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South Asia

Supporting survivors of sex trafficking: Q&A with Kristi Van Es

Kristi is the CEO and Founder of Offspring Project, one of IJM’s partners in Kolkata. This aftercare organisation provides training and support for Kashi and other survivors of sex trafficking – they’ve made several of the wrappable gifts in IJM’s 2020 Christmas Catalogue.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m from Geelong, Victoria. I trained as a high school teacher, teaching physical education and outdoor education. I had been teaching for 7 years before I took a plane to India and founded Offspring, which is what I’ve been doing now for the past eight years. When I came home in February, I didn’t realise it was going to be a long, long stay before being able to head back to India again. Turns out it has been a great thing as I got married in March and have had some quality time in Australia with my husband.

Q: What inspired you to start Offspring? 

I initially went to India was I was 19 and made a couple more trips after that. It was when I was there in 2011 that I first heard about sex trafficking. For me it was that jaw-dropping moment; I could not believe this happens in our world today, not just in India, but globally. From there I was so stirred and felt like I needed to do more. I kept learning about Human Trafficking and eventually made the decision to resign from my job as a teacher in 2013 and start Offspring.

I arrived in India knowing no-one. IJM in Kolkata have been one of the strongest connections we’ve had from the very beginning. I know that I can email them anytime and ask for advice and Offspring wouldn’t be what it is today without the support from IJM in Kolkata.

Q: What does the process look like for the women who join? How do they connect with you?

Offspring has a vocational training centre and a midway home. The model for the training centre came from me meeting a girl who had been rescued and was at a shelter home. She said to me that despite being freed from slavery, “I’m still like a baby, I don’t have any skills.” So that’s how part of our model was formed, we wanted to give survivors a skill, give them a safe place and an education. We also have caseworkers working with them in their emotional recovery.

When a girl comes to us, it is through a referral from partner organisations, like IJM, who know what we do and think it might be a good opportunity for the survivor.

Q: How do you manage the fact that your trainees are living with a lot of trauma?

There are a lot of up-and-down emotions in our training centre. This can be really hard to navigate sometimes but we ensure our staff are all trauma-informed and have the sensitivity to work with survivors. We do a lot of training with our staff to make sure they understand the emotions survivors are experiencing and understand what trauma is.

Within our model we have various ways to give ownership and choice back to the girls. We work with them one on one, our caseworkers sitting down with them every week and teaching them what emotions look like and how to deal with them. A lot of it is helping survivors themselves (as well as staff) understand what trauma looks like, what is happening within their body and their mind.

The main part of our model is the training centre, to give the girls skills. They make products which we then sell in Australia – the products IJM is selling this Christmas. Making these products gives the girls a great sense of achievement because often when they join us, they don’t believe they are capable – they look at the products and think there’s no way they could make that. Then at the end, when they actually do make a product, there’s a real sense of achievement.

The other aspect of our model is education – that comes from the teacher in me. The classes include English, Maths, Bengali (the local language in Kolkata) and Life Skills. Then there is the one-on-one care from Case Workers.

A big part of the model is being trauma informed. An example is that when a girl is doing her junior traineeship, she gets to pick which sari she uses for all the products she makes. Often when we lay out all the saris, they’ll turn to me and ask, “Which one do you like?” and I’ll say, “No, which one do you like?” It’s just a small way of giving choice back to them, when it’s been stripped from them as a survivor of abuse. They get to say, “I like that blue one or I like that pink one and I’m going to make a product with a sari that I get to choose.” And that approach is woven throughout our model.

Q: One of these young women, is of course, Kashi, who’s now quite famous among IJM supporters. We are so excited to have these Christmas gifts in our catalogue, made by Kashi herself and other young women like her. Can you tell us about Kashi?

As a teacher, you’re not meant to have your favourites, but Kashi is definitely up there! She’s an absolute legend. All the girls have a resilience I’m not sure I’d ever have, but Kashi also has this quirky personality. She used to come to my office and through the crack of the door would let out a little “meow” like a cat, then just walk off. Just random, funny stuff like that. She’s got a level of responsibility too, which is why she’s been able to step up and speak out the way she has with IJM, in sharing her story. She’s been on radio in Kolkata, talking about human trafficking and what that was like. She has a real urgency and passion to speak out about this and that’s something we don’t see with every survivor.

You need a certain amount of bravery to share your story and to keep sharing it. That can be one of the hardest things, to keep sharing your story of abuse. So for Kashi to do this and do it with an attitude of “I don’t want anyone else to go through what I’ve been through” is pretty amazing.

Kristi with Kashi.

Q: How long does it take to make these beautiful products? 

A long time! When they’re first with us as a junior trainee, a product will take a week to make. As they get used to it, it’s quicker, but still takes a while – so Kashi would need a day from start to finish to make a Kolkata Kitty or Bollywood Beauty because there are six levels of saris that are all hand stitched, then put onto the treadle machine.

Q: What is your favourite product? 

The product I use the most is the Kolkata Kitty, which I use as my wallet and as my travel wallet for my passport etc. It’s a multipurpose product you can do a lot with.

I’ve sat down with the girls as they’re making them and they’re just chatting away – I really love the environment in which the products are being made.

Q: What challenges do you face and have you faced during COVID-19?

India has one of the highest rates of infection, with 100,000 cases recorded at one point. Our staff have been impacted, our trainees have been impacted and they’ve had family members who have passed away. It’s been pretty devastating for a lot of them.

We can’t run our training centre as normal – we’re operating on fewer days than usual and it’s been a bit hard on the girls to not have the same flow and routine.

Like any NGO and business, financially it’s also tough when we can’t have the kind of events or speaking engagements that we used to.

Q: What does the future look like for Offspring Project? 

We want our training centre to be a bridge for the girls to eventually find employment somewhere else. What we’re finding, though, is that it’s really hard to find those jobs elsewhere. When the girls don’t have a formal education, it’s hard for them to get a job at a workplace we know is going to be safe, where they’re going to be paid at the end of the month, or where there won’t be any overtime or abuse – all those negative things we hear happen in the fashion industry.

So our next challenge at Offspring is to look at how we can transition the girls to another step in their independence. We are working towards being able to give them ongoing employment at a safe workplace through Offspring. This would involve our production having wholesale capacity where currently we only produce limited amounts of stock.

Kashi with a trainee.

This post is based on a conversation on an Instagram Live conversation with Kristi. Watch it here.

You can support important work like this by giving to IJM Australia’s Christmas appeal and/or purchasing Gifts of Freedom made by the trainees at Offspring on our gift catalogue. Order by 12 December to get them in time for Christmas.

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