Leading activist Priya Israni shares alarming details about the reach and spread of human trafficking
Human trafficking is the fastest-growing and second-largest criminal enterprise in the world, a $150 billion industry. The impact is felt by more than 28 million victims of sexual trafficking across the globe.
“An average girl of 15 years of age is typically trafficked in the United States,” says Priya Israni, the president of IHC for Her, a subsidiary of the India Heritage Center. “She has to cater to eight men per day, which means by the time she’s 21, she would have been raped and catered to the sexual demands of over 17,000 men.”
A common misconception about human trafficking is that it happens only in underdeveloped or developing countries and not in the U.S. But 15,000 to 50,000 cases are reported each year in the country.
As reported in the worldpopulationreview.com, California has the highest rate of human trafficking rates followed by Texas, Florida and New York. The four states also account for the most South Asians immigrants in the country.
Israni, who’s been the president of the India Heritage Center since 2016, has her painting and fashion design skills aside to focus on her true passion: helping those in need. She is focused on rescuing, rehabilitating, reintegrating and empowering victims of human sex trafficking and giving them a second chance at life.
Israni spoke to SEEMA about IHC for Her and how the organization is trying to fight this menace, particularly for the immigrant Indian community.
“IHC for Her is a sister arm of the organization called Indian Heritage Center, which actively began work in 2016,” Israni said. “We were trying to record and assimilate and preserve our stories of Indian immigrants. Unfortunately, with COVID happening we regrouped as a team of nine people, and everybody in the team kind of presented their ideas and what resonates with them. For me, I wanted to do something in the area of gifted kids and special needs kids. Also it was decided to have a parallel effort to be able to help a sexually trafficked victim. We kind of understood that the issue, unfortunately, is so large, even here in the United States. All of us decided to pursue this single handedly. That was really two years back; the beginning of us trying to understand and try to help girls conceptually first.”
India is a major hub of the $150 billion human trafficking industry. IHC for Her is dedicated to empowering the survivors of sexual trafficking through education and various vocational training. She highlights the mission of the organization.
IHC for Her provides the survivor a second chance at creating their own narrative, a right to their own hopes and dreams, and the potential to a better life,” Israni said. “A lot of resources, a lot of great NGO work, is being done in terms of rescuing these young victims of sexual trafficking. Unfortunately, when they come to a shelter, they are not getting adequate training, whether it’s vocational training, or even educational training. So once they turn 18, and they have to move past the shelter and go into the real world, they do not have skills to be able to survive and become self-reliant. Unfortunately, at that point, some of them choose to go back into the world of trafficking.”
The organization is involved in the rescue of human trafficking survivors of Indian descent through partnerships with organizations in both India and the U.S. The focus; however is to make survivors independent. Israni realized the gap between the rescue and rehabilitation work.
“We focus our primary attention to ensuring that the survival has fully accomplished all that’s necessary, whether it’s financial literacy, educational or vocational training,” she said. “So when she’s 18, and needs to move on, she’s either able to get a job, or open a small business.”
An education and skill training may not be sufficient to get them back on their feet and earn a living straight away.
“IHC for Her supplements her income for the next six months if she’s in the job world. So there’s not a lot of stress on her to try to make ends meet,” Israni said. “Similarly, for candidates who are opting for opening their own small businesses, we provide them seed money. Our entire cycle ensures that each survivor is fully self-reliant and able to break away from [past] circumstances.”
Human trafficking remains one of the top organized crimes in India. According to a Reuters study, out of an estimated 20 million commercial sex workers in India, 16 million are victims of sex trafficking. Though the prevalent issue has been highlighted in mainstream films like “Traffic” and more recently “Gangubai Kathiawadi,” according to Israni, that is not enough.
“As far as ‘Ganubai Kathiawadi’ is concerned, it’s a very artistic depiction coming from such a celebrated movie director,” Israni said. “While it has some parts that are brutal to watch, the reality is that it’s a very glamorized version. The real life of a sex worker is much more horrendous, much more challenging. And it’s difficult to even withstand the kind of information that comes towards you. I understand they have to choose as movie makers to make it more palatable for a larger audience. Having said that, we’re just happy that the movie came out and it created more space for us to have more conversations. Many more parents are now walking up to us – especially South Asian parents.”
Through media reports and films, the common perception is that this is a third world problem. Israni is quick to bust the myth.
“It exists everywhere,” she said. “Here [in the U.S.], you have access to cell phones and social media and all kinds of apps. So these predators can connect with young girls. We personally know of a 15-year-old who was trafficked from the age of 12 while living at home, and her parents didn’t know. She would tell them she was going to a friend’s house but, in fact, was being trafficked.”
Israni hopes to spread in the U.S. so that parents and loved ones are more vigilant and a similar story does not replay in another home.
“Our entire mission in the United States, besides our chapter in India, is to create awareness, which means we’d like to be able to go into schools and talk to parents,” she said. “The 15-year-old girl’s mother didn’t know that this was happening. So the more education we’re able to symbolize to people, I think we can keep our children safer.”
The problem is beyond any one organization to handle. But Israni and her team are doing their best to reduce the damage, especially on women. The IHC for Her team has experience in the not-for-profit space. Israni credits her team for the intense work.
“This is a team effort. None of us take salaries,” she said. “We take away time from our families and offer it to the girls. So pretty much everybody, including our donors, supporters or volunteers, are instrumental in changing each girl’s life.”
Israni has a master’s degree in clinical psychology, holds a degree in fashion and had a successful business in couture fashion apparel. She is passionate about causes related to children and wants to reach them before traffickers do, to empower the young people to make proactive choices for their safety.
“In India and the world over especially wherever there is a conflict region, there are refugees and very young children are being trafficked. In the United States, the average age recorded is 15. While these stats are very uncomfortable to hear, it’s very important for us to understand how bad it is so that we can understand and thereby help our future generation.”
- The United States not only faces a problem of foreign victims trafficked into the country, but there is also a huge homegrown problem of American children being recruited and exploited for commercial sex.
- Over 25% of sextortion incidents happen to kids 12 and younger and most of them meet their offender online.
- In the United States, more than 800,000 children are reported missing every year.
- 70% of those will be forced into trafficking.
How to protect girls from being trafficked.
IHC for Her has recently launched awareness programs with these steps to address sex trafficking:
- Organizing self-defense crash courses for teens.
- Putting together a digital seminar for parents to understand the social media world better and thereby engage in open conversations with their kids.
- Bringing licensed programs to schools with clearly defined age appropriate curriculum.
- Engaging high school students to reenact scenarios that make children to feel empowered under vulnerable conditions.
“An average girl of 15 years of age is typically trafficked in the United States. She has to cater to eight men per day, which means by the time she’s 21, she would have been raped by and catered to the sexual demands of over 17,000 men.”
“We focus our primary attention to ensuring that the survival has fully accomplished all that’s necessary, whether it’s financial literacy, educational or vocational training. So that when she’s 18, and needs to move on, she’s either able to get a job, or open a small business.”
“We personally know of a 15-year-old who was being trafficked from the age of 12, while living at home, and her parents didn’t know. She would tell them she was going to a friend’s house but, in fact, was being trafficked.”