One morning, while 13-year-old Veata’s* mother was away, a neighbor stopped by her house in Phnom Penh and suggested they take a walk, wanting Veata’s company while she ran an errand. “She took me to a shop and told me to sit and wait for her for a minute, so I sat down and waited,” Veata recalls.
The “shop” was actually a brothel, and while Veata patiently waited, her neighbor negotiated her sale to the pimp running it. Veata was forcibly held in the building, where she was repeatedly raped by customers for the profit of those who bought her. A guard stationed at the door ensured her continued captivity.
Veata later explained, “What scared me when I lived in that shop was when the shop owner forced me to serve customers. If we didn’t serve customers, the shop owner would abuse and hit us so that it made me fearful the most. And sometimes customers abused us when we served them.”
* * *
International Justice Mission (IJM) is an organization of lawyers, investigators, and social workers working in 13 countries, providing protection, advocacy and care for victims of sexual violence, trafficking, slavery and property expropriation. Our staff also assists local governments in identifying, prosecuting, and convicting perpetrators of these common abuses against the impoverished and vulnerable. Our casework in developing countries reveals that even those countries with well-established police forces still ignore violent crimes suffered by the poorest of the poor – people like Veata.
Without effective public justice systems to give meaningful substance to the protections the law is intended to provide, the great legal reform efforts of the modern human rights movement have exactly zero impact in the lives of billions of poor people around the globe. A comprehensive UN study (Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, 2007) reported that 4 billion of the world’s people are not adequately protected by the justice systems in their own countries. Incredibly vulnerable without the protection of rule of law, the poorest find themselves regularly victimized, not by knotted and complex human rights violations, but by acts of abuse that violate the law in their own countries.
In Africa, grieving widows are chased off their own land and left to fend for themselves or starve, despite a robust law intended to ensure their right to property in the event of their husband’s death. Fathers rot away in crowded, fetid prisons without being charged, shuttled from hearing to hearing at which no evidence is presented and no effort is made to conduct the proceedings in a language they can understand. In Peru, about 40 percent of girls will be victims of rape or attempted rape by the age of 14. Around the world, desperately poor children, women and men are swept up in a wave of violence – violence unchecked by low-functioning courts, police and justice systems.
But in 13 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, International Justice Mission’s 300 staff members (90 percent of them nationals of their own countries) are engaging in public diplomacy with local police, prosecutors, magistrates, and other government officials as we drive human rights cases through local courts, securing justice for victims and accountability for perpetrators. And we are seeing that this strategic public diplomacy and targeted intervention can help to actually make a justice system work for the poor.
In order to secure relief for our clients, be they a Guatemalan boy raped by his uncle or a Dalit slave in an Indian brick kiln, IJM lawyers, social workers, and investigators must engage every aspect of a country’s justice system. We work with child welfare officials to secure housing and aftercare, we train and mentor anti-trafficking police so that children are removed from prostitution, and walk alongside local prosecutors through every stage of cases against abusers. This is public diplomacy, based on real cases, and aimed at justice officials themselves.
Encouragingly, we are seeing transformation. When IJM first set up an office in Cambodia in 2003, local police tolerated – or were even complicit in – the sexual exploitation of very young children in Phnom Penh’s notorious brothel district, Svay Pak. But after six years of police training, relationship-building, and investigations of child trafficking, IJM and the Cambodian anti-trafficking police have secured the rescue of hundreds of children from prostitution and the conviction of more than 90 pimps, traffickers, pedophiles and brothel owners. Cambodia still has a long way to go, but we have seen it improve dramatically in just a few years.
And a transformed system means transformation for individuals, too. In Veata’s case, IJM investigators uncovered the brutal abuse she was facing, collected video evidence and provided it to Cambodian police – for whom IJM has been providing specialized anti-trafficking training for several years.
Veata was rescued by her own local authorities and brought to a loving aftercare home, where she is accessing education and healing from the trauma she has undergone. The perpetrators who abused her have been sentenced to 15 years in prison for their crimes. IJM’s relentless focus on individual victims – and the wealth of knowledge gained from their cases – enables our teams to engage in innovative public diplomacy that creates meaningful change for victims of violence and their communities.
This public diplomacy has a unique foundation at IJM a faith-based organization- which is inspired by the legacy of great heroes like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King, Jr., who were deeply motivated by their Christian faith to pursue justice for the oppressed and afflicted.
When IJM was created in 1997, its first mandate was to engage American Christians in the work of international justice, just as they had supported international evangelism and international relief. The Bible’s mandate to protect the widow and the orphan and seek justice for the poor is just as clear as God’s call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick; but it is safe to say that few Christians were aware of God’s heart for justice, and even fewer knew how to act on it.
IJM founder Gary Haugen – a former Department of Justice human rights lawyer, who later directed the UN investigation of the Rwandan genocide – believed that if Christians knew of both the Biblical mandate to confront injustice against the poor, and knew of real stories of victims of sex trafficking, slavery, sexual assault and unjust imprisonment, they would want to do something about. He was right.
U.S. Christians across the political spectrum respond enthusiastically when they hear stories about modern-day slavery and what can be done about it. They not only fund our work, pray for it and invite their churches into the process with them, but are increasingly calling upon their representatives and senators in Congress to support anti-trafficking initiatives abroad. Having tens of thousands of Christians themselves engaging in public diplomacy by vocally supporting vigorous anti-trafficking diplomacy and generous foreign assistance to rescue victims of slavery is an indispensable asset to IJM and to the victims we serve. It lets policymakers know that their own constituents care about slavery and will support them when they vote for foreign assistance to confront the crime.
IJM’s faith mandate enables our staff to effectively engage indigenous churches in public diplomacy, too. In Rwanda, Zambia, Uganda, Bolivia and Guatemala for example, IJM staff are training Christian pastors on how to identify and report suspected cases of sexual abuse of children. We’re also engaging them in the campaign to end property-grabbing from widows and orphans by teaching them their own country’s succession laws, and encouraging them to speak up for the widow and her children at funerals, burials, and family meetings where property is divided. In the past, local pastors all too often sided with neighbors or family members when a widow’s inheritance was challenged. Indeed, IJM’s own demographic surveys in Zambia and Rwanda show that 30-50% of widows had their property seized by neighbors or relatives, or in attempts at property grabbing. When pastors know the law and are trained on how to support widows’ claims, things start to change.
Because IJM’s mandate is legal casework – not proselytizing or evangelism – and because IJM will never impose any faith test on those we serve, it is not immediately obvious to the outside world that we are a Christian organization. The organization’s Christian character is visible from the inside, though. Christian faith is the organizing principle behind IJM, and the source of support that keeps staff cohesive and committed. Particularly for our staff in the field, who go into the darkest corners of abuse and exploitation, faith is the oxygen and the nourishment that sends them out again and again in search of victims, for years on end.
Today Veata is attending school, wants to pursue a career as a travel agent, and loves spending time with her friends. Speaking of herself and the other girls formerly held with her at the brothel, she recently told IJM: “We don’t live under control, abuse and command of other people, but we live with freedom.” Now that’s something everyone can believe in.
* Veata is a pseudonym, used for the protection of this IJM client. Real name and casework documentation are on file with International Justice Mission.
Holly Burkhalter is Vice President for Government Relations for International Justice Mission, a U.S.-based rights organization that provides legal services in fourteen overseas offices to victims of human rights violations and works to make public justice systems accessible to the poor. Prior to joining IJM, Ms. Burkhalter had served as: the U.S. Policy
Director of Physicians for Human Rights, Advocacy Director and director of the Washington office for Human Rights Watch, staffed the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations. Ms. Burkhalter publishes articles and opinion pieces regularly on a range of human rights issues and has appeared as a witness before Congress many times.
Amy E. Roth is Chief Media and Public Affairs Strategist for International Justice Mission. She joined IJM in 2008 with 15 years of international and domestic media experience, most recently serving for five years as the Public Affairs Coordinator at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See. She received Honor awards from the U.S. Department of State for her public affairs work during what was a historic time in U.S. Holy See relations. Prior to that position, she worked as the Special Advisor for Media with the Harvard-based NGO Women Waging Peace. Earlier in her career, she worked as a producer/correspondent with NBC Nightly News, where she won an Emmy for her work in Kosovo.
Phnom Penh – IJM client Veata* and her social worker.
In Rwanda, the IJM aftercare team has equipped women victimized by illegal property seizure to form a honey bee collective along with others in the community.
Gowshik* and Geetha*, freed from forced labor slavery in an IJM operation in collaboration with local government, now run their own business, growing and selling groundnuts.
Photo credit: Ted Haddock/International Justice Mission®