Didn’t Abraham Lincoln End Slavery?

Here's Chang(e) you can believe in

Published in 2009 Southern California Rising Stars — July 2009

The images are haunting. A smiling 9-year-old girl says she knows how to perform oral sex. A pimp offers up a 5-year-old girl for intercourse. A middle-aged American doctor tells the hidden camera he likes to buy three girls—preferably age 15 or 16—for the night for $50.

It's enough to make you sick. Which is exactly how attorney Esther Chang felt, sitting in her Los Angeles apartment in 2005, watching the Dateline NBC special on human trafficking in Cambodia.

"It got me so disgusted and I couldn't believe that there were girls that young," she says. "And some of the clients were foreigners from the U.S. or other Western countries, and a lot of pedophiles."

So Chang decided to do something about it. Months later, she attended a talk by Gary Haugen, a former federal prosecutor who founded the International Justice Mission (IJM), a human rights agency featured in the Dateline special. Further inspired, she applied to IJM and was offered a volunteer position in its Mumbai office. Luckily, her firm, McDermott Will & Emery, was open to the idea of her taking a one-year sabbatical from its health law department, where she worked as an associate. And so began the adventure that Chang, now 33, calls the "most memorable year of my life."

 

Like most big cities in India, Mumbai is a dense, teeming metropolis—packed with more than 13 million people. The city and its seedy underbelly came to Americans' attention with last year's Oscar-winning hit Slumdog Millionaire. The film touched upon many of the elements Chang saw in Mumbai when she arrived in 2007: not just human trafficking and sexual violence, but extreme poverty.

"It was a great experience, but it was a difficult city to live in," Chang says. "I think Mumbai and Calcutta are probably two of the tougher cities for expats to live [in]. You could be in a really wealthy neighborhood and be in some of the top high-rises, and when you look out, you'll see slums everywhere. Initially, it was really hard to deal with the poverty."

Poverty plays a big role in the human-trafficking business, notes Chang. While working at IJM, she started to hear the same stories over and over. "The girls might have been sold by a relative for money. Or there was a neighbor or an aunt that told them of a good job, and so the mother would send the daughter off thinking that they were just going for a job, not realizing that they would actually be sold into prostitution."

Once girls are sold into the sex trade, there are many factors that make it difficult to get out. Girls, some as young as 10, might be brought from rural areas of Nepal, Bangladesh or India to Mumbai (one of south Asia's major trafficking stops), where they don't speak the language. Often, Chang says, the girls don't know where to turn for help. "In India, there's a general distrust of the police. So it's not like in the U.S., where we know if we're in trouble we call 911 and the police will come rescue us," she says.

In Mumbai, IJM took a multipronged approach to the problem of human trafficking, helping police with victim rescue, assisting prosecutors during trial and providing after-care support for the victims. Chang's legal background came in handy as she helped oversee the legal research and writing, drafting briefs and memos on topics that might come up during trial.

However, having traveled half the world to fight this issue, she also wanted a face-to-face look at it, not just a desk job removed from the reality. So she forced herself to visit after-care homes to meet the girls. "It was so heartbreaking the first time I went to the after-care home, because you realize how young the girls are," Chang says. "I would just hang out with them. They tried to teach me Indian dance. I have two left feet, so that didn't really go very well."  Chang also went along on a couple of police operations—the most successful of which rescued some 40 girls from a brothel, some of whom were under 18. 

Although Chang returned to the United States in March 2008 and started back up at her firm, her connection with IJM remains strong. She has talked to Pepperdine University students on behalf of IJM, letting them know about volunteer opportunities. And she's still receiving signs of the impact she had in Mumbai. Shortly after returning, she received an e-mail from a friend at IJM saying the pimp from one of the cases she worked on had been prosecuted. "Cases in India sometimes can drag on for years," Chang says, "and so to actually see a case that I worked on get a conviction, that was all worth it."

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