The Art & Science of Freedom Business
Written By Melinda Gill
I am a doctor. I started my career as a Family Physician in Australia, then moved to the Philippines, into the non-governmental sector. Five years later, I joined my husband’s Freedom Business. My husband is not a doctor. He’s not any kind of health professional. In fact, he isn’t particularly interested in health issues at all. And yet, I suspect he has had a greater impact on health outcomes since starting the enterprise than I had as a physician.
After hearing about the plight of victims of human trafficking and slavery, he left his job in banking to start a social enterprise in the Philippines, providing computer-based training and employment to survivors. In the Philippines, it is estimated that more than 400,000 men, women, and children are forced into bonded labor, the commercial sex industry, or other forms of forced servitude or exploitation (Global Slavery Index 2016). Whilst awareness of the issue and preventive and rescue efforts are increasing, long-term aftercare options and rehabilitation for survivors are lacking. This is particularly true for employment options.
The vision of Regenesys is to provide not only a genuine career path through enhanced technical skills, but to create a context where survivors can progress towards achieving full and sustained reintegration. Interestingly, the lack of computer skills among newly-recruited staff (recruits) has not proven the biggest challenge. The lack of core skills has been far bigger. Core skills, also known as life skills, employability skills, or key competencies, can be defined as a “comprehensive set of universal cognitive and non-cognitive skills and abilities, connecting behavior, attitudes, and knowledge” (IYF 2015 p3). They are capabilities which are needed for success in employment and are transferable and enable success in all aspects of life (ILO 2015 p2). A large number of attributes are contained in core skills frameworks, including communication and teamwork, literacy and numeracy skills, and learning and thinking skills, such as focus, awareness, critical thinking, decision making, planning, and organizing (ILO 2015, Brewer 2013 p10, DEET 2013). Character traits such as responsibility, integrity, respect, self-control, and adaptability are also included.
Early childhood is the key period for core skills development, when responsive, nurturing, and stable caregivers support the healthy development of the brain, impacting brain architecture, biochemistry, and gene expression (Center on the Developing Child 2016, Knudsen et al. 2006). For many survivors of trafficking, the childhood environment has compromised this process. Whilst the determinants of trafficking are complex, survivors often come from impoverished backgrounds where, in addition to the effects of poverty, they have experienced physical or sexual abuse, significant family dysfunction, and lack of a support system (Zimmerman and Pollock 2013). This underlays the trauma experienced through trafficking, together resulting in high rates of mental health issues among survivors (Kiss et al. 2015, Zimmerman et al. 2008).
Lack of employment opportunities for survivors in the formal economy means that core skills are not acquired in a work environment. Some of the most significant manifestations of the lack of core skills in the enterprise’s recruits were health-related. Illness-related absenteeism was high and spiked during stressful projects. We suspected binge drinking was common, and there were regular requests for cash advances for health-related expenses. One of the greatest concerns was the frequency of unplanned pregnancies. Paula was one such recruit. She became pregnant a few months after she started training and, not knowing what else to do, ingested an illegal abortifacient which resulted in the need for emergency treatment. Sadly, at the hospital, she was retraumatized by reproachful, verbally abusive staff who refused her treatment. Although she continued with the pregnancy with the support of a psychotherapist, she could not cope with resuming employment at the enterprise and returned to prostitution.
With constant health issues among recruits, I left my job with a non-governmental organization (NGO) a year after my husband launched the company to focus on improving health behavior and outcomes. I provided guidance to staff as health issues arose, teaching a comprehensive health and wellbeing curriculum using adult educational tools based on a well-considered behavior change theory. And over the next 12 months, we saw significant improvement in several health-related outcomes. Absenteeism declined and stayed low even during stressful projects, borrowing dropped, and the recruits appeared to be taking more responsibility for their health overall.
However, even whilst observing these improvements, I knew they had little to do with me or my curriculum. As I listened to the survivors’ narratives about themselves pre-and post-employment and viewed the holistic changes in their lives, I recognized that these positive changes were more a consequence of the management team’s heightened efforts and evolving strategies to build core professional skills and character traits. As our recruits developed stronger coping mechanisms, such as the ability to manage stress and anxiety, a fall in absenteeism and other transformations occurred.
After graduating from high school, Kristalyn had no other option but to work as a live-in domestic worker. Upon entering the house, she was raped by her foreign employer and became enslaved until she was eventually rescued, already pregnant with his child. Two years later she was recruited into our enterprise. As a new employee, she almost crouched at her desk in her oversized t-shirt and baggy jeans, her hair in a short boyish cut, just long enough to cover her frightened eyes.
Kristalyn now stands strong and speaks with conviction, even through her tears, as she shares her story with others.”
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But over time, increasing abilities and confidence allowed her to transform into a more emboldened and complete version of herself. Her hair grew long, pulled back off her face to reveal bright eyes and a vivacious smile. The oversized clothing was replaced by smart business attire. Kristalyn now stands strong and speaks with conviction, even through her tears, as she shares her story with others. She speaks of self-forgiveness and the lifting of past shame; the process of becoming a professional; the importance of positive female role models among the senior management staff; and the hope she can create a better future for herself and her daughter.
As she undertook this identity reformation and re-visioning, she gained motivation and self-efficacy to manage her health. She also developed necessary core skills including problem-solving, planning, and self-control. Kristalyn’s increasing desire for a professional career and college degree became strong motivators for her to plan her family, requiring communication skills, confidence, planning and problem-solving skills to manage her finances and time.
My role in this journey is to gently support and encourage positive choices in the hope recruits will avoid a major crisis whilst they undertake transformation. When they are ready, they will put the health knowledge to use, supported by their evolving core skills.
In front of me sits Maricel, who is one of the new recruits at the start of her journey with us. She is suffering morning sickness and, although she is happily pregnant, it is unplanned. She admits it is not ideal given her partner was abusive. At least she recognized his behavior as abuse and left him, perhaps something she learnt from my health curriculum. As a survivor of child sex trafficking, I know she hasn’t yet been able to firmly envisage a different future for herself. She doesn’t appreciate how bearing a child on her own, while starting a new career path without a supportive extended family, undermines her future wellbeing. Even so, I am forced to hope, as she smiles and sincerely thanks me for my kindness.
Gratitude and feeling valued improves wellbeing. A sense of wellbeing improves health-related behavior. For these and other health outcomes, meaningful vocational skills, economic security, and adequate health-related knowledge are foundational. However, without the necessary core skills, these factors alone will not achieve a significant impact. To be successful in managing their health needs, or in any aspect of life, survivors must develop strong learning, thinking, planning, communication, and organization skills together with character traits such as responsibility and self-control. A supportive and responsive workplace is an ideal place for this process to occur. Thus, regardless of who does more, my husband and I will continue to integrate our approach, and together cultivate for ourselves the same core skills and traits that we nurture within survivors; among them – perseverance and hope.
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