Local woman helps slavery victims
Caitlin Bennett hasn't found a job since she completed her degree in the spring of 2012. Actually, she hasn't been looking. The 23-year-old decided to follow her calling instead.
On Sept. 30, she returns to Southeast Asia to help victims of abuse, forced labor, illegal detentions, sexual violence and human trafficking.
The idea to join an organization called the International Justice Mission came to her from an unlikely source — a pamphlet. Her sister, Lauren, brought the information home from a meeting at her church where a representative from the organization had conducted a presentation.
Caitlin searched the group's website and filled out an application to volunteer. Within a short period, her application was accepted and she was on a plane for the 27-hour trip to her destination in Southeast Asia. Arriving at midnight, people were everywhere, a scene that surprised Caitlin.
"I was an International Relations major at the University of Arkansas and this seemed like a great way to help others and see the world at the same time," she said.
Her experience in India has made her appreciative of her life in America. One of her first assignments was what she described at a "victim rescue."
She explained that in the area where she worked in India, bonded labor was not declared illegal until 1976. Up to that point, individuals would agree to work for a company in exchange for their employer paying off debts of the individual.
"While it may sound like a good idea, the people never reach a point where the debt is paid. That's when we do a victim rescue to get them out of the arrangement. Basically, it is a situation of indentured slavery," she said.
The larger employers in the area of India she serves are brick kiln factories, rice mills, embroidery shops and other smaller operators. She has seen people as young as 3 rescued from the brick kiln operations; the oldest victims have been in their 70s.
"Children that young have difficulty communicating, especially with language barriers. We put bricks in front of them and had them demonstrate what they did. When they go to the bricks and flip them over, we know they have been working in the factory."
She also recalls a case in which she worked with a young girl rescued from a factory. The concept of bonded labor has continued across several generations of families and this girl was one of several from her family to be held. Caitlin describes sitting with her to color, an activity young children in America enjoy. She handed the child a crayon, but the girl did not know what to do with it, having never seen one before. After being shown by Caitlin how to hold and use the crayon, the girl was coloring all over the page with a smile on her face.
"Most of the people we rescue have no concept of money or the daily things we experience here," she said.
Once an individual has been rescued, caseworkers follow a case through a process Caitlin describes as "pushing water through the pipe to see where the holes are. The vast majority of time the reason is because overwhelming poverty of the area." Oftentimes, individuals do not receive the help they need to survive and this process helps identify where the flaws in the system exist.
According to the website for the International Justice Mission, nearly 2 million children are exploited in the global commercial sex trade and 27 million men, women and children are held as slaves.
"There are more slaves in the world today than in any other time in history." says Caitlin. This is a fact that Caitlin feels is difficult to comprehend.
She hasn't been concerned for her safety in the past and doesn't feel the increased level of terror in the world will be a factor for her in India. The group's office in India is far from the current instability in the Middle East.
Human trafficking is another problem that spans from India to the United States. Many young women agree to leave their country, believing they will be taking jobs as maids, but end up in the sex slave trade instead.
"Interstate 30 through Saline County is a major route in the human trafficking slave trade, along with drugs," Caitlin said.
She is looking forward to getting back to India. She has seen and experienced more than most young adults her age. Her work with the International Justice Mission ends in May 2014, at which time she may pursue a law degree.
"In the meantime, I'm very aware of how blessed I am."