Human Trafficking, Nimbus Blog, Projects

Vivhaan, mobile phones and empowerment. (

When we first conceived Vivhaan we recognised the unique opportunity that mobile phones present to empower people that have previously been on the margins of society. With over 910 million mobile subscriptions in India(1), almost everyone either has a mobile phone or access to one through a family member or friend. In our initial pilot we wanted to test “what communication technologies might be most helpful in reaching women and girls vulnerable to human trafficking?”

For millennia the poorest have been excluded from education and have been vulnerable to exploitation. Currently by the latest ILO estimates there are 20.9 million people globally in forced labour(2). This means there are more people currently in slavery than at any time in history. The problem is most acute in the Asia-Pacific region which accounts for by far the largest number of forced labourers – 11.7 million or 56% of the global total. Women account for the greater percentage and many will have been trafficking into forced labour such as domestic work, garment factories and prostitution.

We met with local community groups and women that had survived trafficking and listened to their experiences. It quickly became clear that there were many factors we had to consider. In India 70% of the population(3) live in some 600,000(4) rural towns and villages, where often mobile coverage is poor or inconsistent. This limits the opportunity to access content even where people do own a mobile phone. A further factor is that over 250 million women living in these communities maybe illiterate(5), meaning even with good cellular coverage and a mobile phone they wouldn’t be able to access and, most importantly, understand content that is relevant to them.

During the many meetings, discussions and workshops we proposed a number of mobile based solutions for people to consider. From a basic voice helpline or possible voice-activated menu driven helpline, an SMS helpline through to a fully functioning mobile application for basic Nokia phones. On reflection it was felt that the most user-friendly option was a basic voice helpline where people could talk to a ‘real’ person, as they felt that they might get confused by the menu options or the voice-activation wouldn’t recognise their particular dialect. We set up a Voice helpline which can be accessed in India on 09204793073.

A further level of complexity was added when we took the time during village meetings to understand the cultural issues at work in rural India. Firstly, in many communities there is a culture of silence around abuse to women and children, where incidents are treat as family matters. Secondly, there is a shrugging acceptance that people go missing or are forced into bonded labour. This means, as P.M Nair highlights, human trafficking is being seen as a ‘social problem’ rather than a human rights issue(6). Therefore incidents of abuse or missing persons are not reported to the police which further increases vulnerability and sees perpetrators go unpunished. Phinney(7) says trafficking is caused by a triangle effect, constituted by the space created by demand-supply-impunity. According to Phinney, “sex trafficking, for example, is driven by a demand for women and children’s bodies in the sex industry, fuelled by a supply of women who are denied equal rights and opportunities for education and economic advancement, and perpetuated by traffickers who are able to exploit human misfortune with near impunity”(7). Any solution that tries to address human trafficking and forced labour must therefore, include a police and prosecution element.

Lastly, whilst research by GSMA, the governing body of mobile network operators, found 85% of women feel more empowered by having a mobile phone, it also found that women in South Asia are 37% less likely to own a mobile than a man(8). One of the main reasons for this according to Trina DasGupta is that “threats to the status quo have sometimes been viewed negatively by community leaders and we have seen examples of this gender discrimination manifesting itself when women gain greater access to empowering tools, such as the Internet or mobile phones.”(9) In fact, the most disturbing example of this came in a Guardian article which found that an Indian village had banned unmarried women from using mobile phones for fear they would arrange forbidden marriages that are often punished by death(10). Not unexpectedly the local women’s rights group criticised the measure as backward and unfair. However, it clearly demonstrates the tensions that can arise in communities when new technologies are introduced. It is clear from these examples that we need to proceed sensitively when we are considering how to use technology for women’s empowerment. For whilst only 3% of women quote ‘lack of family /spouse permission’ as a reason for not owning a mobile(8), there are clearly wider issues at play.

We therefore decided on our main approach using Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs) as a point of access to, and for dissemination of, information. The CKWs are established workers within a community; people already working on community development or women support programmes. In this way they act as a trusted and respected advisor to support vulnerable women and girls. Whilst the CKWs have access to technology in the form of an 8” android tablet, to access key information, it minimises any challenge to cultural norms and supports women with low literacy.

The CKW model has widely been demonstrated as valid by BRAC(11) in Bangladesh and by Grameen Foundation in Uganda, where they have 600 CKWs using android enabled mobile phones to support farmers with advice on crop disease, market prices and weather information(12). This approach is also supported by Geeta Shroff’s 5-stage model of empowerment. Shroff observes that ‘the first two stages of Powerlessness and Initiation are categorized to be passive, where women are not aware of the injustice they are facing, and do not speak up for their rights and needs’(13). Here the NGO role is to build trust and provide emotional support through running basic workshops that support women needs.

We have been delighted and encouraged by the initial impact of Vivhaan. Our CKWs have met with over 100 Self Help groups, Youth groups, Mothers Unions and Community based organisations, reaching over 5,000 people with awareness raising information. Information covered includes areas such as employment rights, and benefit entitlements, in addition to informing people about the risks and dangers of economic migration and issues of Human Trafficking. This has directly resulted in 14 alerts being raised for missing/trafficked individuals. Working with the community and Police Anti Human Traffic Units we have successfully rescued 4 women and one man, reuniting them with their families.

It is great to see that communities are being transformed and lives saved by the work of Vivhaan. Visit now to find out more about the project.


1 Wikipedia :
2 ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour 2012: Results and Methodology :–en/index.htm
3 CIA Factbook :
4 Indian Government census figures :
5 Based on CIA factbook literacy figures and number of women living in rural communities.
6 Nair, Dr. P.M (2011-10-01). Human Trafficking (Kindle Locations 2-3). Konark Publishers Pvt. Ltd.. Kindle Edition.
7 A. Phinney, Trafficking of Women and Children for Sexual Exploitation in the Americas –
8 GSMA Women and mobile report :
9 Mobileactive blog – Mobiles for Women Part 2 The Darker Side :
10 The Guardian :
11 BRAC community empowerment programme :
12 Grameen Foundation Uganda :
13 Geeta Shroff : Towards a Design Model for Women’s Empowerment in the Developing World


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