How One Entrepreneur is Saving Women from Sex Trafficking

2017 was a big year for women’s empowerment, and not only in the United States. No one knows exactly how many women around the world are victims of sex trafficking, but more and more are finding their way to a better life, thanks to the work of NGOs and social entrepreneurs such as Diana Mao. Mao, co-founder and president of Nomi Network, has found that training and market access are the keys to economic empowerment of women in the worst circumstances. Survivors of prostitution or labor exploitation in India and Cambodia learn skills such as sewing and crafting handbags from Nomi trainers, and move on to found their own businesses. “One of our trainees who couldn’t read or write now wants to run for public office,” says Mao.

That is an exciting result.

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Nomi Network was founded in 2009 and aims to empower 100,000 women within five years. One of Nomi’s executives is skilled in product development and in how to connect to buyers at major retailers, and a major focus is creating partnerships with the retail sector. Nomi recently partnered with a large cosmetics retailer to create jobs and sell cosmetics bags. Another focus is selling fashion and accessories online. (Also check out Sudara, a similar e-commerce site with products made by Indian survivors of sex trafficking and exploitation.)

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A look at Nomi’s latest annual report makes it clear that a good business plan, a lot of work on the ground, and precise tracking of data and measurement of impact are keys to success for a social enterprise. Nomi Network tracks numbers of women trained, their personal savings, enrollment of their children in schools, upward mobility, and education pursued or businesses started.

Steering women out of exploitation isn’t a simple matter. “There are a lot of trust issues,” says Mao. Nomi offers legal training and support along with the vocational training, and not everyone moves forward nevertheless. But a success story can be contagious.

Nomi Network is using its expertise to lead new conversations on ethical sourcing, and recently convened a round table discussion that resulted in a white paper, “Labor Lessons: Supply Chain Standards for 21st Century Businesses.”

The paper points out a need for standard-setting metrics; environmental data fits more easily into standardized metrics, for now, than social data. Large corporations today do have reputational and regulatory incentives to map their supply chains for social risk (regulatory incentives include the UK Modern Slavery Act and requirements for companies to report on the origin of certain minerals in their products that may come from conflict areas in the Congo). Mapping supply chains is very difficult, and is a journey, to be accomplished one step at a time. Certainly round table conversations like the one Nomi convened can contribute to standard setting and sharing of best practices.

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The white paper has some recommendations, including making the conversation positive by celebrating wins and improvements, encouraging coordination between all the stakeholders in a supply chain, and applying actions that focus on local populations. Consumer awareness is a challenge, and the white paper applauds labels and sourcing certifications. But it points out a key problem: “A drawback for some is the possibility that the first company to dedicate itself to 100 per cent certified sourcing… will face significantly higher costs than the competition until other corporations in the industry get on board for the same purpose…. First adopters should thus be celebrated for taking the bold but difficult first steps.”

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Ultimately, as the white paper points out, “The millennial generation has unique potential to demand change.” After all, consumers, at the end of the supply chain, need to care. The more consumers care if their clothes are made by seamstresses who are escaping sex or labor trafficking, as opposed to seamstresses who are victims of exploitation, and are willing to pay a fair price for the labor behind their clothing, the more solid Nomi’s (and similar organizations’) business model. And the more these problems can truly be tackled.

By Maureen Kline| INC