Inside the Mind of An Ashoka Fellow: How Hasina Kharbhih Developed a Model to End Human Trafficking in India

Hasina Kharbhih has dedicated her life to ending human trafficking in India — and she’s doing it through innovation and entrepreneurship. 

Involved in community work since she was still a secondary school student in Northeast India, Hasina is the founder of the Impulse NGO Network and Impulse Social Enterprises. Under her leadership, the Impulse team developed the internationally recognized Impulse Model (formerly known as the Meghalaya Model) to comprehensively address the root causes and persistent challenges of human trafficking. The Impulse Model is now being adapted and scaled in countries all over the world.

For her innovation, Hasina was elected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2006. She recently sat down to chat with APF about her work.

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Human trafficking is a very complex and deep-seated issue. How were you able to diagnose the problem before you came up with a solution?

HK: When I started doing community work 15 years ago, I didn’t really understand what human trafficking was myself. My journey actually began with a mapping exercise that the team at Impulse NGO Network and I decided to do. From that exercise, we started to see that there was a human trafficking problem in our community because of all the rural to urban migration taking place. We began to ask ourselves: Why was this migration happening? Where was it happening? What was their destination point? Was there any tracking of the migrant process and how safe was it for them?

Interestingly, the mapping exercise also led us to the wider understanding that laws created by the Indian government had resulted in a lack of economic opportunities in the region. Environmental protection policies impacted a lot of the rural communities who were dependent on forest resources. The policies were actually becoming an obstacle to employment for young people, so many began migrating in search of job opportunities. Many of these young migrants were trapped into the cycle of sexual exploitation. They were duped into going to their destination points. Young girls went missing, but there was no tracking system at all. That’s what led us to the process of undertaking the initiative on anti-trafficking, and that’s how the Impulse Model came into existence.

Young girls went missing, but there was no tracking system at all. That’s what led us to the process of undertaking the initiative on anti-trafficking, and that’s how the Impulse Model came into existence.

What was the process of developing the model like?

HK: The Impulse NGO Network was a small organization back then, but we knew we had to address the human trafficking problem holistically. My team and I tried to look at what the available resources were to tackle this issue, and we decided we had to work with the legal process. Our core understanding at that time was that human trafficking is a crime—a crime that is supposed to be dealt with using the existing laws of a country. We first designed a campaign against human trafficking and that campaign later developed into the whole Impulse Model.

Can you break down the model and how it works?

HK: First there are the five Ps — prevention, protection, policing, press, and prosecution. Then there are the five Rs — reporting, rescue, rehabilitation, repatriation, and reintegration. These five Ps and five Rs work very closely with one another to engage various stakeholders in addressing the issue, especially the law enforcement personnel who are needed to deal with human trafficking as a crime.

But beyond the crime, victims of human trafficking require various kinds of support systems. After reporting a rescue done by the police with the support of a social organization, we have to go to the next process of rehabilitation. That’s where we brought in the Department of Social Welfare to look into the resources that they can provide to a rescued victim.

But rehabilitation is short-term; next you have to repatriate. Most of the time, girls who are trafficked are brought to a destination point that is foreign to them. They have the right to go back to their own states or countries, and they need help reintegrating back into society. That’s how the five Rs work.

Most of the time, girls who are trafficked are brought to a destination point that is foreign to them. They have the right to go back to their own states or countries, and they need help reintegrating back into society.

That’s very dynamic but still digestible.

HK: The 5 Ps came out of the mapping exercise too. We knew we had to strengthen our model so we did national research on the trafficking of women and children. That led to the understanding that law enforcement in India at that point was not very sensitive to trafficking. Enforcers did not realize that trafficking is not prostitution; they would treat trafficking as any other crime. But addressing trafficking requires sensitivity. It requires an understanding of the issue and the participation of the police force. That’s how we got started designing the policing aspect of the model, which focuses on training and capacity building for law enforcement.

Prosecution, the last P, is a very integral part of the model. Unless you send a strong message to the community that human trafficking is a crime and prosecution will take place, you are not actually tackling human trafficking in a very holistic manner.

After that, we realized that we could tackle one, two, three rescue cases — but what happens when the number grows? You can’t keep raising funds for Rescue #1 and then Rescue #2 and then Rescue #3 and then Rescue #4. Press is one aspect that helps creates mass awareness. We realized the media is a vital force for bringing sensitivity to the issue and encouraging prevention, protection, and policing level discussions. So training programs for the media, for law enforcement, for the government, and for civil society organizations became an important part of the model. This is how the five Ps and the five Rs work simultaneously.

Unless you send a strong message to the community that human trafficking is a crime and prosecution will take place, you are not actually tackling human trafficking in a very holistic manner.

One thing that strikes me as very difficult to do is getting buy-in from the different stakeholders. They might have competing interests or lack incentives to fulfill their intended roles. How did you get people to buy in to the model you created and become active participants?

HK: The national research was like a road map presenting clear, factual data that India has a problem with human trafficking. Research is a very strong component of getting stakeholders to listen. The other component was tied to law enforcement training, which required participation at all levels of policing so that sensitivity towards the issue could be generated within the police departments. It can’t be something like, Here—this is a problem and this is how you deal with it. You need a very participatory approach that engages people.

However, we realized that the capacity of a lot of law enforcement officers to understand and use the law effectively was not there. Most people working in law enforcement in developing countries are not highly educated. They are people who have been recruited into the forces not realizing that there are these big problems they need to be part of addressing. We got the Northeast Police Academy to play a role in building a curriculum that reinforced the police department and trained the officers on a rigorous basis. We provided technical support. This engagement led them to accept that yes, their forces needed training and the training would lead to better crime protection.

They gained more skills and more knowledge, and its not just you telling them what to do. It’s them growing alongside you.

HK: Yes, it’s important to show different stakeholders that it’s in their best interest to be part of the anti-trafficking efforts. They all have a role to play in the constitutional and legal context of the country. We always bring the law into the discussion. It’s a very important starting point in the sense that we can approach different stakeholders and explain why they have an obligation to help. Then we give examples of how things can be done and work with them to develop a solution. That’s how the conversations move forward.

This is the first part of our conversation. In upcoming posts, Hasina will share her thoughts on social entrepreneurship and on being a woman working in anti human trafficking.
Updated: read part 2 here!

Cover image from Impulse Social Enterprises Facebook

One response to “Inside the Mind of An Ashoka Fellow: How Hasina Kharbhih Developed a Model to End Human Trafficking in India”

  1. […] Hasina Kharbhih. This post focuses on what it’s like being a women working in development. In the first part of our conversation, we talked about how Hasina and her team developed the internally recognized […]

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