BOSTON, Massachusetts — Globally, children make up 20% of human trafficking victims, according to the United Nations, while 79% of those cases involve sexual exploitation. Child trafficking levels continue to surge as the coronavirus pandemic continues to limit children’s access to schools while leading to higher poverty rates. Approximately 4 million children are currently trafficked and exploited, according to Love146, an international nonprofit that some say serves as a strong antidote to that crisis, liberating and helping children affected by trafficking — both now and in the future — through a comprehensive, preventive curriculum.
Dating back to when the organization began in 2002, Love146 has fought to end child trafficking and exploitation in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand, Madagascar, the United Kingdom and the United States.
One of the most rewarding parts of Shirley Koesnadi’s job as Love146’s operations and human resources manager is knowing that even though she may be one step removed from directly helping youth, the work she does with the nonprofit still makes an impact. In fact, the organization’s very name carries just as potent a story as the foundation’s mission.
Rob Morris, co-founder and CEO of Love146, discovered that a brothel in Southeast Asia had children for sale around that time. All of the girls wore red dresses and carried no form of identification other than tags with numbers on them. Morris later recalled that “only one girl wasn’t watching the cartoons. She was staring at us through the glass with a piercing gaze.” That girl’s number was “146,” leading to the organization’s name.
Therefore, the very essence of this nonprofit organization began as a tribute to the one girl who, through her gaze, screamed about the trauma she suffered.
Love146 approaches child trafficking cases through what could be described as a unique, open-minded learning perspective, enabling the organization to persevere throughout myriad situations. It continues “to wrestle with the tension of an urge to take immediate action with the time it takes to be thoughtful, so that (its) efforts can be effective and sustainable,” according to the nonprofit’s website.
Child trafficking and exploitation look different around the world, requiring attentiveness to the different needs of children as well as cultural disparities that may require varying services. Koesnadi said that Love146’s work varies “region to region,” because the foundation uniquely shapes different international programs to ensure that different social, cultural, health and economic needs of children receive attention.
This organization’s long-term vision to “end child trafficking and exploitation — nothing less,” along with its mission to “journey alongside those impacted by trafficking today and prevent the trafficking of children tomorrow,” is the foundation’s backbone.
Survivor Care in the Philippines
Love146’s Survivor Care Program in the Philippines emulates the overarching value of this foundation by listening to the children there and acting on their direct requests — many times oriented around their already-lived traumatic experiences. The survivor care program there is a holistic care center that is fundamentally a direct reflection of children’s minds. In 2008, for example, the program built its first safe space, “the Round Home,” for Filipino children as a way to ensure both the physical and intangible facets of their lives would be heard, seen, cared for and valued.
Just as the name implies, the Round Home physically has no corners and includes a treehouse, which offers a space for child therapy sessions. Those living here can play games such as volleyball, use punching bags, garden, care for farm animals, reflect, and above all, spread love as well as learn how to give themselves the love they deserve, according to the organization.
Dr. Gundelina Velazco, the organization’s after-care director in the Philippines, works to ensure a safe home is a safe environment where the children are both physically and psychologically safe. The Round Home enables children to be exactly who they are: children.
Increasingly, more Filipino children are becoming engulfed by online child sexual exploitation, according to a Love146, with several of them ending up with the organization. “I’m like the grass,” one child who Love146 helped told the organization. “Even though it is stepped on again and again, it rises again and again. It can be cut down, but it grows back.” It is a message Love146 says is paramount for the children in its care to understand, that despite their traumatic experiences, they will rise again.
Love146’s prevention and survivor care work is not merely a one-time service. Rather, it is long-term, as children will be able to receive it as long as they need it. Prevention work in the Philippines, however, differs from the work Love146 has done in other regions of the world. “Many of the kids that we work with in the Philippines are trafficked due to a lack of basic needs,” Koesnadi told The Borgen Project. “Prevention work involves going out into the communities, educating parents, and helping families meet their basic needs so that they’re not looking for exploitive alternatives.”
In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, Love146 works primarily with foreign nationals to curb children’s re-victimization by providing them with the services they need while helping them understand their rights.
‘Defiant Hope’ Perseveres
One of Love146’s major values is “defiant hope” — changing the connotation of hope into one of action. The organization’s three-year strategic growth plan — which began July 2020 — is intended to spread prevention education curriculum in the hopes of significantly reducing trafficking and exploitation.
The organization’s survivor care program has reached nearly 3,500 children globally, while another 62,000 or so have learned something through Love146’s prevention education program.
Love, light and defiant hope are key ingredients to what Love146 does, working to save youth from child trafficking and exploitation.
– Nora Zaim-Sassi