Beyond the Brothel: Can We Break the Global Human Trafficking Cycle?



  • 27 million people worldwide are victims of trafficking involving forced labor or sexual exploitation, and 13 million of them are in India
  • The ASSET program provides technology training, English lessons, and job placement services for victims of sex trafficking
  • Intervention organizations are working to lower turnover rates by providing strong support systems and tailoring their programs to the communities they serve

“What you’re exposed to the minute you come off the plane is abject poverty in many places,” says Nita Umashankar.

She didn’t grow up in India, but Umashankar, MS ’07 and Ph.D. ’10, has spent the past decade trying to improve the prospects for the country’s most marginalized citizens: its sex trade workers. The solution is as complex as the problem itself because the stronghold of human trafficking doesn’t dissipate when someone is rescued. Social persecution lingers, and old habits die hard despite the best attempts from law enforcement and humanitarian programs.

Her interest — or, better, her passion — began when she was only 22 years old.

Opportunities Are ‘Sheer Luck’

Umashankar had just completed her undergraduate studies and was about to begin graduate school at the McCombs School of Business when she decided to volunteer in Bangalore for a year. She told her parents she didn’t want to stay with family or friends; she would live as a local and learn the city on her own terms. She worked as an instructor, teaching Indian classical dance at a school for deaf women, some of whom resided in the city’s slums.

“I worked with people who are subjected to all kinds of negative things because they’re so poor,” she explains. The women she taught suffered from malnutrition, abuse, and — just as crippling — ostracism. Her daily volunteer work introduced her to the city’s most vulnerable, many of whom had been the victims of human trafficking.

The difference between her and the women she danced with was one of chance. Umashankar’s voice, which has, until now, been soft and deliberate, intensifies noticeably. “It’s sheer luck that we have better opportunities,” she insists.

A Global Crisis

Worldwide, the U.S. State Department estimates that 27 million people are victims of trafficking for the purposes of forced labor or sexual exploitation — and it’s believed that as many as 2 million children are forced into prostitution by the global commercial sex trade each year.

With an estimated 13-14 million people in modern slavery, India has the highest forced labor population. While precise numbers are elusive, many within that group — especially young women and children — are part of India’s rampant underground sex trade. In India alone, it is estimated that as many as half a million children have been forced into prostitution.

They have been kidnapped, trafficked, or tricked. Young girls have been stolen or sold. For a destitute family in a rural area, the sex trade may be the furthest thing from their minds, but they’ve sent their teenage daughter away with a trusted friend or family member, believing there may be a good job opportunity in a large city. Instead, that relative sells the girl to a brothel, where she is initiated, forcibly, into a new way of life.

Still for others, the sex trade might be a way to pay off family debts, required of a woman by her husband and extended family. She is not allowed to say no.

No matter what the circumstances, Umashankar is clear: Even when it isn’t forced, prostitution isn’t chosen. “If you’re put under such dire circumstances, you can’t really call it voluntary. It might be the only option.”

From Trafficking to Tech: India’s Hidden Assets

In 2006, Umashankar and her father, Ray, began the Achieving Sustainable Social Equality through Technology (ASSET) India Foundation. ASSET provides women rescued from sex trafficking and the adult children of sex workers with basic technology skills and English lessons and then places them in entry-level jobs with companies such as IBM and Dell. ASSET partners with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have strong ties within communities to identify sex trade workers who would be good candidates for the program. Some go on to secure job placement, and others — such as those too still too young to work or who have not had any prior formal education — may use ASSET’s classrooms as a springboard to higher education.

To date, ASSET has trained 1,400 students and placed 500 in jobs throughout India.

Unfortunately, challenges persist. People can be very reluctant to join ASSET, and employee turnover among students they’ve placed in jobs is high.

Says Umashankar, “I was thinking, what’s going on here? This should improve their lives. There must be some issue.” Getting professional training for an IT job should be an obvious, rational choice. “But behaviorally,” she concedes, “it might be too much.”
ASSET’s experience is not unique. In 2011, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof detailed the raid of a brothel in Kolkata. Several girls — one, 5 years old — cried and asked to be rescued, but others stayed, seemingly willingly. For many, it’s all they know, and the dread of leaving outweighs the pain of staying.

There is also a stigma attached to sex workers, and many say they can’t go back to their families and villages. Leaving a brothel means going to a shelter, and they fear what they don’t know.

Another complicating factor: Religious beliefs that promote the notion of destiny are pervasive and reinforce a social hierarchy with little upward mobility.

Researching a Solution

Raji Srinivasan’s office is at the end of a nondescript hallway in McCombs’ marketing department. Faculty nameplates dot the walls in identical fashion, but hers is easy to spot. Look for the rainbow-colored ALLY sign and a badge that reads “Peace.”

She served as Umashankar’s Ph.D. advisor and, ultimately, as her research colleague.

Umashankar is now an assistant professor of marketing at Georgia State University, still deeply connected to ASSET, and was still wondering why it’s so difficult to encourage sex trade workers to join the program and stay in their new tech jobs.

“I went to the management literature,” she says, “and searched around for a construct that represented this idea and found newcomer adjustment.”

Explains Srinivasan, “Newcomer adjustment is the social transition by which a person learns new behavioral patterns that are expected of them as they participate in a new group” — in this case, an intervention that retrains sex workers and helps them find jobs with reputable IT companies.

Srinivasan continues, “Newcomer adjustment has three elements: role clarity, self-efficacy, and social acceptance. How clearly do they understand what’s expected of them? Do they believe they can meet the requirements of the new role? And do they feel acknowledged, appreciated, and liked by their peers?”

Both professors contend that sex trade workers can see the benefit of learning skills and finding a new job, but they don’t sufficiently adjust to the process of doing so, and that causes them to abandon the program or their jobs.

“This is a pattern we’re seeing, and we need to understand why. Look at UNICEF’s work in Mali and Ghana a few years ago that attempted to decrease childhood deaths from disease. It’s a noble and worthwhile cause, but it failed miserably,” says Srinivasan.

The answer — be it training in India or medication and bednets in West Africa — has to be closely adapted to the group being served. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to a problem, particularly when intervening to help the most marginalized communities in the world.

Findings in Action

Umashankar and Srinivasan worked directly with ASSET teams in India to discover trends and patterns that could explain resistance and relapse. What they found reinforced some of our understanding of newcomer adjustment and also challenged outdated assumptions.

“What we realized,” says Umashankar, “is that participating in an intervention program is an opportunity cost for the family.” Any time a woman spends learning new skills, such as creating her first e-mail account or learning English, is less time she can spend making money to feed herself or her children.

Their research shows that for an intervention to be successful, it must be tailored to the community it serves, and that means taking time requirements into consideration. Too many competing demands reduce a participant’s ability to cope with the program’s requirements, and she quits.

The good news, according to Umashankar and Srinivasan, is that requiring less time doesn’t affect success — in fact, it seems to help. Conventional wisdom suggests that the more time people invest in something, the more likely they are to follow through. But this is one of the key differences of working with marginalized communities: What works for young adults in one place may not work for those in another.

Having a support system is also crucial during a transition, and their research shows that internal peers — in this case, other sex workers enrolled in the educational program — provide empowerment and motivation to keep each other going. Moreover, they can offset the power of external peers — those not in the program — who might ridicule or stigmatize participants.

Their work offers empirical evidence that the size of the group isn’t what’s important; it’s the strength of a few people who can keep morale high.

External peers can play a crucial role, too. As Srinivasan explains, though these community members may not be participating in the intervention, they have authority and can offer their endorsement (or not). The more you get to know the communities you serve, the more buy-in you’ll ultimately receive.
This is powerful information for nonprofits and intervention programs worldwide:

  • The size of the group and the amount of time each student participates is not as important as the regularity of classes and the bond that forms among those who are present.
  • Small groups meeting in short bursts could be more effective.
  • Work with local NGOs to form relationships with communities on a personal level. Their support is essential.

These could be the keys many nonprofits need to achieve success, be it in Delhi, Ghana, or inner-city Chicago.

In light of these findings, ASSET is making changes to its own programs and will be expanding into India’s rural areas soon to reach even more people.

“My own personal philosophy is that everybody doesn’t have to be a Bill Gates. We can’t be. I don’t have that bandwidth. I’m not that smart. But if I can create one small, important change …”

Srinivasan’s voice trails off, and she’s called away to teach another class. Before she goes, she adds, “Hopefully an NGO has seen this research and feels reassured that even if they don’t have a lot of money, they can keep doing what they’re doing because they can achieve their objectives.”

Umashankar and Srinivasan’s findings were published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing in 2013. For more information about modern-day slavery and human trafficking, view the International Labour Organization’s latest report from May 2014.


Faculty in this Article

Raji Srinivasan

Professor, Marketing

Raji Srinivasan's main areas of expertise are in organizational innovation and marketing metrics. Organizational innovation includes new...

Nita Umashankar

Assistant Professor of Marketing Robinson College of Business, Georgia State University

Nita Umashankar, McCombs MS ’07 and Ph.D. ’10, is an assistant professor of marketing in the Robinson College of Business at Georgia...

About The Author

Adrienne Dawson

Adrienne is the editor of Texas Enterprise. She holds an MBA and has previously been a writer and editor at Rice University and MD Anderson Cancer...

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