It’s next to impossible to relate to the many men and women who live in the most vulnerable states. How can someone like myself residing in New York City who scoffs and the lack of heat in my latte, relate to a woman my age across continents who at this very moment has to perform degrading acts to survive or take care of her family? And for as long as it takes for her situation to finally illuminate and I empathize, it takes only a flash to forget.
I recently sat down with Co-Founder of Nomi Network, Diana Mao. It is easy for me to declare that Diana’s legacy will reflect that of a woman of character, perseverance, strength, kindness and the good virtues that we all yearn for at our core. Yes, I speak highly of dear friends of mine, but it is because I shamelessly enjoy boasting of knowing individuals of such caliber. And since I have known Diana, I’ve been ridiculously impressed and instantly challenged in her presence. Not because she oozes superiority, but because I find myself pining to be a better person when with her. As well as follow in her giant footsteps in this uphill movement. I am learning that a woman of conviction knows how to carry herself. A woman of conviction does not back down.
I asked her a series of questions in order to better understand what she does, but to also gain a deeper perspective of human trafficking and the harrowing effects of poverty on humanity. As I learned more, I realized something, something I have realized time and again, (lessons relearned; how very true to human nature), alas, my eyes were opened: There are 46 million people in this world whom’s value and dignity has been compromised, and each and every one of them is as important, if not more, as I think that I am. And it is serious. I also realized that the state of my selfishness wanes ever so pathetically in the hot spotlight of reality: I have it pretty good.
As you read Diana’s story, it will be next to impossible to not sit and rethink life’s meaning, and your own position in the world. Her illustration of the state of human trafficking goes very, very deep. And as she relives memories and experiences for you and I, one in particular of a young girl named Nomi, you too, will open your eyes.
Tell us about Nomi Network: What it is, what it does and how someone can get involved.
Nomi Network creates economic opportunities for survivors and women at risk of human trafficking. Since our inception in 2009, we have trained hundreds of women and created jobs in areas of the world where slavery is most prevalent. Nomi Network has been effective at increasing wages by at least 200% in some cases and moving women to advanced career paths that allow them to start their own micro-enterprises, open their own savings account, and send their children to school. We link their hand-made products to the global market while working with retailers and consumers who seek to purchase ethical products. Most recently, we partnered with Sephora to create a cosmetic pouch for Sephora Stand's Classes for Confidence, make-up classes for women that have overcome tragedy, such as cancer or domestic violence.
What led you to start Nomi Network?
At the age of 25, I was a graduate student at NYU learning about issues such as poverty, human trafficking, and other pressing global issues. All of the statistics were meaningless to me until I witnessed the horrors of sex trafficking in Cambodia first hand while conducting research for a micro-finance bank. My research brought me to some of the most poor and remote villages in Cambodia. It was there that I met a single father with 7 children, who offered his youngest daughter to one of my male colleagues. She was no more than 7 years old! As I looked into his eyes, I could tell that he was doing this out of desperation, and not with malicious intent.
This encounter made it clear to me that poverty is a breeding ground for traffickers to prey on young children. After coming back to the States, I was determined to do something. I returned to Cambodia in 2008 with my future co-founder, Alissa Moore-Williams, to assess the needs of the people. Upon arriving at one shelter, a young girl ran to us and threw her arms around me. She said, “HELLO, my name is Nomi, sister what is yours?” As I walked through the shelter with the director, I tried very hard to hold back tears as he shared Nomi’s story. Nomi was not only sexually exploited by her stepfather but she was treated like an animal and literally locked up. When she arrived at the shelter, she was nonverbal, did not have any grooming habits, and did not know how to use the restroom. She drooled all the time and was very violent. Although Nomi was just one girl, I knew that after hearing her story, something had to be done.
Do you work with any of the survivors? How is their adjustment and transition from a life of slavery to freedom?
Nomi Network works directly with the survivors and women at risk of human trafficking in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Bihar, India. We have on-site locations where women are professionally trained in areas that range from basic sewing and life skills all the way to advanced level courses that include pattern making and trend forecasting. After exiting our programs, we connect our participants to our partner factories for longer term employment. Some women even start their own micro-enterprises such as sewing petticoats or poultry raising.
Many of our women were very hesitant when joining Nomi Network, because they either had language barriers, or were let down and taken advantage by other organizations who had offered to support them. A lot of our participants start off shy, not knowing if their time with us will actually benefit them. However, our talented staff work day in and day out to ensure that all of their students leave with the skills necessary to become financially independent. They see timid women transform into communities that transcend the caste system, greeting all guests with smiles and hugs. Our women become agents of change not only for themselves and their families, but for the villages around them as well.
Please help our readers get a better understanding of what these women have gone through and many still do by sharing what living enslaved has been like for them.
Human trafficking is a $150 billion industry that enslaves approximately 46 million people worldwide. Sadly, stories like Nomi's are not uncommon. The women that we serve have faced a variety of traumatic forms of slavery that include forced migration, forced sex, forced marriages, forced labor, etc. According to the Department of Labor, 68% of raw materials such as cotton, cocoa and coffee contain forced or child labor. The reality is that everyone purchases products tainted by modern-day slavery. Nomi Network exists to invite women to come into community and to be known not only by our program staff that provide vocational training and essential social services, but by consumers living thousands of miles away, who can play a role in bringing humanity back into these vulnerable lives.
Do you think you will see slavery end in your lifetime?
I am so confident that slavery will end in our lifetime! As our programs focus on the prevention of human trafficking and the empowerment of survivors and those most at risk, there are so many other great organizations out there working to rescue and rehabilitate victims. I believe that changing one person’s life can change the world. If you have ever skipped a stone across water, you will recall how it created ripples that spread out across the water’s surface. At Nomi Network, we believe our ripple effect begins with the survivors that we train and with whom we partner. By empowering one woman, we are in turn helping her family and her community as her choices dramatically impact the local economy and social structures. As our participants find alternative means to become educated and financially provide, they no longer need to return to the sex industry. Over time, the perceptions of women will change and their region will no longer become a destination for traffickers to source women, therefore breaking the cycle of poverty which feeds into human trafficking.
What is one thing every person can do to reshape the course of history and end modern day slavery?
One thing I've learned through my experiences at Nomi Network is that what we buy matters and who makes it matter. Every person can do their part to end modern day slavery by helping us raise more awareness about the issue.
Get Involved + Connect
There are so many ways to get involved!
Shop the collection of survivor made products where 100% of the net proceeds are reinvested into our job creation and market access programs.
Invite members of Nomi Network to speak and sell their products at your business or event conference.
Use your next birthday or road race as a platform to fundraise for them.
Check out a full list of ways to get involved here.
(Photo by David Goldman)