Five Minutes with… is a blog series, featuring change-makers who through their work, passions, and personal stories have shown a commitment to addressing domestic and global issues.
Diana Mao is the co-founder and president of Nomi Network which works to create economic opportunities for survivors and women at risk of human trafficking. In her ‘Five Minutes With’ The Rockefeller Foundation, Diana discusses her work with victims of human trafficking in India and Cambodia, shares their strategy, some success stories, and the toughest decision she ever had to make.
Nomi Network is named after girl who was rescued from sex trafficking. What made Nomi special?
We met Nomi back in 2008 at an underage shelter. Her stepfather sold her and her mother unfortunately was not at a place to take care of her. There were girls as young as 5 years old that were being trafficked. This shelter currently is at an undisclosed location and still serves underage girls. We don’t work with underage girls but she’s been really the representation of the organization that we stand for. Her name represents “know me” – that we want stories like her to be known – “Know me, know my story, know my success” not just the tragedy of her past but really her future. Nomi is still under the care of the shelter and is 16 years old now.
Can you tell us about the lessons you learned from Nomi’s progress in how you now facilitate rehabilitation for other girls?
What’s very important for us is addressing the root causes and focusing on the hot spots in Northern India or in Cambodia where there are no economic opportunities and helping create those opportunities and helping advance skills of the women, particularly women that are facing severe violence in some of these communities where there’s just not much for them besides being in the context of a family and watching their children being married at a young age or sold. From that we really saw a need not just in prevention, but helping increase women’s resiliency so that they have choices, that they can have a savings account, save money, that they can rebuild their hut. So we are seeing that happen in rural India where we work, simply by their ability to earn income and within our curriculum, training them to be empowered, to have self-confidence as opposed to being told what to do. Many of them have spent all their lives being told what to do and having that self-agency in out curriculum that really stems from Nomi.
How do you help women navigate through the stigma associated with being a survivor of human trafficking?
In the rural context it’s not just a stigma of being a survivor, it’s a stigma of being from the low cast. Unfortunately, in northern India most of the people, men and women are from the lowest cast. Based on your last name, the color of your skin and other social indicators and norms, people are sadly treated as animals in many cases and not given opportunities to learn are forced to work in bonded labor without pay. Those barriers are some of the key drivers of why slavery exists in the content of India and even around the world in terms of people being seen as low worth or no worth because of where they are from or from the color of their skin. We are able to break those barriers in the context of the work place. One example is pairing up women from a higher caste with someone from the untouchable caste and supervising them to work together right from the start at the beginning of the training program. This has helped address some of those barriers and now women are visiting each other’s huts from Muslim community to Hindu community from high caste to low caste.
With this mentor program, how do you define success? Has the program been beneficial for both women?
It’s beautiful. We had a woman who was a survivor of domestic violence, not sex trafficking, but still from the lowest caste. With her Nomi savings, she moved out of her bamboo hut to a clay hut. She has now become a trainer so she’s providing technical training and mentorship to a cohort of women about 15 kilometers away from our office. What’s beautiful is that we are doing less outreach. When we first started the program, we would visit the brothel and tell them about out program to recruit them. Trust was definitely an issue since they didn’t know who we were. Now three years on, through word of mouth we have a waitlist of hundreds of women who want to join our program. So this woman helped us identify this underage survivor who at the time was being kept out by her family. She worked with our program manager and the local law enforcement to get this young lady out of the brothels and now is helping take care of her baby who the young lady named Nomi.
Your biggest Nomi Network success story?
Dolly was a girl that I met in back 2013. When I saw her, I knew her mother was trafficked into intergenerational prostitution. The daughter had not started working yet and I told our program manager that we really needed to get her in the program. Sometime the family wants to earn income and daughters in that region are forced into intergenerational prostitution. Thankfully, she was not and she joined our program a few months after I left India and since then she was promoted to logistics manager. With her savings, she was able to give money to her mom who got out of prostitution and her mom started a poultry business selling chicken. She’s able to sell 10,000 rupees of chicken per day. Just to give you context, on average the semi-skilled labor in that regions earns 200 rupees per day. Her whole family of 8 is benefitting. Dolly’s sister is no longer a part of the community that prostituted her and is back in her mother’s care.
In your experience of working with women across countries, what would you say is the one quality or trait that enables them to stay motivated and recover better?
What’s beautiful is when they experience value and worth and dignity through our program by just hearing words of affirmation and encouraging each other, and breaking those negative words that have been spoken to them since their childhood. And secondly those who have children, it’s really the hope of a better life for their children. In the beginning, we would have art therapy sessions where women would draw their current state and what they would want their future state to be. And across the boards there were pictures of their children going to school and their children being fed. It shows us that women inherently want a better life for their children.
What brings you to this work and mission to help these women?
I was doing research in Cambodia where I met a single father with seven children who offered my male colleague his youngest daughter. I knew he didn’t want to, but out of desperation, the fact that he only had one bowl of rice to feed his children each per day. In that moment I really felt the need to do something.
Personally, my own father was actually thrown in a labor camp in China during the Communist purge. Growing up he was very removed from me and frankly not the best father, but I love him dearly. Knowing now what he went through, studying about labor camps in China, I can see what slavery does to a family.
How supportive has your family been?
My grandmother has been very supportive but, unfortunately, my father has a long way to go. Most of my family is very proud.
You work with women in India and women in Cambodia to create market access between them and the west. How is their work received in the global marketplace?
It’s been received very well by the anti-trafficking community. Our slogan is “buy her bag not her body.” Our goal is to increase more distribution among retailers and brands that specifically want more ethical products in their supply chain. We are working with a handful and it’s slowly but surely. We really believe that with millennial purchasing power driving ethical consumption combined with a heightened level of awareness on the issue, there will be more brands that want to source from us. Recently we were able to secure a very large order from Sephora, one of the largest cosmetics companies in the world. That’s a really great additional starting point for us to reach more retailers. I hope more retailers will see the symbiotic relationship between Nomi and their existing supply chain.
What’s next for the Nomi Network?
In the next five years we hope to grow 100,000 jobs. That’s something we have mapped out and we are very excited to do that in partnership with select non-for-profit partners that we will train to deliver our curriculum and help them build capacity to create jobs or to secure more jobs for women in the areas where we have our program. So mainly Asia, and we hope to also extend our work to Africa.
The toughest decision you have ever had to make?
In the beginning, it was quitting my job and stepping out. I had been a volunteer with Nomi since starting Nomi in 2009. In 2012, I switched to a full time capacity mid-year. That was a really tough decision for me because there were a lot of questions on whether I could do it, if I was trained. I had never a run a nonprofit before so all of these really negative thoughts surfaced. But, I did have a vision and a plan to continue the work. I stepped out on faith and not sure necessarily where the income would come from, but taking the step and letting my optimism and vision for more and more women to be free trumped the negativity.
What 3 words describe you best?
Committed, fearless and audacious.
How do you deal with failure?
I believe that in our failures we learn. First, admit our failures – something that is sometimes hard to do. Then, on our team calls with the other co-founder we quickly take our failures and turn them into “what do we do with this…do we improve our system or do we call it out for what it is.” So for me, you learn from failures.
What’s the best advice you have ever received?
My mentor told me in college that she never saw me living in a white picket fence house which represents security, stability, the traditional route of starting a family and having children. When she told me that, I was very upset. More and more, that sort of challenge is something that I have been walking and living out. So the advice is that you can’t really rely on these comforts.
What are you reading?
“Let’s Do Lunch”
It’s about building relationships.
What is your motto in life?
It’s my favorite Bible verse: Perfect love casts out fear.