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One Mission at a Time with IJM

The clock is ticking when it comes to shielding poverty-prone communities – and especially their women and children – from soaring violence. Christa Hayden Sharpe of non-governmental organisation International Justice Mission reveals the most urgent missions in Asia that require our immediate help.

February 28, 2022

Can you tell us about the mission and vision of International Justice Mission (IJM)?

IJM is a global organisation that has, since 1997, supported governments in their national plans of action to protect people in poverty from violence. Our local teams in 24 programme offices in 14 countries partner with local authorities to combat sex trafficking, forced labour, and other forms of violence against women and children living in poverty. We work to rescue and restore survivors, ensure perpetrators are held accountable under local law, and help strengthen public justice and social systems.

After 25 years of work in the trenches, we’re ready to scale our proven model and help governments protect 500 million people by 2030. I’m especially motivated by seeing survivors heal, achieve their dreams of education and safe working conditions, build families and work for the increased protection for other vulnerable people. One of IJM’s survivor leaders from the Philippines, Ruby, even won a Women of the Future Southeast Asia award for Public Service this year.

Photo: IJM

What are your main priorities as IJM’s Asia-Pacific regional president?

I look after our programme and partnership offices in the region. Our programme offices in the Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia work closely with their partner governments, businesses and civil society agencies to reduce online sexual exploitation of children, cross-border trafficking and forced labour in supply chains; IJM’s partnership offices in Korea, Australia and Hong Kong work to increase the awareness of this hidden everyday violence, build high-impact partnerships with businesses and philanthropists, and raise financial and social resources. In 2019, we launched our Global Survivor Network, an international group of survivors working together to create safer communities and to advise governments, businesses and NGOs on how to protect the most vulnerable from exploitation.

Photo: IJM

IJM has been expanding its fundraising efforts and footprint in this region. Why is that?

Asia-Pacific is an important region with incredible opportunity, rapid growth and exciting innovation. But we also know that this region has pockets of deep vulnerability, nations that struggle to build rule of law at the local level to protect the most vulnerable, and global criminal actors who are using technological innovations to exploit vulnerable children. IJM has been invited to support APAC governments as they work to build sustainable models of protection and reduce the violent crimes of online sexual exploitation and forced labour. In fact, IJM’s first two programme offices were established in Asia – in India and the Philippines.

We’ve tested our model to stop child sex trafficking in the Philippines and Cambodia, showing a reduction of the crime up to 86 percent. We’re working with the Philippines government to build the world’s first model to combat the emerging crime of live-streamed child abuse to global traffickers located around the world. We’ve seen the rise of Asian leadership in philanthropy, CSR, and impact-driven investments in social good, and are thrilled to partner with these initiatives to protect the most vulnerable in our region.

Photo: IJM

Currently, what are some of the most urgent missions that need our help and what are some obstacles faced?

We’re focused on supporting governments to stop two pervasive concerns. The first is online sexual exploitation against children (OSEC). This emerging form of child abuse – using tech platforms to live-stream the abuse of children to traffickers who purchase the right to view the abuse from dozens of countries around the world – exploded in the Philippines. We’re working with the government, civil society, financial and tech sector partners, and the police to find and ensure the rescue of children, build criminal accountability under local law to deter future offenders, build an effective network of restorative aftercare, and ensure global law enforcement is supporting the Philippines to hold the demand-side offenders who purchase the abuse accountable in countries like Australia, the US and the UK. We’re seeing tremendous progress and now sharing the model to stop OSEC with other regional governments, tech and financial businesses.

The second pressing concern that APAC faces is forced labour of the most vulnerable workers in our region. In Southeast Asia, thousands of workers cross borders from lower-income “source” countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Indonesia to work in industries like fishing, agriculture and construction, where they often face exploitation, forced labour and abuse. These migrant workers are often lured by illegal networks of recruiters, brokers and employers who exploit their vulnerability with attractive promises of work, but ultimately trap them in low-skilled industries through abuse, by seizing their identification documents, by refusing to pay them and other tactics of forced labour.

To put it simply, these two pressing issues occur because of impunity, as laws are not enforced, resulting in criminals thinking they can get away with the crimes. IJM helps governments increase criminal accountability and victim support at the local level, increase deterrence for exploitation, and build a protective ecosystem across government, civil society and business.

Christa Hayden Sharpe, IJM’s regional president of Asia-Pacific

You joined IJM in 2005. What have you observed about people and humanity over this period?

I wish I could share all the miracles that I’ve experienced throughout my journey – how donors give sacrificially to ensure our teams can succeed; how survivors have healed from horrific violence to become leaders in their communities and nations; how governments have successfully equipped their local police, social services and courts to increase rule of law and protection for vulnerable communities; and how we’ve seen the prevalence of crimes like child sex trafficking be reduced through our projects by up to 86 percent.

A wonderful picture of this transformation was in Cambodia. During the early 2000s, the global sex tourism trade exploded and global paedophiles targeted Cambodia, where most children lived in poverty. The nation was still rebuilding its government structures and there was almost no criminal accountability for those who abused children. We were shocked to the core by what we saw – an open, wholesale market of young children for rape, in mass numbers across the city, out in the open. In fact, citizens had no basic police protection, had never seen child traffickers stopped and the system of survivor care was insufficient. It seemed impossible for light to pierce the darkness. In fact, people told us that it was impossible.

Over the past 15 years, we’ve seen the impossible become possible. We supported the government to ensure hundreds of girls and women were rescued and brothels exploiting children shut down. Hundreds of traffickers and abusers were held accountable for their crimes in local courts, increasing deterrence and awareness that this was illegal. I’ve seen untrained police move from intimidating victims to receiving police training and abiding by victim-friendly procedures. Consistent government leadership, multi-sector collaboration and law enforcement led to an astounding decrease in the number of minors being trafficked and sold, from a high of 15 to 30 percent of all those in prostitution being under the age of 15 in the early 2000s down to less than .01 percent being under the age of 15 at the end of our project. Now that’s encouraging!

What significant impact or changes do you hope to see in the future?

In the short-term, my hope is that our new partnership teams in Hong Kong and Seoul will develop high-impact, life-changing partnerships with innovative and visionary philanthropy and business leaders as we support governments to stop the online sexual exploitation of children and create safe supply chains free of forced labour across the region. Long-term, IJM aims to protect 500 million people from violence around the world and develop models to scale protection in every nation for the most vulnerable – with our incredible government, business and philanthropic partners, of course. Reach out and connect with our teams, because everyone can make an impact.

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