New Delhi: Last year in May, Indian cricketers M.S. Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu and Ravi Shastri made a pledge to respect women in an advertisement that was viewed thousands of times on YouTube. The ad was commissioned by My Choices Foundation, a Hyderabad-based non-governmental organization (NGO), as part of its Respect2Protect campaign.

“You wouldn’t believe how we shot that video," says Hannah Norling, head of marketing and communications at My Choices Foundation, a three-year-old organization that works in the areas of preventing domestic violence and sex trafficking. A friend of the organization, Arshia Ayub, is the wife of former Indian cricketer Arshad Ayub. He made some introductions and the foundation hired cameramen in Australia to make the video in record time. “The team was there for a tournament. We had to sneak the camerapersons in and the shoot was done entirely inside the hotel," says Norling.

Mainstream television news channels picked it up for comparison with the My Choice campaign by Vogue India magazine featuring actor Deepika Padukone. It was also the most amount of visibility the organization has had, with the campaign airing on national television and sparking conversations on Twitter and Facebook.

It is fair to say that social media and communications are a strong suit of My Choices Foundation, which won the Social Media for Empowerment award given by the Digital Empowerment Foundation this year.

Previous chapter

My Choices Foundation was started by Elca Grobler and Anjali Rudraraju in 2012—Rudraraju left the foundation in May 2015 to focus full-time on her organic farming business. A South African national, Grobler moved her family, including three children, then aged 5, 8 and 10, to India in 2011 to work in the development space.

“The quick answer is that my husband and I wanted to work for women’s development and we wanted to go where there is a real need. India is still seen as one of the worst places in the world to be born a girl," says Grobler. For three years prior to coming to India, Grobler was working in Australia with an NGO that raises funds for microfinance institutions.

My Choices Foundation trained local women who were already entrenched in their communities to talk to victims and their families, counsel victims, counsel perpetrators of violence as well as their extended family and mediate in family disputes. The foundation calls the trained counsellors peacemakers; there are 75 of them now across Falaknuma, Golconda and Lakdi ka Pul in Hyderabad, Secunderabad and Warangal. The peacemakers receive a stipend of 3,000 a month.

Challenges

Very early on, a monster of a problem started to emerge in the peacemakers’ conversations with communities. Girls were whisked away to the city or foreign shores with promises of marriage, employment or education, never to be heard from again. The foundation spent 18 months researching the issue, reaching out to NGOs in the child sex trafficking space to discover any gaps. “Think about sex trafficking as a cliff," says Grobler. “Most NGOs work with rescue and rehabilitation of women afterwards. Only 1% of girls who fall off this cliff are ever rescued. We wanted to focus at the top of this cliff, at the edge, before the girls are lost to trafficking," she explains.

Last year, they clubbed the work to prevent domestic violence under Operation Peacemaker and started Operation Red Alert for preventing sex trafficking. The idea was to include the entire family in finding a solution and taking a positive rather than finger-pointing view. “We don’t ask fathers, ‘How can you do this to your daughters?’" explains Norling. “Instead, we tell them that we know they want what’s best for their children, and tell them about how trafficking happens and how to shield against it."

Earlier this year, the foundation printed flyers addressing the “good father", “cool (hatke) boy", “informed mother" and “guardian girl" in yellow, cyan and magenta. The purpose was to spread awareness about how sex traffickers operate.

“We run a two-day ‘Save the Village’ programme where we identify areas that are vulnerable and do awareness activities there," says Norling. The organization has covered 140 villages in the last five months.

The digital advantage

They are investing in technology through Australia-based big data consulting firm Quantium Analytics’ pro bono support to map hot spots for trafficking over the next 3-5 years. Grobler’s husband Roger set up the firm’s branch in India. Now, both the Australia and India offices of Quantium are supporting My Choices Foundation. “We need to be clever about how we identify the mandalas (communities) to run anti-trafficking workshops," says Grobler. The data analytics is expected to narrow things down for a more targeted approach.

Future plans

The organization is at an important juncture now. It is applying for permissions to seek foreign funding. Grobler explains that to apply for permissions, you need to show you are a legitimate organization, including showing the financial statements for three years.

Since 2012, My Choice Foundation has been running on private funds invested by Grobler and a few other philanthropists in Hyderabad. The foundation also sells scarves and bags made from silk saris online, mostly to customers in the US. According to Grobler, all of this helps cobble together the $20,000-a-month the foundation needs to run its five centres.

Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan and mBillionth awards.

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