-term study and a final study at the end of the 3-year period. They found that the availability of minor girls had plummeted by 79 percent in Cebu. There is still a sex industry in the Philippines, but it is increasingly difficult to find minors within it.[12]

The lesson we learned from our on-the-ground field experience is that the crime of trafficking and slavery is uniquely responsive to effective law enforcement. Indeed, we have seen that the crime is much more markedly affected by law enforcement than other crimes, such as rape. 

This is because of the characteristics of perpetrators of trafficking and slavery. These individuals engage in the exploitation of others for one reason: to make money. Theirs is not a crime of desperation (such as a starving person stealing food). Nor is it a crime of pathology, such as child sexual assault. It is a crime of opportunity and greed. In that sense, it is a discretionary crime. The perpetrators choose to traffic and enslave because it is to their economic advantage, and they perceive that the risks are low.

And indeed, in many countries in the world, the risks are very low. With those odds, it is little wonder that the crime of slavery has flourished briskly throughout history – and continues to do so to this day.  On the other hand, the great and good news is that when law enforcement actually does its job, slave owners, pimps, brothel owners and traffickers are quickly put to flight. 


Slavery is a hidden crime, but it is not invisible. A number of credible, independent investigations have been conducted in the past several years that revealed substantial labor slavery in several export industries, including fishing and electronics. Consumers around the world are repulsed by such reports and demand of major corporations that they eradicate slavery from their supply chains. A common response is for corporations to adopt codes of conduct and monitor working conditions on the shop floor.

Figure 7 IJM Kolkata rescued Suhana in 2007, then she was re-trafficked. She was found in Mumbai. In 2010, three Kolkata traffickers were convicted, followed by the 2012 conviction.

But slavery won’t be eradicated from electronics, fishing or any other industry unless and until national and local governments protect workers – including migrant workers – by enforcing laws against forced labor and trafficking and sending slave owners and traffickers to jail. Corporations can play an important role by insisting governments do their part in ending impunity; and then supporing these governments as they professionalize police, regulate labor recruiters and prosecute those who traffic and exploit workers. Corporations can also incentivize governments to treat slavery like the crime it is by including an assessment of the competence of countries’ criminal justice systems in their risk assessments when considering where they wish to invest, locate or source their products. 


The anti-slavery movement is at a critical time in our history. We are seeing moral leadership from the highest levels of the faith community, including from His Holiness Pope Francis. We are seeing transformation of police and justice systems in some of the poorest countries of the world that have resulted in apprehension and prosecution of traffickers and a marked decline in victimization. We have seen some of the biggest corporations in the world take substantial steps to eradicate slavery from their supply chains. 

More challenges lie ahead. We need citizen movements to demand slavery eradication in their own countries. We need replication and scale-up of best practices in law enforcement, victim rescue and restoration and perpetrator accountability. We need major corporations to condition their investments on government’s political will to enforce their own laws.

We need innovation in tactics to identify and rescue hard-to-reach victims, such as women in domestic servitude and child victims of online sexual exploitation. We need development institutions such as the World Bank to help poor countries develop and sustain professional justice institutions. And we need for protection for the poor from common criminal violence to be a Sustainable Development Goal in 2015 to help drive resources, innovation, and political support in the coming decade.

Client Stories



Figure 8 Mien's journey to freedom from sex trafficking in Svay Pak, Cambodia.

Mien grew up in Svay Pak, a marginalized community in Cambodia that was once notorious for offering young girls for sex. Mien’s family had emigrated from Vietnam, and they lived in extreme poverty. Her father spent what little money they earned on alcohol, and her mother felt helpless to stop his abuses.

Like many other girls growing up in the poor community, Mien was sold to a brothel one block from her own home when she was just 14 years old.

Night after night, Mien was sold to sex tourists and men who came to Svay Pak because they knew they could find young girls. The nightmare became a routine. Although she was minutes from her childhood home, Mien was trapped.

Men are like gold, women are like cloth.

– Cambodian proverb

In 2003, IJM assisted the Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Unit of the Cambodian National Police with its first-ever rescue operation. 37 girls were rescued from sex slavery – the youngest was 5 years old. But Mien hid, afraid of the police – who were actually there to find her – because the brothel owners had told her lies, claiming that she would be the one who was arrested, not them.

In the following months, Mien’s family migrated north. Mien was again sold to be exploited in brothels in Siem Reap near the Angkor Wat temples, a popular tourist destination. Mien was sold night after night to men who paid to rape her – and she became her family’s only source of income.

Years later, Mien would describe how she felt crushed by the violent abuse, but also by the weighty responsibility of becoming her family’s sole breadwinner through the exploitation in the brothel. She said: “I despair – my life does not have meaning…I feel like I don’t want to do this anymore, but what else can I do? I have no skills and my family depends on the money I send to them every month.”

Figure 9 A Cambodian police officer on a rescue operation, taken in 2013.

IJM investigators started to gather evidence in the very same brothel where Mien was being exploited. The brothel was disguised as a massage parlor, but IJM soon documented evidence to reveal girls had been trafficked there to be sold for sex.

In 2007, IJM worked with an anti-trafficking unit of the police in Siem Reap to rescue women and girls who had been trafficked to a brothel – including Mien and seven other girls, most of whom were minors. Mien was taken to a short-term aftercare shelter, where she received crisis care and started a new life of freedom.

IJM assisted the prosecutor to develop a strong legal case against the pimps and traffickers. At the end of the trial, justice was delivered: five perpetrators were convicted.

Justice is part of a trafficking survivor’s journey of restoration, but much of their healing comes from the loving relationships they develop from counseling and skills-training or education they receive in long-term aftercare shelters and the relationship they develop with their IJM social worker.

In Cambodia, there is a proverb that says: Men are like gold and women are like cloth. The meaning is that men can “dirty” themselves through sexual promiscuity, then wash themselves off to shine like gold again. In contrast, a woman is believed to become “stained” forever, like a white cloth, tainted and worthless. That strong stigma, often leading to a feeling of worthlessness or loss of hope, is one of the greatest challenges for IJM aftercare teams.

After a couple of months at a short-term, transitional aftercare shelter, Mien moved to an aftercare home where she could put down roots. The home is located in the same community where Mien had grown up. But the home has transformed the neighborhood – in fact, the very same brothel where Mien was first sold was bought by the aftercare home and turned into a community center for youth.

Mien remembers what it was like to drive back into her old neighborhood: “For my first time at the community center, when the car stops, I feel so scared to get out. But when I do get out it is good. Everything has changed.”

Mien began to thrive. She became a confident young woman, a mentor for others. She started to volunteer at the community youth center, reaching out to kids in the area – the very same neighborhood she had grown up in, and the place where she was first exploited.

Today, Mien is married and lives with her husband; they are saving money in hopes of owning their own home someday. She sews beautiful silk pillow covers and other textiles, including uniforms for another microenterprise businesses.

As Mien said, “Everything has changed.”



CEBU, THE PHILIPPINES – Charina* is one of the first young women to stand and walk to the front of the room to sign her name to the bill of rights. She is proud of the declarations she and the other girls have written together:

I have the right to be loved. I have the right to live peacefully. I have the right to my own body. I have the right to express my feelings.

Figure 10 IJM met Charina in our first-ever rescue operation in Cebu in 2007.

Charina, 20, is participating in a meeting with the Reintegration Support Network, a support group for trafficking survivors. The network is an innovative partnership between IJM Cebu and the local government. Government social workers, staff from IJM and volunteers from the community provide medical and psychosocial support. The young women received trauma-focused care in aftercare shelters, and they have now returned to their home communities. The support network offers them a chance to keep learning about topics that promote psychosocial well-being and healthy living.

IJM met Charina in our first-ever rescue operation in Cebu.

She was one of two girls rescued in IJM’s first undercover operation in 2007. IJM investigators had been building a case against the pimp, who was notorious for selling young girls to men for sex. Charina was only 15 years old, but she looked even younger. The pimp exploited her youthful looks, selling her for sex to the men who were willing to pay a higher price for younger girls to abuse.

Charina was all too familiar with the routine on the streets. Pimps sold the younger girls and women; prostitutes stood on corners of the street or waited by the pier for customers to drive by to negotiate a price. So Charina thought it was just another night when a pimp told her that she would go to a hotel along with a couple other girls for a private party.

But it was not just another night: The men negotiating with the pimp were undercover police. They were not interested in abusing Charina; they were there to free her. 

At first Charina was confused. IJM aftercare staff was on the scene to accompany Charina and the other girls and women to the police station. The IJM social workers explained what was happening and reassured the girls that they were not in trouble.  Charina and two of the girls were taken to an aftercare shelter, where they received crisis care and counseling.

But after years of trauma and learning to survive on her own, building trust was extremely difficult.

We knew we did not want to give up.

– Mae Sampani, IJM Director of Aftercare, The Philippines

After her father died when she was a young girl, Charina had been sent to live with her grandmother. Aside from the abusive and angry visits from Charina’s mother, the home was warm and loving – but very poor. Although Charina’s grandmother sold small rice cakes, a popular Filipino snack food, there was never enough.

After completing fourth grade, Charina dropped out of school. Eager for acceptance and desperate for an escape from the hardship that had defined her young life, Charina started hanging out with a rough crowd. These new friends introduced her to drugs, and before long her own mother decided it was time for Charina to start earning some money. Charina was 13 years old when she was first sold for sex. Two years later, she became pregnant and endured a painful miscarriage.

When she was rescued, Charina was three months pregnant, struggling with drug addiction and very hesitant to receive support from IJM social workers. She saw the rules of the aftercare shelter as a threat to the independence she had been forced to learn at such a young age. She resisted the counselors and attempted to run away.

Figure 11 Social workers honor Charina with a certificate recognizing her progress through IJM's trauma-focused therapy program.

Despite Charina’s initial resistance, IJM staff remained determined to connect Charina with the resources and services she needed. “We knew we did not want to give up,” says IJM Director of Aftercare Mae Sampani. 

IJM was able to place Charina in a detox center, where she received the help she needed to overcome drug addiction. During that time, the team faithfully visited her. They began to see Charina transform. Charina started to believe that someone actually cared for her.

Charina endured many challenges during this time. She had to move to several different aftercare homes. After a fire burned one of the shelters to the ground, Charina moved back to her home community. It was earlier than ideal, but her IJM social worker walked closely with her during the ordeal. After many months of consistent support, Charina started to trust. She overcame her substance abuse and started to rebuild relationships. Charina started to hope.

IJM seeks to provide holistic restoration for trafficking survivors. Social workers help the young women heal by offering practical resources and providing trauma-focused counseling. But there is not one treatment or timeline that works for everyone. The social workers make a long-term commitment to each survivor who participates in IJM’s aftercare program, committing to walk the difficult road together.

The men who tried to sell Charina in 2007 were charged under the Philippines’ anti-trafficking law. The trial progressed slowly, illustrating the delays and obstacles that have been indemic to the system—but are slowly starting to change. IJM lawyers have supported the case, persevering through numerous postponed or cancelled hearings.

Charina courageously chose to testify in court against the suspects. She is eager to see justice in her case – because she knows she is worth it. The trial finally ended in June 2014 with convictions against the traffickers. 

Today, Charina is a strong young mother, determined to give her son the opportunities she should have had herself. With help from her counselors, Charina is making plans to return to school or receive specific vocational training. Charina says she will give anything in her power to protect her son.

At a Reintegration Support Network meeting,[13] Charina stood before the group of other trafficking survivors and counselors. She described how much her life has changed since her rescue. “I am happy and thankful for the positive changes in my life,” she said confidently.

“If I was not rescued, I would still be standing over there,” she said, pointing in the direction of the pier where she had once been routinely sold and exploited. Charina described how she has learned to respect others and respect herself. She looked around the room of fellow survivors and said, “Now we can help other girls.”

*A pseudonym has been used for the protection of this IJM client.

© All photos and content copyright of International Justice Mission.

[1] P. Amis and C. Rokodi. 1995). Urban Poverty:  Concepts, Characteristics and Policies.  Habitat International, 19.4, 403-405.

[2] United Nations. (2008). Unite to End Violence Women: Fact Sheet.

[3] UNICEF. (2004). Childhood under Threat.  State of the World’s Children 2005.

[4] The World Bank. (2000). Anxiety, Fear and Insecurity. Crying Out for Change. (Chapter 8, 163).

[5] Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the
United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/ProtocolTraffickingInPersons.aspx

[6] Walk Free Foundation. Global Slavery Index 2014

[7] Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Trafficking in Persons Report 2014. Rep. U.S. Department of State, June 2014. Web. June 2014.

[8] Shaw, Dave. Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Cambodia. IJM.org. International Justice Mission, 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

[9] Jones, Andrew, Rhonda Schlangen, and Rhodora Bucoy. An Evaluation of the International Justice Mission’s “Project Lantern”. Impact Evaluation. N.p., 21 Oct. 2010. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

[10] Planning, M. o. (2000). Cambodia Human Development Report 2000: Children and Employment. Phnom Penh: Royal Government of Cambodia. Retrieved August 7, 2013, from http://planipolis.iiep.unesco.org/upload/Cambodia/Cambodia%20HDR%202000.pdf

[11] Shaw, Dave. Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Cambodia. IJM.org. International Justice Mission, 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

[12] Jones, Andrew, Rhonda Schlangen, and Rhodora Bucoy. An Evaluation of the International Justice Mission’s “Project Lantern”. Impact Evaluation. N.p., 21 Oct. 2010. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

[13] In 2012

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