Written by Mrunmayee Jere
On March 9th 2022, Our Future of Change (OFOC) got the chance to sit down with the woman behind it all: Sarah Symons, founder of OFOC’s parent organization, Her Future Coalition (HFC). Sarah is passionate about empowering women to be changemakers, working in countries such as India, Nepal, Cambodia, and Thailand. But who is Sarah Symons, and how did she form the basis for her mission?
In our exclusive interview, Symons noted that leading HFC was not her original plan; she initially worked as a songwriter for films and documentaries. However, Symons stated that she saw a documentary about India and Nepal’s human trafficking scene and was shocked by the horrific acts committed against young women. Human trafficking, as Symons recalls, was often seen as an “isolated incident” that did not have much of an impact on a large group of people. This documentary showed her the truth, which was quite the opposite: human trafficking affects nearly 40 million people worldwide. While watching, she saw the courageous acts done by the rescuers and decided that she wanted to do the same and help, going on to found HFC in 2005. She states that “issues like human trafficking thrive in shame” and prey on the vulnerable, so it will keep occurring if people continue to be unaware of the problem.
Symons started her mission by implementing techniques of rehabilitation that helped, not hurt, the survivors. One of these was to create a sense of safety and peer support in shelter homes by avoiding forcing the women into anything that they did not want to do. Another was to provide other forms of support besides counseling; although helpful, most are not ready to talk directly about their past trauma even after a few months at HFC shelter homes. Thus, engaging in activities such as art therapy and community building help create a safe environment for these women and preserve their potential to launch into the next stage in their life. After all, the survivors need to move forward with their lives to reach their full potential. Symons mentions several success stories; one is Saaba, who is currently in medical school to become the first female gynecologist in her Muslim community, creating more accessible OB-GYN care for women in her community who do not feel comfortable visiting a male doctor. Another is Anjali, who went back to her village where she was originally trafficked from and opened a school to provide children and girls with education to prevent them from ever being trafficked in the first place. Although, as Symons states, these stories are unique, and there are more quote on quote “ordinary” forms of success. She pulls out a personal anecdote of one girl who tried her luck in getting a photography job and finally got one despite fierce competition. Symons gently states that she sees these women as her daughters, so she feels extreme accomplishment in seeing them live their lives to the fullest.
Of course, her journey was not all sunshine and rainbows. Symons admits that she has made some critical mistakes at the beginning of her journey; one is when they lost some girls in the middle of a rescue mission and could not save them from going into second-generation prostitution. Additionally, Symons says she regrets the lack of protocol before and the fast-paced rehabilitation that did not give survivors enough time to cope. Yet, Symons mentions how these mistakes were a learning experience; the HFC system and rehabilitation program has undergone modifications over the years to ensure that survivors have proper therapy and care until they can be self-sufficient and eventually lead their own lives. She also says that she sometimes finds it difficult to understand that the women in her care have dreams that may not align with her dreams for them. One incident was where a woman wanted to drop out of school to become a housewife, and although Symons felt that continuing the girl’s education would be a better path, she had to learn to respect the different choices the women took and appreciate the fact that at least the woman had a choice that she could make independently. After all, her ultimate goal was to help them reach their dreams and make sure that they knew she would support them regardless of her own opinions.
When asked about what she looks forward to regarding the future of Her Future Coalition, Symons states that she hopes to continue to build the younger generation through Our Future of Change. She emphasizes the importance of youth leadership and hopes that a new generation of leaders can carry the legacy forward when it is time for her personal retirement. Symons also looks forward to creating more success stories, such as Anjali’s and Saaba’s, and giving the women the resources they need. She stresses education for all people unaware of trafficking, as it is crucial to be aware of human trafficking via diverse sources, such as OFOC content, documentaries, and books. In turn, people can help bring the community together and make a significant difference, further pushing Symon’s vision into existence that one day all women and children will not face the risk of sexual exploitation or forced prostitution, but can rather receive an education or pursue any dreams they have without fear or a lack of resources.