227 – Another Form of Human Trafficking: Child and Forced Marriage

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak are joined by Diana Mao, President and Co-Founder of the Nomi Network. Diana is an abolitionist with a mission to eradicate human trafficking in her lifetime. Diana actively champions for change, and her visionary skillsets have urged the Nomi Network forward into enormous growth and success. They discuss the Nomi Network’s unique business strategy, the nature of child and forced marriages, and current challenges of the anti-trafficking movement.

Diana Mao

Diana Mao is an abolitionist with a mission to eradicate human trafficking in her lifetime. Diana actively champions for change, and her visionary skillsets have urged Nomi Network forward into enormous growth and success. She is a 2015 Presidential Leadership Scholar, New York Academy of Medicine Fellow, and co-chaired the Nexus Human Trafficking Modern Day Slavery Work Group from 2013-2019. She currently serves on the White House Public-Private Partnership Advisory Council to End Human Trafficking. Diana also writes for the Huffington Post, Reuters, and the United States Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center. She received the 2018 Pioneer Award from Asian Americans for Equality and 2018 Recent Alumni Impact Award from New York University (NYU). Diana earned her Bachelor’s in Business Economics and Chinese from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has a Master’s in Public Administration, with a specialization in International Management from NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. While she lives in New York, Diana spends most of her time traveling to raise awareness and funds for Nomi Network, building partnerships with industries and leaders in private, public, and government arenas to fight human trafficking.

Key Points

  • Poverty, gender norms, and the caste system perpetuate child and forced marriages, especially in rural areas in India and Cambodia.
  • Although in India child marriage is illegal, there is a lack of implementation strategies throughout the nation that allows this form of human trafficking to continue at high rates.
  • While the anti-trafficking movement has matured greatly, especially considering this year is the twentieth anniversary of TVPA, there needs to be a shift in focus from surviving to thriving when reintegrating survivors of human trafficking.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the ending human trafficking podcast. This is episode number 227 – Another Form of Human Trafficking: Forced or Child Marriage.

Production Credits [00:00:11] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave [00:00:31] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:37] And my name is Sandie Morgan. And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. I was telling Sandie before our conversation today that I’m so glad that we get to welcome today’s guest to really help me to learn more about something I know very little about, which is forced or child marriage. And Sandie, I know today’s guest is going to really help us to explore this more so we can really understand more of the complexities of trafficking, but also how we can do better in our work. I’m so glad to welcome to the show today, Diana Mao. She is an abolitionist with a mission to eradicate human trafficking in her lifetime. Diana actively champions for change and her visionary skill sets to have urged Nomi Network forward into enormous growth and success. She is a 2015 presidential leadership scholar, New York Academy of Medicine fellow, and co-chair at the Nexus Human Trafficking Modern Day Slavery Workgroup from 2013 to 2019. She currently serves on the White House Public-Private Partnership Advisory Council to end human trafficking. Diana also writes for the Huffington Post, Reuters, and the United States Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center. Diana, we’re so glad to welcome you to the show.

Diana [00:01:57] Thank you so much. It’s great to be on your show today.

Sandie [00:02:00] And as you guys could tell from the introduction, I met Diana in Washington, D.C. at our very first Public-Private Partnership Advisory Council meeting this last January. So, we’re colleagues and now new friends. And I admire so much the work and the community that she’s built around her abolition work. So, tell us just a little bit, Diana, to start with- how did Nomi Network start out? Because you didn’t start as a social worker victim service provider. Tell us how it started.

Diana [00:02:38] Yeah, absolutely. Well, I started my journey in the world of ending human trafficking in 2007. And at the time, I didn’t know much about the issue. I was a graduate student at New York University, and I was charged with a summer fellowship research project for Microfinance Bank where I and two other colleagues traveled throughout Cambodia, about five provinces, and interviewed 300 Microfinance clients, most of whom lived below a dollar a day. It was there that I met a single father who lived near the Thai border and was also making at the time less than a dollar a day, had seven children. And after we had surveyed him, he, out of desperation, offered his youngest daughter to my male colleague in broken English. And at that moment, we were horrified, and I was heartbroken seeing that they had nothing. They were all sleeping on the floor and with a bowl of rice to eat a day. And so, coming back to the states, human trafficking became more on my radar, especially having spent time in the city Phnom Penh and seeing mostly very old foreign men with girls no younger, probably around 16 or younger in the bars, in hotels. So, at the time, it was very evident that these villages were breeding grounds for traffickers to prey on young girls. And I became very sensitive to the issue in 2007 and began researching. And the more I researched, the more I wanted to take action. And so that began the journey of Nomi network.

Sandie [00:04:36] Wow. Well, coming face to face with human trafficking is often the start of an abolitionist story. And I could tell you my story of seeing a 12-year-old Albanian girl standing in the doorway of a known brothel where prostitution is legal in Athens, Greece. And knowing something was wrong, but not understanding how she got there. So, our journeys have some common points there. I want to take a look at your strategy, because most of the time when I find a new nonprofit, they have a lot of rhetoric about finding victims, and sometimes they even use rescue language that we’re trying to move away from. But your strategy is very inclusive of other organizations. So, you talk about building capacity of existing nonprofits and social enterprise. And you talk about advancing technical training skills and creating jobs and market access. So, could you comment on how you built that overall strategy for your network?

Diana [00:05:55] Yeah. So, for the past decade, in the early years, my co-founder and I spent time living in Cambodia. And when we started working in rural India, I lived there for more than three months and she lived there for two years. So, in communities where there are no running water or electricity, different forms of human trafficking, including major barriers such as systemic violence against women, corruption, lack of rule of law. So, that’s where we began our journey of developing this model. And from my observation, what brought me to Cambodia in 2007 was microfinance. And at the time, there was a hype about microfinance, alleviating poverty. But sadly, in those particular communities, I didn’t see those outcomes. And what I saw were families that did not know where their children were. Their daughters were sent to Thailand to work or their spouses were sent to the city to be a domestic worker. And so, what I saw across the board was the lack of economic opportunity. And so, when my co-founders and I formed Nomi in 2009, our mission was to provide training and job opportunities for survivors and women at risk of human trafficking. And the women at risk, we define. We have a very strong definition and that really ties back to our program model of setting up training sites, particularly in rural India, either adjacent to the red light district, across the street from the red light district, within a few blocks from the red light district so that we target these communities and work with local organizations that have been in these communities: HIV clinics, community-based organizations that really know our stakeholders, and particularly India, is very, very diverse. So, a red light district in West Bengal is very different than one in Bihar that has a lot of cases of intergenerational prostitution where women and girls are married into a family that practices intergenerational prostitution or because of economic circumstances, they decide to sell their daughters-in-law, their daughters to brothels or to forced labor situations.

Sandie [00:08:38] OK, so when you choose a community, you don’t go set up a whole infrastructure, you work with existing groups that are already there. Is that what I’m understanding?

Diana [00:08:51] Traditionally, we set up training centers ourselves and actually operated them. And so, in Cambodia, we currently operate a fashion school, an incubator where sixty-five plus organizations refer trainees to our fashion school. And so, it’s more advanced in the sense that the women are learning how to not just make products, but create- so fashion design, developing samples, product development. And they’re being mentored by executives from Fossil, from Gap. So, that’s a separate program that really engages the greater anti-trafficking community and nonprofits in Cambodia. So, when we started Nomi, we did not want to reinvent the wheel. And Cambodia 10 years ago already had about a hundred anti trafficking organizations. And so, the gap that we were needing to meet was livelihood creation, income, generation, reintegration, and also prevention. And so that’s what we focused on in Cambodia. In India, we operated from 2012 to 2017 directly. So, we hired staff, we even acquired a piece of land to improve the infrastructure there to train more women because we needed more space. And in the places that we operate, everyone is living in huts. And so, in 2018 onward, we refined our model in the sense that it took. We realize that there are a lot of local organizations that do not have the capacity, the curriculum, or the connections to different job opportunities in these remote areas. And so, we moved our direct training model into a partnership model where we will provide curriculum, monitoring, evaluation, funding, staffing for these local organizations that are vetted by our field team, and then co-deliver the workforce development training program with job placement or micro-enterprise creation. And so that has allowed us to scale, prior to Covid, to nine training sites, the in each state: three in West Bengal, three in Odisha, and three in Bihar. And Bihar and Odisha is two of the poorest states in India, where there are extreme forms of violence against women, child marriage, and different forms of bonded labor. And we now, post Covid, we currently operate seven training centers. We’ve sunset two training centers. And we’re hoping as we’ve mapped out more trafficking hotspot areas in India and around the world, that once things settle post Covid, we’re able to ramp up again and set up these training sites.

Sandie [00:11:58] So, when I was reviewing the network and some of the ways that you conduct your work, I identified one segment that you focus on a community where women and girls are the most highly vulnerable. And that is often in those red-light districts that you were talking about. But especially areas with high poverty and with high rates of child marriage. So, can you help us connect the dots about child marriage and even forced marriage in the anti-trafficking space?

Diana [00:12:34] Yeah, well, and these issues that I’ve described, women and girls have no, too little, self-agency. And according to UNICEF and other data sources there are about 15 million child brides married off at 15 years old, and 27 percent of the girls in India are married off before their 18th birthday, seven percent before age of 15. India actually has the largest absolute number of child brides, fifteen million approximately. And those key drivers mirror the key drivers of what led us to Bihar to combat human trafficking. Key drivers are poverty. Child marriage is more common in poor households, and girls are often married off at a younger age because less dowry is expected for younger brides. And then, you know, economic reasons.

Sandie [00:13:33] A lot of my friends, they don’t understand this dowry thing. So, wait, if you’re marrying her off, don’t you get something? So, can you explain that?

Diana [00:13:43] Well, you know, sadly, girls are not valued in India, rural India especially. Many families consider girls to be “paraya dhan”, which is the term of someone else’s wealth. So, educating daughters is less of a priority than sons, who are ultimately responsible for taking care of parents at an old age. And then also, you know, girls are seen as a financial burden, in essence, and they are married off at a young age, or even as soon as they’re born, they’re promised to a family, you know, in the middle of nowhere to secure their future. So, that once they reach puberty, you know, given 13 years old, 14 years old, they’re sent off to be wedded. And so, they are seen at a younger age as being more “productive” to take care of children and to maintain household chores. And as we were conducting our assessments early on and mapping out the day in the life of a typical woman living in Bihar, one of the most lawless states of India. We learned she starts her day at 4:00 a.m., you know, going into the field to use the toilet and going in groups so that she doesn’t face harassment or abuse or rape even. And then she starts her day off by drawing water. If they have cows, feeding the cow and taking the cow dung to cool off the huts, you know, taking cow dung and putting it over their huts. So, these very, very cumbersome chores really begin at four a.m. and her day doesn’t quite end until 6:00 p.m. when the sun sets. So, early on, when we were mapping out a day in the life of a typical woman living in Bihar, we wanted to understand what the barriers were for our potential trainees that could come to class. And early on, when they would tell us, oh, we’re late or we can’t come today because we’re busy. I think from the perspective of coming in from the United States, we were wondering, what do you mean by your busy? You know, we couldn’t really quite see it until we mapped out the day in the life of what it’s like. And so, with that, you know, girls are also taxed with this type of cumbersome chores because, you know, they are seen as being productive at a young age, taking care of children and taking care of their siblings. And so, they’re not given the same opportunities as their brothers would have. And so, with the gender norms, the lower value attached to daughters perpetuate child marriage in India and also in Cambodia as well.

Sandie [00:16:35] But isn’t it illegal in India?

Sandie [00:16:38] Ya, technically marrying age is 18 years old. However, the India government has also committed to eliminate child early and forced marriage by 2030, in line with the ICG 5.3 target. However, the national plan has been drafted, but not to my knowledge, final yet. And the key components such as law enforcement, quality education, sharing knowledge, collaborating has not yet been implemented. And so, you can definitely have the letter of the law. But in India and as we know in places also in the U.S., it’s implementation that is key. And in a country like India, where every state, in essence, operates under a different rule law, different structure, and in essence, is functioning like a different country onto its own. It’s very challenging, especially in rural areas where the caste system is still very much in role and play. And the caste system is also perpetuating this form of human trafficking.

Sandie [00:17:48] So, if you identify a young girl who is in a child marriage, how do you, I don’t want to use the word rescue. How do you help her? I don’t even know where to begin.

Diana [00:18:06] Well, there is the prevention aspect, which I will touch upon. And then there is community-based engagement. So, either our trainees come to us through outreach or through word of mouth. So, if there is a survivor that we worked with or a woman who is at risk, that we worked with a graduate living in the red-light district or within the vicinity of the red district, she alerts our outreach team. And then our outreach team goes and conducts a home visit and invites the woman or girl to join our workforce development program or adolescent girl training program. Usually it’s a series of many meetings because we have to convince the patriarch of the family to have her join or we have to convince the madam who’s running the brothel for her to join our program. So, our local team, most cases, manages to convince the person who is in control to have their respective trainee join our program. And so, through that, we see that the girls who are currently not being trafficked. Now I could think of one example, Dolly, who was to be wedded at a young age in the matchmaking process when she joined our program. And not only did she acquire skills, but self-confidence, motivation, understanding, you know, really that she is better than a dog because frankly, women and girls are told that there are no better than an animal in some of these communities. And so, having that self-agency and empowerment through our curriculum, but in addition, having income and savings, all of our trainees are required and assisted in setting up a bank account. So, with the bank account that Dolly had, she had more of a say in who she married, actually. So, she did not end up marrying the person that initially she was to be wedded with. And then years later, she ended up marrying someone through a love marriage and continues to stay in touch with our program team in Bihar. And so that’s one example. Another example is we have a case management approach where monthly home visits help us identify not only the barriers, but the different exaggerators, factors that women face control, domestic violence. There is a stat of those that are married off at a young age are highly likely to face domestic abuse and domestic violence. And so, with that our case managers, outreach workers, understand the family dynamics and through their notes, we are first time responders. We understand when someone tells us, “I have a daughter who’s 13 and there’s a matchmaker that we’ve been in touch with two villages away and we’re going to start the matchmaking process.” That is usually when our team counsels the women and starts asking questions. You’ve gone through Nomi training for a year and, you know, are you happy? You know, very basic questions. Yes. And you’re earning income and you’re saving. Wow. And how do you feel? Wouldn’t you want your daughter to experience the same type of agency and income security that you have? And then it starts clicking because we don’t tell them what to do. We ask them questions and they through thinking for themselves, really then stand up. Yeah. You know, actually, I don’t want to start that process now. I’ll wait and enroll her back in school, or I will enroll her in Nomi’s adolescent girl training. So, that’s just kind of a long-winded answer. But that’s kind of a step by step process that we take in the field.

Sandie [00:22:12] Wow. I am so impressed. And you’ve gotten to know me a little bit. And prevention is one of the things that I talk about all the time, because we have to think about how we turn the faucet off. So, we’ve got to go back upstream and find all these babies literally and do something before they become victims. That’s such an inspiring story. There’s so much to ask you about. We’ll probably have to end up having you back. But I wanted to go one more direction in our conversation today. This is the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of the Palermo Protocol International. And our movement, our abolition movement, our antihuman trafficking movement has grown up a little bit, but there are still a lot of areas that need to mature and come into a more proactive way of doing things. When you said you had over 60 partners in one community, I felt like that’s an amazing example of collaboration. Instead of having to do it all yourself. And you named brands where you’ve created and built market access. But you wrote an article for the Huffington Post that really captured my imagination. And in that, you talked about some of the obstacles we still face. Can you just give us a little glimpse into what you want to see change?

Diana [00:23:55] Yeah, well, I will say that those that have gone before me have noted that, you know, through books and research and you as well, Sandie, in terms of the complexity and the business model of human trafficking. And so, it has abundant resources to iterate, to innovate, to go online, to go on Craigslist, and then move to Salesforce, and find ways to exploit human beings. And so, with that, you know, the anti-human trafficking movement is a movement of very passionate people that are smart and committed. But frankly, the resources are just not there. And we really need to innovate around how to leverage technology, how to leverage the private sector. So, the private sector has a mandate. You know, obviously it’s more profit-driven, but at the same time, there’s also human capital that they’re constantly seeking. And I think it’s important for us to see where those linkages are with our movement that overlap with the private sector so that we can work more symbiotically together. So, one example, you know, for Nomi is job placement. And there are companies in India that do you want to hire the most wonderful workforce. However, they don’t have the training. They don’t have necessarily the resources to go into these villages and recruit talent. And we are in these villages. So, it makes natural sense for us to create that pipeline of talent into the private sector that has more sustainable job opportunities. And then second is, I would say I’m a fan of Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore’s initiative around looking at online and how Web sites and tech platforms are used as a vehicle to exploit women and girls. And so that particularly is an area that there really needs to be, I think, more of an invitation for the tech community and hackers for good to join and see how we can really disrupt these business models and these platforms where people are being sold every day, every second, every minute. And then finally, I would say moving from surviving to thriving, I feel that the anti-trafficking community for the past decades has been looking at how to survive and how to provide shelter, how to provide legal services to survivors. And that’s critical and very important. And I recently spoke with Ambassador Richman, who is really figuring out what’s the next 2.0 Version of that, from surviving to thriving. And for Nomi, what that means to us is exactly what we’ve been seeing in Cambodia and in India is women and girls rising up and being leaders in their communities and being first-time responders in the light of Covid-19 and disrupting these cycles and cultural norms that tell them that they are useless, that they have nothing to offer, that they cannot create change. And seeing that change and destruction happen solely from the women that we’ve trained and graduated. And so that is really powerful, and I’m hoping to see more of that as well in the anti-trafficking movement.

Sandie [00:27:24] Wow. So, many inspiring focuses here. And I think one of the things that you really challenge us with is having a bigger view and a better understanding of what success looks like. And one of the things I remember reading in that Huffington Post article was how do we start to really measure outcome instead of just output? I wish we had more time to talk about that because that is definitely one of the next things that have to happen in really being successful with inspiring and empowering women and girls in this space. Our time is up, and I still have more questions. Thank you so much for coming on our show today, Diana.

Diana [00:28:13] Yes! Thank you so much for having me, Sandie and Dave. Such a pleasure to be on your show. Thank you.

Dave [00:28:20] Thank you, Diana. Thank you so much for your perspective. Sandie, this is just another example of how much complexity there is and the work we are doing and the importance of such wonderful partners like Diana who can help us all to work together in partnership. We’re inviting you also to take the first step, if you haven’t already. Perhaps you’re just coming to this conversation for the first time, or maybe you’ve been listening to the show for a while and you’re ready to take the first step. And if that’s you, we invite you to take that first step, go over to Endinghumantrafficking.org. That’s the place you can find all the notes for today’s episode. It will have a bunch of links to Diana’s work, including the Huffington Post article we’ve mentioned. In addition, it’s also a place to download a copy of Sandie’s book. It’s completely free, it’s The Five Things You Must Know, a Quick Start Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. it’ll teach you the five critical things that Sandie has identified in her work that you should know before you join the fight against human trafficking. You can get access to that by just going over to Endinghumantrafficking.org. And that’s where all the resources are listed as well. If today’s conversation has raised a question for you feedback@endinghumantrafficking.org is where to send a message. Sandie, I’ll see you back in two weeks. Take care.

Sandie [00:29:40] Thanks, Dave.

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