FrontlineSMS: how text messaging changes lives

FrontlineSMS

Slavery. Looking back in history, we associate it with the very worst traits of human behavior. But slavery and human trafficking are not confined to history; they are happening right now. Human rights organization Survivors Connect uses text messaging and other connectivity to tackle the problem and help survivors.

The world’s poorest countries are the easiest targets when it comes to human trafficking and slavery, either by forced labor, forced marriage or sexual exploitation.

Aashika Damodar with Haiti flyer

Those countries are also where many natural disasters strike. Survivors Connect’s CEO, Aashika Damodar, says traffickers capitalize on such disasters, at a time when people are at their most vulnerable, to trick victims with promises of a better life.

"After the tsunami struck Southeast Asia in 2004, I saw people being trafficked," Aashika says. "It was because they were desperate to get out of their circumstances and take jobs elsewhere. Traffickers use instances like this to pick people up."

With this in mind, Survivors Connect immediately turned its attention to Haiti – which is among the poorest countries in the western world – after the massive magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck on January 12 this year.

Survivors Connect teamed up with other non-governmental organizations to try to prevent a repeat of the trafficking that followed the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami.

"We had to ensure that children and women were protected," Aashika says. "The dilemma is how best to do this in a situation where people are desperate to get out and be safe, and where people are being promised work and a better life. Even adoption can be used as a disguise for trafficking people to become domestic servants, or victims of commercial sexual exploitation. This was our greatest challenge.

"We needed an easily accessible tool for action, support and protection. We asked ourselves: 'Where and how can you get that in Haiti?'"

The answer was FrontlineSMS – software that enables individuals to communicate with large groups directly through text messaging. A mobile signal is all that is needed. In Haiti, more people have access to mobile devices than fixed-line phones.

"Working only with local all-Haitian-led non-government organizations (NGOs), I helped pilot a FrontlineSMS helpline network to coordinate a team of psychologists and abuse counselors," Aashika says. "We created a private helpline accessible to 50 camps, available to more than 150,000 people, so that individuals can report instances of abuse, violence, missing persons and all related issues that could result in trafficking or other human rights violations."

Survivors Connect team members visited – and continue to visit – camps, to raise awareness of trafficking issues and to offer the helpline service directly.

"This way it is personal," Aashika says. "You see the face of the person at the end of the phone line, and this builds trust. It is not like the impersonal national hotlines that operate in some countries."

Hundreds of text messages have been received and acted upon in the four months since the earthquake.

Ken Banks

"We're building a helpline network of support for victims, gathering data on trouble areas, and establishing a locally-driven movement that works beyond international support," Aashika says. "My goal is to empower local groups to take this into their own hands and eventually operate without me."

FrontlineSMS is provided free of charge to national and international NGOs working on human rights and disaster relief monitoring, and emergency alerts. It is particularly effective in developing countries where lack of communication is often a major problem.

Ken Banks, the founder of kiwanja.net, the company that developed FrontlineSMS, says: "We provide the tools and the platform." His employees work closely with the organizations it partners with to empower people to create social change for the better.

Survivors Connect

A small organization based in Fair Oaks, California in the US, Survivors Connect works to build global advocacy and support networks of survivors and activists working to end modern-day slavery and human trafficking. The organization is currently operating with local grassroots organizations in countries such as Vietnam, Nepal, Ghana and Haiti. Survivors Connect aims to use the latest tools in social networking, mobile and web technology.

kiwanja.net

Kiwanja.net helps local, national and international non-profit organizations to make better use of information and communications technology through the application of mobile technology. The text-messaging system FrontlineSMS is being used in more than 40 countries in a wide range of non-profit activities.