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The number of orphaned children increases as the pandemic shows no mercy.

Although fighting the pandemic is far from over, the conversation within Zoe Empowers has already shifted to questions about the future: What new challenges will the most vulnerable children be facing now and in the future?

After implementing a plan to support the children currently in the empowerment program who have been most impacted by Coronavirus, we begin to look at the areas we serve to determine how to prepare for what is to come. History has shown that human trafficking rings target the most vulnerable. However, post-pandemic, the level of desperation will be significantly heightened.

Traffickers want to make up for the lost time during the shutdown making children living in the streets even more vulnerable than ever.

Factory owners interested in re-cooping their financial losses will look to take advantage of as many young laborers possible. As one of India’s largest cities, Chennai has a population of over 7 million people living within 165 sq. miles.

A girl or boy can easily disappear into the pervasive network of human trafficking without anyone noticing.

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Chennai India

While boys are seen as capable laborers, girls in these situations are especially vulnerable to being sold to wealthy individuals as domestic servants who are bound to perform household duties without the ability to leave.

Known as a “housemaids”, these girls, sometimes as young as seven years old, are often forced into non-consensual sexual exploitation in addition to caring for their “owner’s” home.

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Sangeetha’s Story

Living in destitute conditions in the slums of Chennai, Sangeetha’s caregivers subscribed to the belief that she could only be an asset if she was sold. After attaining puberty, Sangeetha joined dozens of other girls in Chennai and was auctioned and sold. In exchange for roughly $300, she became the “property” of a volatile ring of traffickers who proceeded to sexually exploit and physically and psychologically abuse her for several years.

She was no longer known as Sangeetha. In the eyes of her “owner”, she was a product, not a human being.

Amara, a courageous and clever Zoe Empowers graduate, learned of Sangeetha and devised a rescue plan. Amara* told Sangeetha’s captors that she was sick and needed to go with Amara for one week to receive proper medication and recover. Today, Sangeetha is safe and under the watchful eye of her Zoe Empowers mentor but remains hidden in the slums of Chennai, for fear that going outside of it will result in being captured again. As the rescuer, Amara could also be in danger, but since joining an empowerment group in 2014, she receives protection from law enforcement and government officials within the Zoe Empowers network.

Because Zoe Empowers equips girls to find their voice, enforce their human rights and take ownership of their lives, forming more empowerment groups in Chennai is critical in the fight against human trafficking.

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Though profound to an outsider, a Zoe Empowers program graduate has the confidence to explain her value to her caregivers, essentially convincing them not to sell her. With the help of her fellow empowerment group members and a community mentor, these conversations are proving to be successful. Under the support of the Zoe Empowers network, dozens of program graduates are also stepping in to intercept sales around Chennai. Girls, just like Amara, who have escaped and are committed to helping other trafficking victims are familiar with the intricacies of trafficking and are able to anticipate actions so that more girls are being saved.

It is clear orphaned and vulnerable children are especially in need of support post-pandemic.

It is critical these children become aware of their human rights and stand up for themselves to avoid being lured or sold into trafficking or child labor. Empowerment can give them the tools to do so.

By forming and funding additional empowerment groups, the effort can effectively be multiplied in Chennai and beyond.

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*All names have been changed for privacy and protection

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