Victor Joseph was born into an educated, upper-middle-class Christian family in India, which today is a major hub for human trafficking, a modern-day form of slavery that he’s committed to eradicating. Formerly an intercultural studies professor at Valley Forge Christian College, the educator, activist, psychologist, minister and parent is now involved full time with the Agape Research Foundation from his Phoenixville home. He has worked with the U.S. Department of State, Congress, the White House and nongovernmental organizations in India to address religious freedom, HIV/AIDS, poverty, education and human trafficking. He’s also the author of the new groundbreaking psychological study, Stolen Lives: Dignity, Forgiveness, Hope and Future-Mindedness for Victims of Sex Trafficking in India, funded and published by the John Templeton Foundation out of West Conshohocken.
MLT: What makes your study so unique?
VJ: No one had done a psychological analysis of forgiveness: Do these girls have forgiveness, and what can we learn about forgiveness from what they’ve learned? The youngest were the most forgiving. Among those older, there was less forgiveness. Those ages 16-17 said, “If I can forgive, I can live.” And that’s why they need to forgive. They want to come out from their burden and captivity. Without forgiveness, they don’t want to live. They want to jump from a building or in front of a train.
MLT: Did the older victims surprise you?
VJ: I thought the younger ones would be dependent, but they want to move on, to dream, grow and flow, to forgive and move on—and they’re looking for a way to do so. Those older want to find fault. They want to blame and fight. They want to know why they should forgive. Their lives have been completely shattered, violated. They enjoy giving trouble back to other people. The young want to become beauticians because they want to make other girls happy—that, or charitable work. It’s healthy if they can give help to other people. It’s a wonderful concept.
MLT: Why do families continue to give their daughters away?
VJ: Families living in poverty are approached with what appears to be a lucrative chance to pay off debt. No one wants to give their girls away, but they are told that they will be maids and babysitters. And so, at 7, 8 and 9 years old, even the girls say, “Let me go.” They’re all tricked, and then sold to the next layer, but no one knows what that next layer is, or seven or eight layers later. In that way, they evade the police. It’s the way the Mafia works all over the world. The money, of course, never makes it to the family, or they’re told their child is dead—and it haunts the family forever. Even if they find out their girls are in a brothel, it’s taboo—a cultural disgrace— and the community won’t take them back. Those girls are gone forever.
MLT: What’s the solution?
VJ: We need to get into villages and offer vocational education for girls, and urge families not to sell them. But there are 600,000 villages in India, and 400,000 of them are in the remote areas and are the targeted villages. We need to eliminate—or, at least, subdue— the belief in a caste system. But that’s difficult because the upper caste controls everything.
MLT: With all the media attention human trafficking is getting, isn’t it more difficult to run a ring?
VJ: It’s getting more difficult to pull it off with the Internet, media, pressure and attention from all over the world—plus my publication, which I’ve shared at universities and major seminars, and twice to members of Congress.
MLT: How did you get the girls to trust you?
VJ: The first day, the girls wouldn’t get close to me. They don’t trust any man. Day two, I sat with them and tried to make a connection, expressing interest in their talents—art, crafts. We grew closer, and by the third day, I told them it was the last time I’d see them, and they began to cry. I asked, “Why do you cry?” They told me they’d never experienced love and asked me if I would come a fourth day. I know one has HIV, and she will die soon—and she was still looking for love, for someone she could trust.
MLT: What’s the prospect for truly rescuing these girls?
VJ: If we try hard, I think we can get back 65-70 percent. But we can never get back 100 percent of them—their lives are completely shattered. But 65 percent is better than nothing, even if we can get them to enjoy food or to dream again.
MLT: What have you learned that’s most important?
VJ: Forgiveness is not collective; it’s personal. But if you can find it in one person, perhaps it can be contagious. Anger? We all have it. Shame? We all have it. Guilt? We all have it. But are we ready to move on? The culture has to change to a nurturing love and the cultivation of family, but these girls have never experienced anything but poverty—and poverty is the root cause of this violence.