Exactly 10 years ago, I spent an evening in Athens dancing, eating, and laughing with a group of Nigerian women who had been trafficked and forced to become prostitutes. We were throwing them a party complete with gifts, food, and loads of fun. We were pampering prostitutes to show them that their God-given dignity was not based on their exterior.
Their beautiful smiling faces covered in makeup will forever be etched in my mind. My head could never reconcile the atrocity they had been through and the life they were living. My heart could not recover from the helpless feeling I had for them and with them. Spending one night with these women would have made many uncomfortable, but it made me determined—determined to change the world they have to live in.
And yet, I must admit I felt helpless. The statistics are overwhelming enough, but the roots of the problem are the real source of discouragement. You see, we can't just “rescue” women (and sometimes men) from human trafficking. Their lives have not only been threatened, but the lives of their families hang in the balance as well. These women told me how their pimps would say, “If you don't do what I tell you, I will kill your family.” The pure evil of that creates a deep hopelessness that is hard to overcome.
Not all women have death threats against their families. Many of them feel trapped in forced prostitution and fear they have no skills or opportunities for employment if they walked away from this life. But what if there was a job with a living wage waiting for them?
Abject poverty forces families and individuals into desperate situations. Stories abound of mothers and fathers sending their daughters to cities for “work” that ends up putting them into the hands of traffickers. We have to stop this cycle before it starts.
A decade after my encounters with a dozen beautiful trafficked women in Greece, I see the dawn of hope rising. I see companies like Dignity Coconuts who want to do something to end poverty and modern-day slavery. How? By providing sustainable jobs to fight human trafficking at its roots.
Dignity Coconuts was born out of a conviction to help communities overcome cycles of poverty and slavery. Not with a handout, but with a sustainable business that will bring lasting hope and change to communities. They are bestowing dignity by creating jobs in places where unemployment rates are high.
I love the story of Shirley. Her family was struggling to survive in the Philippines—a nation plagued with poverty and modern-day slavery. Her husband Ramir took whatever small jobs he could to help the family, but without land, his only options were to work helping on a rice farm or a fishing boat. The pay was irregular and unsustainable, so he made the tough choice to look for work in a bigger city and send money back to Shirley and their three kids. Shirley applied to work at Dignity. She was skeptical as she had never worked with a team and doubted her abilities. When Dignity hired her, it changed her life and her family. Shirley was able to make a consistent income from Dignity. The cycle of poverty and human trafficking was stopped in its tracks. Best of all, Ramir was able to come home. A family was reunited. The kids had their father back. That is transformation at its best.
This is a great example of how Dignity chooses to empower women. They hire women at the same rate as men. They believe that women are often the key to holistic community transformation. They also choose to place women in leadership. This is a way to unearth dignity in every person because all too often societal norms can bury the sacred worth that women possess. By committing to women in management, as well as building a staff and a board that is comprised of half women, Dignity exemplifies kingdom values to the local community. Shirley now believes in herself and her abilities. She is not limited by others’ expectations of what women should do or be. She knows she is capable and valued.
Dignity is in the trenches, the front lines, the hard places. And that gives me hope.
Help Dignity maximize their impact. They can't do it alone. No one can. It will take all of us to help restore dignity—for trafficking survivors and all of God’s children.
Bet Olson is a dreamer and designer living in the Chicago area. She has two young kids and is married to Erik, who serves as the vice president of Dignity Coconuts. Bet is passionate about adoption, foster care, women’s rights, and cold watermelon on a hot day.