Elca Grobler Found Her Calling Working With the Women of India
Author: Elca Grobler (Member, Women Moving Millions)
Date: April 2016
They say a dream is something you want to do but a calling is something you have to do. I can still clearly recall the moment I met Bibi and was confronted with her life, her reality. She was being trained as one of our very first PeaceMakers and was sharing her own personal story of domestic violence. She spoke about the brutal daily physical violence by her husband, of frequently being locked up and starved and continuous sexual abuse. My heart was ripped open and has never been fully put back together again. Sadly, I found Bibi’s story all too common in India, and the stigma and shame around abuse meant that there were few services to protect women and girls.
It was 2011, my husband and I both ‘resigned from our careers’ in Sydney, Australia and moved to India with our three young children. Not knowing what I was going to do, but compelled to work in women’s empowerment, I started talking to women across the country about their most urgent needs. I was hoping to use my background in finance to design a program around financial literacy.
Having completed a Masters in Mathematical Statistics, 3-year Investment CFA and MBA and worked in Risk Management, Investment Banking and Funds Management in Johannesburg and Sydney the majority of my career, I had never expected my ‘stars-aligning’ moment to happen in the slum areas of the Old City in Hyderabad, India. Yet there I was, faced with the most serious human rights issues in India and I knew, I could never again look or walk away.
Four years into this journey and through the support of my team – who continue to bravely lead innovative programs, that many are unwilling to try – evidence shows My Choices Foundation is making a real difference. Our two programs, Operation PeaceMaker and Operation Red Alert, work toward addressing two of the most pervasive and resistant to change human rights abuses – domestic violence and human trafficking respectively.
Operation PeaceMaker was founded in early 2012 directly addressing shocking statistics that close to 50 percent of married women suffer domestic violence. It’s a grassroots initiative that provides 100 percent free counselling, rights education and legal aid to victims of domestic violence. We train local women, called Peacemakers, to work in their communities and meet the challenges of domestic violence in a way that does not disrupt family, culture and religion.
Today Bibi is one of our 70+ PeaceMakers in the field, for her and many others this is their first skills training and job and a huge step towards self-empowerment. Collectively, we have already successfully helped more than 2,300 cases of domestic violence, invested over 80,000 hours of field support to victims and reached over 10,000 school girls. We currently have Counselling Centres in 5 strategic areas around our state, with more planned to open shortly. These centres are a place of refuge, support and counsel for many women & girls.
Working with these courageous women and girls each day, I personally draw courage to continue my work from the strength they have not to only help themselves but also to step up and help those around them too.
We strive for excellence in everything we do at our Foundation and firmly believe in the power of technology to harness the younger generation and include men in all our work. Our recent campaign won the Grand Jury Award for Women Empowerment at the Social Media for Empowerment Awards, 2016 and garnered the support of big name celebrities like world #1 batsman, South African cricketer AB de Villiers and Indian cricket captain, MS Dhoni.
An inevitable next step in our journey in India was to expand our work into the area of prevention of sex trafficking. Operation Red Alert addresses the horrific statistics that India is home to over 14 million of the world’s 27-30 million slaves, with around 80 percent of these victims being sold into forced sexual exploitation. The average age of an Indian girl trapped into a life of sexual slavery is now only 12 years old! Only 1 percent of these girls will ever get rescued – which is why Operation Red Alert’s main focus is on prevention and why we have launched India’s first national anti-sex trafficking helpline.
Human Trafficking is a cause that demands great urgency. I believe that if we don’t do better research and get better organised than the traffickers, then it is a cause we will never win. Operation Red Alert’s programs and messaging are based on the findings of groundbreaking research we commissioned through the Behavioural Architects of Final Mile (who have worked with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Indian Government and more). This research is being presented at ESOMAR in Tokyo this year, and we hope it will also inform other NGO’s work and help build a coalition effort to end trafficking.
Our team has developed what we call a 2-day ‘Safe Village Program’ in which we connect with all the stakeholders involved in the protection of the girl: the father, mother, young boys and the girls themselves. We have created the concept of a Guardian girl – in which we get young girls to ‘sign a pledge’ that they themselves will be the guardians of each other. In the 6 months since we started the Safe Village Program we have already rolled out over 140 program visits, in which we have equipped over 200,000 people across 4 regions. We’re currently operating in 3 states of India and will be starting in our 4th state, Karnataka, in June alongside our existing programs.
For me, one of the most gratifying parts of our work is when we are thanked by the girls themselves. We have received over a thousand calls already on our helpline and the majority of these calls were from the families thanking us for the work we do and empowering them to be informed and equipped on how to prevent trafficking. Just recently a young 12-year old girl stepped forward after our program and had the courage to speak up and ask us to help her stop her forced marriage planned for April 20th.
There is still a lot to do and each day brings its own challenges, heartaches and joy. Living in India is not easy at all and the work we do has a way of slowly creeping into your soul – but the courage of all the girls we work with everyday gives us endless joy and strength and I cannot see myself doing anything else!
Elca volunteers all her time and energy to My Choices Foundation and is also one of the primary funders. She is pictured in the middle of the photo above.