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Members of the Umashankar family have spent years working to rescue and train women rescued from the sex trafficking industry in India. During the last two years, their efforts have greatly expanded.
It may be difficult to imagine: children as young as 3 sold into sexual slavery. But it's the reality of women and children around the globe.
Assistant Dean Ray Umashankar, his daughter and wife were so compelled to help the effort to end sex slavery, they formed an organization to rescue young people in India and train them for skills-based jobs.
"There is a difference when someone is going into a chosen profession. That is not the case here at all," said Umashankar, assistant dean for the College of Engineering. "Sex trafficking is increasing at an alarming rate. It is a very profitable criminal activity. Even those who engage in drugs and gun trafficking find this to be more profitable."
Daughter Nita Umashankar came up with the original idea for the organization, "Achieving Sustainable Social Equality through Technology," or the ASSET India Foundation. She then involved her father and mother, Sushila Umashankar, who directs the Global Business Program at the Eller College of Management.
Ray Umashankar is ASSET's director.
The Umashankar family has spent years working to train girls and women rescued from the sex trafficking industry in India. And during the last two years, their efforts have greatly expanded.
To date, ASSET has placed more than 500 girls in jobs at insurance and software companies as well as banks, with its efforts funded by Dell YouthConnect, IBM-India, the Tata Literacy Program and others.
The Lumos Labs, creator of Lumosity, has agreed to work with ASSET to conduct a pilot with its highly acclaimed Lumosity Education Access Program, or LEAP, which was developed by scientists at Stanford with additional research from Harvard University and the University of California campuses in San Francisco and Berkeley.
"The mission is very, very clear, but one of the challenges is that we are dealing with a very specific segment of the population: Children who are victims of sex trafficking," Umashankar said. "But this is a huge number."
In a 2011 report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime noted that it is of growing cocern in South Asia, including India.
UNICEF reports that more than 40 percent of female sex workers entered into prostitution before they turned 18.
No common definition for human trafficking exists, making it difficult to combat and prevent trafficking, including trafficking for sexual exploitation, the UN also reported.
Last year, India ratified the United Nations protocol on human trafficking, called the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (PDF).
ASSET's goal has been to reach 5,000 girls and young women but a more recent priority is to ensure that 90 percent – up from the current 67 percent – of those served gain viable employment, said Ray Umashankar.
"To have a true measure of our success is to measure how many of them take jobs," he said, adding that some opt for higher education opportunities instead.
"We are trying to provide them with an income. My dream is to provide resources to these kids so that they are on par when they get to the market," he added. "It is a very, very tragic situation, and what little we can do is vital."
Umashankar said other organizations teach girls in such situations how to sew or sell vegetables.
"There is nothing wrong with those professions, but those jobs do not provide the type of income that will deter them from going into the trafficking industry," he said.
Teaming up with educators and schools, ASSET works with nongovernmental organizations in India that rescue sex slaves and individuals being trafficked.
The foundation also collaborates with teachers to train the girls and young women in English and computer programs that are in demand. And the girls receive instruction in time and money management and personal hygiene.
The organization also helps with job placement in nine locations throughout India. A 10th location is slated to open soon.
"I am very, very excited about the partnerships we have made," said Umashankar, who plans to spend the entire summer working in India.
He feels compelled to do this work full time some day. He tells the story of Puja, a young woman he met more than one year ago.
After Puja's mother died, her uncle sold her into sex slavery to a wealthy doctor, Umashankar said. The young girl was raped daily until her escape, at which point she was picked up by a trafficker.
Puja's experience is characteristic of other girls and young women ASSET and its partner organizations work to help. Many of them live in urban areas, others rural.
All of them experience deplorable living conditions and often have few other options by way of earning an income other than becoming prostitutes, Ray Umashankar said.
Puja, eventually rescued by ASSET's partner organization, Prajwala, went through the foundation's training, has since graduated from college and is in the process of seeking admission into a business program at the graduate level.
"When I met Puja, she told me her computer knowledge makes her an equal to everyone else out there," Ray Umashankar said, adding that she has been vocal within the organization.
The outcomes are great, but it is extremely challenging work.
Umashankar said that because training sites are located close to some of the red light districts, certain educators do not want to work with ASSET for fear that their reputations might be tarnished.
Transportation is a constant challenge.
The organization also has to be especially careful about which groups become partners.
"Money disappears fast in developing countries," Umashankar said. "We have an awesome responsibility since we are dealing with public funds, to make sure it is spent on the right kinds of things."
Also, while ASSET takes every measure to keep the backgrounds of the girls and women confidential, it still can be difficult to convince employers why they should hire them.
All that compounds the mentally and emotionally exhausting nature of the work.
"The key in this kind of work is finding people who are absolutely committed to the cause and who are passionate about it enough to go through brick walls," Ray Umashankar said.
"There are so many obstacles we have to go through to get things done," he said.
Though Nita Umashankar is now serving as an assistant professor of marketing at Georgia State University's J. Mack Robinson College of Business, she continues her service with ASSET.
Her mother, Sushila, helped develop the curriculum, and she and Ray have spent years working together training the women. But, above all, Nita Umashankar credited her father with doing the majority of work for ASSET.
"We are involved as family, but my father primarily does the ground work," said Nita Umashankar, who earned a marketing degree from the Eller. "I admire the creative ways in which he continues to push the organization forward."
UA College of Engineering