Surrounded by books and dressed in a colorful outfit, Riya Parvin, a law student from West Bengal, India, studies for her upcoming exams –– an improbable achievement in and of itself.

At 17, while Parvin and a friend were visiting her sister, a man drugged and abducted them. When they regained consciousness they found themselves in a brothel, held against their will. They were tortured and sexually abused for 15 days before a Bengali man helped them escape. 

For many trafficking victims, the traumatic experience might have been a turning point toward a darker future –– one defined by stigma, ostracization and discrimination. But Parvin’s story is different. Just three years after her abduction, she is pursuing a law degree under the School for Justice program, a path that will position her to protect girls from the same fate she suffered from. “I have learned a lot and I want to work to get justice for girls like me,” says Parvin. “No girl should be forced and exploited like me, and I want to see the victims get justice.” 

School for Justice empowers girls who have been victims of child trafficking by helping them attain degrees and jobs through which they can defend other trafficking victims. The school collaborates with local NGOs to identify trafficking survivors and helps them gain admission to universities to pursue law, social work and journalism degrees. Along the way, School for Justice provides the girls with an array of supports, and after completion of their studies, assists them in obtaining internships and jobs at law firms.

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The program, introduced in India in 2017 by the Dutch group Free a Girl, began with 19 students, later expanding to Nepal in 2019 and later to Brazil. In India and Nepal together, over 50 students are currently enrolled in the program and more than 30 have completed their courses successfully.

“All the girls are very eager to pursue their education, especially law, and we give them all kinds of support for pursuing their studies and further internships and jobs,” says Rishi Kant, one of the founders of Shaktivahini, the Delhi-based NGO that runs the program. Some become attorneys or paralegals, while others train to become police officers or journalists focused on human trafficking. Along the way, School for Justice helps them cover expenses for hostels, food, medical needs, traveling, internet charges and English communication classes.

The program also runs trainings and workshops on children’s rights, human trafficking, and cyber laws. Some of the School for Justice’s graduates are now practicing in Sealdah court in West Bengal, India. “Once rescued, the girls, when given an opportunity, their inner strength comes out and they want to show the world that a little bit of support helps them reach heights,” says Rishikanth.

According to the International Labor Organization, in 2021, there were 49.6 million individuals in modern slavery, of whom 27.6 million were engaged in forced labor and 22 million in forced marriage. Around 4.9 million are victims of forced commercial sexual exploitation, and minors make up 12 percent of all forced laborers. More than half of these children are being sexually exploited for profit. The majority of those in modern slavery are from Asia and Pacific regions. “These women are victims of their circumstances,” says Meenakshi Arora, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India. “The reintegration and rebuilding of their self-respect and self-esteem in society is very important.”

Sumi Sarkar is a product of such circumstances. At the age of 18, the lure of having money for decent meals pushed her into the sex trade. Within a year, along with other girls, Sarkar had been trafficked to a remote resort in Southern Bengal. She was later rescued by Vihaan, an anti-trafficking NGO, and the police in Kolkata. Even after her escape from slavery, however, her road to recovery was difficult. Haunted by memories of her experiences, she often fell into depression and was plagued with guilt for being so naive.

Vihaan introduced her to the School for Justice, which helped her pursue a career in social work where she could assist young women forced into the sex trade.

Today, Sarkar is pursuing a bachelor of social work (BSW) at a reputed college in Kolkata as a part of the School for Justice program. As part of her coursework, she has completed internships at NGOs like Women Interlink Foundation, World Vision and Gana Unnayan Parshad, a women’s empowerment group. Whenever needed, she offers assistance to other School for Justice participants. The support from the school helped her to continue her studies, forget her past and face the future bravely. “I conducted many awareness sessions with young boys and girls, and I want to become an agent of change and support victims like me to fight against injustice confidently without being naïve,” she says.

As internet connectivity in India rises, so too are the number of cases of online sexual exploitation, according to Sudha Upadhyayula, the Operations Head at the My Choices Foundation in Hyderabad. 

Yet even as incidents rise, conviction rates for human trafficking are falling — from 27.8 percent in 2016 to 10.6 percent in 2020 — as traffickers become savvier at covering their tracks online and cross-border trafficking leaves enforcement agencies unable to keep up. This has made getting convictions difficult, say activists and NGOs, which further emboldens traffickers, and makes the need for more legal representatives even more pressing.

Even as it works with trafficking victims specifically, the School for Justice is striving to ignite a broader conversation about the realities of child prostitution. In some sectors of Indian society, boys are seen as a source of money and girls as a financial burden. Girls involved in juvenile prostitution are labeled complicit and excluded from society. But poverty and patriarchy play key roles in the human trafficking problem, as do natural calamities, political instability and globalization. 

“We should create awareness [among] not only girls, but also adolescent boys, about sex being a part of their life and to not treat it as a commodity available in the market,” says Tapoti Bhowmick, senior program coordinator at the anti-trafficking NGO Sanlaap.