Window into our work through the eyes of Dr. Devasitham Mani, Regional Specialist, Investigation and Law Enforcement Development at International Justice Mission (IJM), South Asia.
“How do you work each day and not fear for your life?”
This question came up at the end of our engaging interview with Dr. Devasitham Mani a.k.a. Deva. At the beginning of the interview, Deva shared a little memory from when he first applied for the job as an IJM investigator. The word ‘Investigation’ got him imagining himself as an Indian secret agent codenamed 007, GI Joe, or an FBI Agent. Danger was certainly part of the equation, but not as glamorous and exciting as he imagined. The reality was quite different. When Deva started investigating cases of human slavery and visited several facilities, he had to wear old and scruffy clothes, go in disguise, and wait behind bushes for hours to meet the victims. There was always the risk of compromising his cover and revealing his identity to the enslavers. “It was very disappointing and clearly not what I expected! I get really scared and fearful while investigating cases of forced labour slavery, knowing that we are investigating enslavers who are brutal and unforgiving in nature; those who hold major influence in the region, and with local officials and politicians. But, despite that, our love to witness freedom in the lives of the victims, and our love for this work is greater than our fears,” Deva stated.
Deva also added that IJM is known for its strong safety and security protocols. This gives him confidence and motivation to go into demanding situations.
What can we understand about the increase in Modern-day Slavery in South Asia?
Deva went on to explain why slavery was so prevalent in South Asia. Some of the key reasons are (1) extreme poverty (2) social structure (3) caste systems (4) lack of decent work opportunities (5) unsafe migration, and (6) natural disasters. While these deep-rooted systematic problems need to be addressed to alleviate slavery, IJM strongly believes that the most effective and sustainable approach to combat violence and modern slavery IS the strengthening and transforming of the Public Justice System. IJM’s Theory of Change, for developing countries across the world, holds that criminals thrive with impunity, where there has been a lack of law enforcement. When the law is enforced, the violence stops.
During the interview, a question came up...How is it possible to work alongside a government that may be corrupt? Deva answered, “Because corrupt officials can change, and we have seen firsthand where they can become proactive officials and supporters of IJM.” Deva continued, “In one of our projects, the officials involved started off by being dismissive, and denied the very existence of forced labour in their region. But after working closely with them, helping them understand the gravity of the situation, and by building a good relationship, much like a coach & player or expert consultant, we witnessed an increase in personal commitment from the officials, and an overall increase in the performance of the Public Justice System in that region. The direct result was an overreaching 82% reduction in forced labour”.
What does the journey to full restoration look like for survivors?
Deva shared, “From victim to survivor, and from survivor to advocate. This is an important part of the journey and is effectively being supported by an organization called “RBLA - Released Bonded Labour Association.” RBLA was started by a few survivors of forced labour slavery for the purpose of supporting and training new survivors who would like to serve as advocates, and fight for others trapped in similar ways.
“What about the duration for a survivor to become an advocate?” a participant asked. Deva explained that this could vary based on each individual situation, but all survivors are taken through a 2-year Aftercare Program by IJM, which focuses on Economic, Social and Psychological aspects of the development among the survivors. During the Aftercare program, survivors are provided with counselling, family therapy, social connections, activities for economic generation, employment opportunities, enrollment in Government schemes and registration for poverty alleviation programs through local self-help groups, which avail the governments’ support to start their own small-scale business. “In the last 20 years of IJM’s work in South Asia, we have shown a consistent success rate of 98-99% restoration through the Survivors Aftercare Program”, Deva gratefully added.
Survivor leader – IJM Champions
Deva shared an inspiring story of a survivor, who is now an IJM advocate, fighting Forced Labour Slavery. “Gowri was rescued in 2002, and since then, we have followed her journey from being rescued, to becoming an IJM Champion and advocate. She lifted the spirits of survivors and coached them on how to lead the charge against slavery in South Asia. Gowri is one of our powerful leaders for the Released Bonded Labour Association, and a resource person for many of our government stakeholders' trainings”
Your support can go a long way in helping IJM tackle Forced Labour Slavery. Every contribution is valuable, big, or small. A gift of $12 will be equivalent to a blanket for survivors immediately after their rescue. A donation of $365 CAD is equivalent to funding an entire freedom training for one family member, which is crucial in bringing someone out of slavery.
We would love to see you again at another exclusive event we have planned. Our Virtual Online trip to the Philippines on May 10th at 6 p.m. PST where you can meet our IJM Philippines team along with a survivor. If you are interested, you can register here.