Updated: Jun 22, 2021
This is a transcript of the podcast interview. Listen to the episode here.
PREMA MENON: A warning to listeners this episode contains references to sexual exploitation.
PREMA: According to the UN Office of Drug and Crime, human trafficking affects nearly every country in the world, whether it's as the origin country, the transition country or the destination country. Human trafficking is considered modern-day slavery. It robs human beings of their right to life and their dignity, most commonly in the form of sexual exploitation and forced labor. Trafficking has become the fastest growing crime in the past few years, and experts agree that the problem is getting worse. This could also be linked to worsening conditions in many countries, complicating economic, social and political situations. The victims of human trafficking are almost always women and children. We tend to assume that it's men who are the traffickers taking advantage of these vulnerable people while they are definitely male traffickers. A UNODC survey revealed that in 30 percent of the countries, women play a predominant role in trafficking other women. Dr. Abi Foluke Badejo talks to me about Grace + Grit social enterprise, which is trying to break the cycle of women subjugating other women.
DR. ABI BADEJO: So what Grace + Grit Social Enterprises doing is that we're trying to provide options and opportunities, choices to people, alternatives focused on social behavior change. And we are based in Brisbane but we have global partnerships, so we operate in Cameroon and Nigeria.
INTRO: What can we do in this podcast, I speak with those who are putting their ideas into action, focusing on the good they can do for their neighbor's communities, citizens and the world.
PREMA: In this episode, we'll learn about Grace + Grit Social enterprise, what Dr. Abi has learned through the course of her work and how you can get involved. Dr. Abi's childhood was spread across Nigeria where she was born, Fiji, where she spent her teenage years in Australia, where as a teenager she came to study and finally settled. She now calls Australia home. It was in Fiji that significant experiences shaped Dr Abi's world view, instilling in her a distinct drive to empower the disempowered.
DR ABI: In Nigeria, there is a sense of "it's home", you just belong. When I was growing up in Fiji, I felt like there was still quite a bit of work to be done in terms of people's understanding of tolerance for other cultures and differences. So there was a lot of racial prejudice against people who weren't indigenous. That racial prejudice affected me. And so I felt more that I could identify with a group that was visibly marginalised. So that started to actually also inspire me to speak up against oppression. It was in Fiji that I got my first real taste of what it felt like to be different. But that's not to say that my, my experience in Fiji was entirely negative. In fact, you know, some of the best years of my life growing up in paradise. It was just a different perspective because you know, I'd grown up in Nigeria where I was just I was not a colour. And so going to another country, it was the first time that I had to see myself as different. And there was a lot of coming to terms with what that meant for me in terms of identity and belonging.
PREMA: Dr Abi understood what it meant to sometimes not have a voice. She also understood that your circumstances can change overnight, which may have a lasting effect on your entire life.
DR ABI: My parents went from people who were quite well-off entrepreneurs themselves, to people who found themselves disadvantaged by the system because they didn't have the right connections at the time that they were going through a really difficult time financially. When I saw that happen, and then I saw how the rest of the population lived, who didn't have access to those same opportunities and connections. It really grew that sense of urgency in me that something needed to be done. Inequality, it's a major problem globally, but in places like the global south, like Nigeria, it's even worse because you have no prospects. If you don't have the right connections, you were pretty much guaranteed that you would be in a generational poverty cycle. And so I was really interested in breaking that.
PREMA: In Dr. Abi's eyes, she's lived a privileged life and she believes that comes with a responsibility.
DR ABI: I believe that if you have the opportunity if you are privileged, you should use a privilege to empower other people. And I consider myself quite privileged having had the opportunity to grow up in three different countries now and earning money that can actually make a difference in the lives of people back there. So I am using my privilege to transform the prospects of people who wouldn't otherwise have that. And I'm also anti-oppression. It's not just oppression from human trafficking. It's oppression from all forms of inequality that keep people unable to have a say, unable to have a seat at the table, unable to have their voices heard.
PREMA: She focused her area of work and research expertise to change conditions for vulnerable populations in Nigeria, women, and children. In the case of human trafficking, this gets a little more complex.
DR ABI: People's understanding of human trafficking, that black and white view, no room for gray. And by that, I mean that people don't understand the circumstances that can lead a young woman to become vulnerable. It's not as simple as poverty, you know. It's also ideology. It's also social influences. It's also family influences. It's also peer influences. So it's a complex intersection of push and pull factors. There is the poverty angle. Yes, there is the economic oppression. Yes. But it is also the influences around these vulnerable women. Even down to the media that they consume. All of these interact to make women who are vulnerable even more vulnerable. I read about Nigerians that everybody is rich in waiting. Everybody believes that they're going to be rich one day. So nobody's happy to just stay poor. So everybody's driven, ambitious. There's social pressure and a lot of status ascribed to, you know, your social class. And so when you have no money, you are powerless, voiceless. And invisible. And so people are very much motivated to change the situation, to change their circumstances. So they are driven by a desperation combined with oppressive structures. You have this potent drive to escape that, to transform your life.
PREMA: Rather than just setting up an NGO to provide aid and money, Dr. Abi set up Grace + Grit social enterprise to go one step further. Dr. Abi's research helps the organization understand how and why trafficking occurs in these communities and to also challenge common misconceptions.
DR ABI: The way that human trafficking works in Nigeria, it's not necessarily the women being kidnapped on the streets and they being deceived into trafficking. It's actually a much more informal social network-based recruitment system where family members recruit each other. Aunties can recruit their nieces. You know, boyfriends can tell the girlfriends that, oh, I know somebody who's looking for a maid. Do you want to go and talk to that person? So there are men and women that are involved in the recruitment system. But my research found that women tended to lead the recruitment and also were in charge once the women were in the trafficking system. They answered to other women who had also been trafficked previously. So what we're seeing is this vicious cycle of women trafficking, women, women oppressing women in the particular case of human trafficking. Women make up the majority percentage of those who are trafficked. And in fact, the human trafficking market system from the Nigerian context is driven by women. I observed and through my research, it was quite evident that women were inadvertently complicit in their own oppression. It's very difficult when people just assume that women who are trafficked are totally unaware of the fact that they are being trafficked. Sometimes they are making that rational choice that I would rather be trafficked than perish in oppression. But what I'm arguing is that they're merely exchanging one form of oppressor for another. So it's really making that judgment about which is the greater oppressor. And I felt that there was a need for that critical reflection and that need for women to take ownership of changing their lives and understanding the impact that they are having on not just themselves, but also their gender by participating in this system that keeps them oppressed because all they are doing in their attempt to inspire other women to leave that oppressive environment, they actually were reproducing that cycle of oppression.
PREMA: Grace + Grit wants to break the cycle, or as they refer to it break the supply chain. This means addressing multiple barriers from various angles. Dr. Abi maximizes the impact of Grace + Grit by partnering with frontline NGOs and government agencies on the ground. The social enterprise's priority is to give the survivors options and opportunities through tools and resources.
DR ABI: We work with NGO partners on the ground and government agencies. We identify women who have been trafficked. We employ them actually to transform their prospects. So we provide them with employment and we also train them in enterprise developments way. Training them in vocational skills, business skills, entrepreneurship skills. And we provide them with basic resources to start a business. Those who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs. We train them in that field as well, and we help them with a structure where they learn vocational skills that they can then use to start a business. Well, I'll give you an example. We trained up nine women in Cameroon through our NGO Partners Survivors' Network, who herself is a former survivor of human trafficking. We developed a two-day program where women were given vocational skills in snack making. They were taught about the dangers of human trafficking, not just from the perspective of their experience, but then we also talk to them about how they can prevent themselves from being revictimized and being re-trafficked. So they get knowledge about human trafficking. They get the skills to start a business and they also get business enterprise development skills. And so at the end of the two-day program, they go off and start their own business. We now have nine women who have started their own little small food business in the markets and they are earning reasonable income to survive. And so we are giving people options. And in Nigeria, we have three human trafficking survivors. We've trained 80 vocational schools as well. And they actually are employed by Grace + Grit social enterprise and they man our hotline. So we have a hotline that we are promoting to vulnerable people, high school girls, children, so that they have a number to call if they ever find themselves in a situation that could lead to exploitation and human trafficking and child labour.
PREMA: The idea of providing survivors with the resources to live their own lives rather than living and working in shelters came from a chance meeting that Dr. Abi had a few years ago.
DR ABI: So I had access to a shelter, a human trafficking shelter. This woman who knelt in front of me, she was weeping. And she said, please, you have to help me get out of here. I don't want to be here. I have a four-year-old and there's nobody taking care of her. Just my mother. And she's old. I became a victim of human trafficking because I was trying to help my child. And now I'm a victim in this shelter and I can't leave. She didn't mean that she was being exploited in the shelter. It was the fact that she felt that her freedom had been taken away from her, because once again, she's in an environment where she didn't have any agency and she wanted to leave because she had a child that she was responsible for. The pain in her eyes, the desperation in her eyes. I felt so moved by her pain and I felt like I had to do something.
PREMA: Aside from providing access to a living and employment, Dr. Abi recognizes the importance of mental health care.
DR ABI: So we finished 2019 on an incredibly inspirational high with our very first expert, international volunteer Gestalt therapist Rosemary Bauer of relating matters on the Sunshine Coast Australia. She travelled all the way to Nigeria to meet our human trafficking survivors and co-create our pilot trauma healing and grit building program. The program was co-designed with three young female victims of human trafficking. They were trafficked to Saudi Arabia for slave labor and they were rescued and have been undergoing vocational skills training as well as international mentorship, through Grace + Grit Social Enterprise. And the feedback on the program has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly how we have drawn on a blend of science backed, evidence based skills and strategies, as well as really privileging the young women's own voices and their personal experience to build what we hope is an inclusive and practical skills based program that they can use in their everyday life.
PREMA: There are extremely rewarding moments, but Dr Abi acknowledges the challenges that come with running an organisation like this.
DR ABI: I also have to manage emotions that come with life after being trafficked. The not just the emotional turmoil, but also that recalibrating of the mindset that I've gone from a situation where I'm under the control of someone else to now back home where Elissa and I have freedom, but then I'm still oppressed by the economic system. I've been lucky in that none of my girls have been complicit in trafficking other women. I haven't had to be confronted with any kind of professional relationship with a former trafficker. And to be honest, I'm not sure how that interaction would go. But, you know, I would do my best to try to understand their perspective, because that is the role of a researcher. And I'm really seeking to understand, not judge.
PREMA: They are also the funding challenges.
DR ABI: I ran a crowdfunding campaign, so that was the initial funding that enabled me to establish the enterprise and set up a couple of innovation programs. I invest a lot of my personal funds in running the enterprise and supporting these girls, but of course it's always good to have additional funding because there is a lot to do. We could also scale up and have a bigger, much bigger impact than we currently do. We could reach more schools, we could reach more children with regional communities and the aspect of running an organisation remotely. I set up the enterprise here initially in Australia cause easier for me to bring it to life here. At least the minimum viable product translates my vision into some kind of structure. So once I had it here or ready set up and I had a plan for how I believed it could work. I then went home and I tested it again with my girls and my partners. And we had to make some adjustments because there are some things that just don't translate well between here and there. Serve in Nigeria, for instance. You know, you have to take into consideration that things don't work according to the same timeframes. The laws of flexible things take time and there are people that circumvent the system. So you have to navigate all of the politics. You have to navigate all of the inefficiencies. You need a lot of patience and you have to be careful and wary of NGOs who seemingly appear to want to support survivors are in the business of rehabilitation and restoration, but actually the end. Revictimizing and exploiting these victims even further.
PREMA: Even with these challenges in terms of funding and reach, Grace + Grit has made a significant impact.
DR ABI: In Cameroon, we empowered nine women who we helped start a small business and on their path to financial independence. We've been to several schools in Cameroon. So that's our fortnightly type of activity. In Nigeria, we sponsor eleven children who are at risk of child labor. We support an orphanage as well because orphanages are a breeding ground for child sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking as well. We've partnered with orphanages and we conduct inspections of sorts and also a form of an education program that empowers the children to seek help. And we also are sponsoring a family to set up a business so that they can then build that financial resilience to reduce the risk of their children becoming involved in child labour. So we've started a mini a small restaurant in Cameroon as well that is assisting with internally displaced women who are also most at risk of human trafficking.
PREMA: The fire in Dr. Abi's belly continues to burn as she hopes to expand their mental health services with the program.
DR ABI: Once we have finetuned the pilot is to roll out the program on a larger scale to all survivors of human trafficking, not just in Nigeria, but in other countries as well, to assist them to build the kind of resilience and grit they actually need to transform their prospects. So it's kind of a foundational, crucial step before actually empowering them with any kind of vocational skills or employment opportunities.
PREMA: Diaspora populations are increasingly returning to help the ancestral countries with their skills in education. This is Dr. Abi's advice to anyone thinking of a similar journey.
DR ABI: Have a lot of grit and determination, perseverance, vision and support. Know people on the ground, do not trust anyone that you don't know to do business with. Have people that will actually have your best interests at heart. People who are as committed to the vision as you. That is the most important thing for me, actually finding people who are committed to the vision, aligning your vision with your partners on the ground will get you a long way.
PREMA: If you would like to donate to grace and great social enterprise. You can visit them at their web site www.graceandgritsocialenterprise.org
Thank you for listening. If you liked what you heard, please read or follow the series on whichever podcast service you're on. Another great way to support this series is to follow me on Facebook or Instagram. Just search for what can we do podcast. What can we do? Is an independent podcast series produced and edited by me, Prema Menon and the script editor for this series is Liza Nadolski. And the audio you're hearing has been sweetened by Nicholas Allaire.
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