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International Justice Mission’s niche: police work, legal aid for the oppressed

WASHINGTON (BP)–“Jayanthi” was 14 when she set off for her home village with the money she had saved while working as a domestic servant in a distant town. While returning alone by train, four women befriended her, drugged her and had her transported to Bombay — where, like thousands of other girls, she was sold into a brothel and locked away in a hidden room.

By the time she was 17, she had been severely beaten scores of times, had suffered through three abortions and remained physically locked away to service the brothel’s customers.

For Jayanthi and scores of girls like her, the hope of escape seems slim.

According to The New York Times, “Law enforcement officials have seen episodes for years of trafficking in women and children, some as young as 9 years old.” But a report from the CIA states, “[Officers] generally do not like to take on these cases because they are difficult to investigate and prosecute.”

That is where the International Justice Mission (IJM) comes in. IJM is a Christian ministry that helps people suffering injustice and oppression who cannot rely on local authorities for relief. The ministry documents and monitors conditions of abuse and oppression, educates the church and public about the abuses, and mobilizes intervention on behalf of the victims.

IJM’s founder and president, Gary Haugen, in a news story on Crosswalk.com, recounted how and why he got involved in a part of the sex trafficking arena few others dare to touch.

Shaped by his experiences working with the U.S. Department of Justice and as a United Nations genocide investigator in Rwanda, the idea for IJM first took root in response to a need Haugen witnessed when visiting missionaries and Christian relief and development workers.

Several years ago, he was with a group of missionaries who traveled to the Philippines to minister to Manila’s 50,000 street children. They shared the gospel with them and gave them food and shelter. But then they started to notice the 13- and 14-year-old girls stopped showing up for the program. The missionaries asked around and discovered the girls had been abducted into a brothel. Then they found out that the brothel was being run by the local police.

What can missionaries do in that situation? Haugen said the group didn’t feel comfortable forgetting about girls, yet they couldn’t take on the Manila police.

This is an oft-repeated scenario, Haugen said. “The American church has sent out thousands of these missionaries and relief workers around the world to share the love of Christ, yet they are just not equipped to respond to strong-armed oppression, abuse and injustice.”

The idea began to grow in Haugen’s mind that there are people in the body of Christ who actually do know how to respond to these particular kinds of problems. “We’re not doctors or preachers or homebuilders, but we [lawyers] know how to deal with cases of injustice and abuse because that is our professional gift and capacity.”

He and other lawyers and law enforcement officials felt there should be a place where overseas Christian workers can turn when they face such situations. In 1996, they surveyed 70 mission agencies and relief and development organizations in the evangelical community, representing some 70,000 overseas workers.

“We asked them one question,” Haugen recounted. “Do you have workers serving in communities where people suffer injustice and abuse under circumstances in which local authorities can’t be relied upon for relief?”

Haugen said 100 percent of the respondents said “yes.” The respondents also provided a list of 21 categories of abuse, including murder, illegal detention, torture of children, seizure of property and forced child prostitution.

“We know that there are people who suffer in the world for different reasons,” Haugen said. “They suffer because they may have never heard the gospel, or they suffer because they are hungry, or because they don’t have a house or medical care.”

To express the love of Christ to them, Haugen said, “we go and meet those needs. We bring the Word of God or help build shelter. But there’s this other category of people who suffer in the world — not because they don’t have food or medicine — but because they have an oppressor: someone who is more powerful in the community and uses that power to abuse them and to take from them the good things that God has given them.”

The survey provided solid evidence and a biblical mandate added support to Haugen’s growing conviction: “Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Haugen left his job at the Department of Justice in 1997 and launched IJM.

Ministries in India and Southeast Asia doing AIDS outreach to sex slaves quickly asked IJM for help. “One of the ugly realities of our world,” Haugen said, “is a massive trade in sexual slavery. There are hundreds and thousands of children who are sold into forced prostitution. In Asia alone, there are 1 million children taken into prostitution each year.”

The missionaries were able to help the prostitutes who managed to escape, but they didn’t know how to rescue the ones who were trapped. No one was going in and actually getting the children out of the brothels. “No one identified where they were, got them out or brought the perpetrators to justice,” Haugen said.

This is the work that IJM has been doing. Using the tools of traditional law enforcement, they have trained operatives who go in and infiltrate the areas of prostitution in these large cities. They use surveillance technology to be able to document where the children are being held. Then they take the evidence to local police contacts that they develop and conduct a raid on the brothels. They get the children out and take them to places of aftercare.

“This is where it is so critical to have those Christian partnerships that can provide aftercare,” Haugen said, “because we are not in the aftercare business. We just partner with Christian ministries who are.”

IJM then pursues prosecution against the perpetrators. “It seems unbelievable, but in India and Thailand, there had never been a successful prosecution of someone for any of the crimes related to forced child prostitution, that resulted in any jail time,” Haugen said. “No one had ever gotten in trouble in a serious way.”

That is the core reason for the massive amount of child prostitution in the world today, he noted.

His work has borne much fruit. Haugen shared one compelling example to demonstrate the point: On a trip to India just before Easter this year, he met with a young girl IJM rescued out of a brothel two years ago. The girl had been sold for a few hundred dollars when she was 14. While enslaved, somehow she heard about Jesus and prayed to be rescued. Within a week’s time of that prayer, some of IJM’s investigators found where she was and were able to get her out.

That was two years ago. Since then, Haugen said, she has been able to put her life together. She has come to know Christ and has gotten married. Prior to Haugen’s visit, she had given birth to a baby girl. She and her husband asked Haugen if he would name their daughter, which he did — Esther.

The next day, she wanted to go back to the brothel where she had been held, because she thought there would be other girls still held there. They went with the police, conducted a raid and were able to rescue three more girls and have the brothel operator arrested.

Haugen now has the lock from her brothel sitting on his desk.
Chismar is editor of Crosswalk.com’s Religion Today news service. Used by permission.

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  • Janet Chismar