Raised by parents who were called to serve their faith, Evon became a successful English barrister, American lawyer, and partner in a New York defense law firm. Despite her success, one day she woke up wondering, “What have I done with my life?” Her passion and compassion were calling out to her. That Monday, she left her job to become a full-time advocate.
Moved by the plight of Nigerian women all over the world, Evon decided to address gender-based violence and the sexual exploitation of women. She founded Pathfinders Justice Initiative (PJI), a leading international impact organization dedicated to the prevention of sex slavery, sexual violence, the liberation of enslaved women and girls, and the eradication of its root causes.
PJI has worked with governments, law enforcement, and communities to rescue and rehabilitate victims of human trafficking. They have also worked to raise awareness of the issue and to change the laws that enable human trafficking. Evon’s work has had a profound impact on the lives of countless women and girls.
In this conversation with Jay, her journey to becoming an activist against modern-day slavery, and the power of one person to make a difference.
To learn more about Pathfinders Justice Initiative (PJI) click here.
Evon Benson-Idahosa: the overwhelming majority of people who are involved or enslaved, in sex trafficking, over 90% are women and girls.
Jay Ruderman: Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and welcome to All About Change, a podcast showcasing individuals who leverage the hardships that have been thrown at them to better other people’s lives.
Jay Ruderman: And today on our show, Evon Benson-Idahosa
Evon Benson-Idahosa: I was always questioning and pushing and talking back. and I put that in air quotes, because I was really just trying to be the voice that, that I believe God had called me to be from a very, very young age.
Jay Ruderman: Evon is a Nigerian native, a leading expert, and thought-leader on the subject of modern-day slavery. But before she was an activist, she had a ‘previous life’. Achieving tremendous success as a lawyer in NYC. But one day she woke up wondering – “what have I done with my life?”
Evon Benson-Idahosa: I’m a partner at my, at my firm. I’m supervising, lots of associates. quote unquote to the external world, I was successful. Um, but what was more important to me at that point? Was it financial success or was it having a life of significance?
Jay Ruderman: She turned to her boss and informed him that she would be leaving her job to become a full-time activist.
Evon Benson-Idahosa: I’m not sure who was more, who was, whether I was more shocked in that moment or whether he, whether he was, because we both would’ve looked at each other like, are you really doing this?
Jay Ruderman: Moved by the plight of Nigerian women all over the world, she decided to address gender-based violence and the sexual exploitation of women. She founded Pathfinders Justice Initiative (PJI), a leading international impact organization dedicated to the prevention of sex slavery, and the eradication of its root causes.
There’s about 50 million people who are currently enslaved. I think a lot of people tend to think, you know, slavery was something that happened, you know, in the 15th, 16th, century in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But there are actually more people enslaved. In this day and age than at any other point in history.
Jay Ruderman: So Yvonne, thank you so much for being my guest on all about change. I’m looking forward so much to this discussion. The work that you do is incredibly important, affecting so many people around the world. But maybe we could start the discussion by talking about your family.
Your father was a very well known re religious leader, who had impact. Well beyond Nigeria, and I’m just wondering about your childhood and what impact your childhood had on you and your direction that you chose to go in life.
Evon Benson-Idahosa: Well, Jay, it’s a pleasure, um, to be able to join you. I’m always honored when people start, start, start with my childhood. Cause I think it, it, it has a way of bringing. A lot of context Right. To, why I do what I do and the woman that I am.
But, uh, yeah, like you said, I grew up, you know, to parents who were, were ministers and who were pretty much larger than life right? In, in my, in my mind, even as a child. But I think one of the most, amazing aspects and one of the things that, I, I took away from that relationship was just the, the fact that we.
I got to travel with them. so I was born in England. My parents are from Nigeria. but I, you know, I also schooled in the, in the US as well, but even in my childhood, we got to travel with my parents wherever they were going to speak, uh, to preach, uh, to, you know, to teach. you know, my mom was in school when she was in England, so all of this really informed.
My worldview. It really ch, it really informs the way that I move through the world cuz I’m able to see things from multiple perspectives. And I think even as a child growing up, I, one of the things I recognized was that even though I was born, into a family that valued education, I was born with, a certain extent of, of privilege.
What I, what I, what I knew. intuitively as as a child, was that there was some level of imbalance here. There was some level of injustice because I would go from, depending on where I was, I would go from country to country and recognize that people were treated differently, not just because of.
Um, not just because of, of where they were born, but also to whom they were born. And as a child, I, I recognized that distinction very at a very young age and started questioning it quite a bit. it came across, I mean, I, in some ways as, as quite rebellious. and I, I, cuz I never understood injustice. I always.
Felt this sense of, when things were unjust, there needed to be an explanation for it. And I was always questioning and pushing and talking back. and I put that in air quotes, because I was really just trying to be the voice that, that I believe God had called me to be from a very, very young age.
Jay Ruderman: You know, I find your philosophy to be very, uh, first all resident. Resonates with me and it, and it’s very, inspirational and, and meaningful in that you look at the world as you believe God believes it should be and not as the way it is right now. And they’re able to see things in a more, just an equitable and godly way.
And, and I assume that that comes from, Your family life and your education and, and, and how you were brought up.
So you. Are a born activist and you’re, you’re picking this up from your parents and they’re encouraging you. How do you maybe talk a little bit about how you decided to become a lawyer and be educated in the United Kingdom and then become a very successful attorney in New York and, and, and talk about that part of your life?
Evon Benson-Idahosa: It’s interesting because I, I’m not sure I would’ve chosen law on my own. Right. Um, and you know, alluded to this earlier when my parents, gave us a choice and an option. You know, I put choice in, again, in air quotes because it was either law or medicine.
And you know, my brother, and this is from when than we were. Three, four years old. My brother, you know, said he wanted to be a doctor and I had no idea what a lawyer was. But again, I think as a reflection of my naturally quote unquote rebel self, I was like, I’m not doing whatever he’s doing. I’ll do the other thing and that was a lawyer. And so from when I was young, my parents would always say, oh, you’re always arguing, you’re always, talking back, you’re always, questioning and, so yeah, maybe you should be a lawyer. And so I think in my mind I thought, oh, okay, this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.
So I went to, I ended up, finishing, after I got, asked to leave politely from my dorm when I was 15. Um, I then traveled, my parents then had some friends in Atlanta. I was in Nigeria at the time. And I moved, um, over to the us. I finished my high school, did my undergraduate degree, and then went to law school, in England.
And I got called to bar over there and decided, You know, I didn’t want to wear those ugly white wigs. Um, after the first time I put it on, I put them on, put one of them on my head, which is at my, at my graduation. And funny enough, I actually handed my law degree to my mother at my graduation. I had not seen it since that day, and that was over 20 years ago.
yeah, once I got called to, called to bar and became a barrister at law, I decided, you know, it looks. Like what, what they’re doing in the US looks a bit more exciting. You know, they talk back to judges, people are jumping over turns, style, not turns styles. you know, it would just seem like, um, it seemed more like my personality, the way that law was being practiced in the US and, and in England it was just a lot more stoic, a lot more quote unquote respectful and uh, so I decided, you know, I’m gonna come over to the US and I flipped a coin, literally flipped a coin. because New York and, uh, California were the only two states that would allow me to use my law degree almost immediately without having to go back to some, it takes some other courses. And I flipped a coin, it landed, um, on New York and I packed up my bags and um, and I moved to New York.
Jay Ruderman: And, uh, and you had the, you, you had a great career in New York. You had the corner office, you had. A nice car. You were in charge of many subordinates. were you happy as a lawyer in New York?
Evon Benson-Idahosa: I actually, I was happy. I would say that I was, I, I, I say happy, but was I joyous? No. Was I fulfilled? No. Um, was I good at what I was doing? Absolutely. I, I was successful. in the general sense of, of how most people define success, you know, which is financially. I was at a space where I was training other lawyers.
Yeah. I was a lawyer’s lawyer. I was, teaching other lawyers how to avoid getting sued for malpractice. I was, Happy in the sense that I was, every day I was, I woke up with a sense of, Of a connection to the work that I was doing because I was good at it. But there was an underlying sense of, of incongruity between what my life had been calling me to do and what I was currently doing and it got to a point though where, I refer to it as God giving me the gift of discomfort where so, Unaligned with your current life and current reality, that it gets uncomfortable for you to be yourself in that space. And so every day it just became this growing sense of this is not what you’re supposed to be doing. This is not my life. I was in search of, of ensuring that that alignment, Um, within the work that I was doing and the life that I was living, was actualized.
Jay Ruderman: So there’s a turning point. you’re spending a weekend, you pick up a book by, uh, I believe it’s, uh, Palmer Parker.
Evon Benson-Idahosa: Parker Palmer.
Jay Ruderman: Parker. Palmer, excuse me. And, and, and you read the book and it changes your life. And, and I think we’re going through a time now where many, many people are looking for that meaning in their life.
And not to just go through sort of a rote, uh, I’m in a good career. I’m doing financially well, but I’m looking for that significance. Can you talk a little bit about what happened that weekend and how it completely changed your outlook on life?
Evon Benson-Idahosa: Absolutely. Um, and so I think, you know, at that point I was already in a space where, there was this almost agonizing, weight. In my mind every day when I would go into work and, you know, someone recommended this book, uh, to me, called Let Your Life Speak. And I, I picked it up on a Friday because it was really small book, maybe 70, 80 pages.
And I just thought, oh, I, I’ll just read it over the weekend and, you know, we’ll see, we’ll see how it, how it, how it turns out. And I started going through it and I came across a line in a poem, um, that said, ask me whether what I’ve done is my life. Asked me whether what I’ve done is my life. And I remember pausing on that line and thinking, okay, so I’ve been doing this now practicing law for, 13 years.
I’m a partner at my, at my firm. I’m supervising, lots of associates. quote unquote to the external world, I was successful. Um, but what was more important to me at that point? Was it su financial success or was it having a life of significance? And so that question just kept resonating in my spirit for the entire weekend.
It was just like, I was, like, I was seeing it everywhere, asked me whether what I have done is my life. And I came to the conclusion that weekend that what I was currently doing was not what God had placed me on the earth to do. I was not. Exhausting the, humanity that God had had placed within me. I was not, quote unquote, dying empty as Miles Monroe, once said.
And so, I wanted to again, create that alignment between, um, who I am and what I was currently doing. And so I ultimately, Answered that question in the negative and, drafted a resignation letter on a Sunday evening. On a Mon Monday, I walked into my senior partner’s office and I told him, look, I’m gonna go do what my life has been calling me, uh, to do.
And I, I’m not sure who was more, who was, whether I was more shocked in that moment or whether he, whether he was, because we both would’ve looked at each other like, are you really doing this? and I had worked with him for 11 of 13 years in my practice, so he was essentially family to me and he couldn’t, he just couldn’t understand like, why.
Someone who was essentially at the height of her career and success, at least for a, a black Amer, black American, uh, woman would walk away from all of that to go do what you quote unquote life was calling you to do. And he was essentially, I mean, So gracious in the moment, but he thought I was, I was losing my mind.
And, uh, he said, you know, why don’t you take off six months? just go clear your brain, get it out of your system, and when you come back, your real job will be waiting for you. And, uh, and I said, no, Michael, this is, this is. Truly what God has called me to do.
Jay Ruderman: So you have this epiphany that this is not what God is calling you to do, to be a successful lawyer, and you decide to make a change. At that point, how do you know what what you’re supposed to do and, and, and where does that take you from there.
Evon Benson-Idahosa: Take you from there, Jay? I had no idea. I, I mean, and after I, after I walked away from my seniors partner, senior partner’s office, I remember thinking, What, what the heck did you just do? Like what did, did you literally just make a decision to, you know, to walk away from all of this? I was looking around my office and all, everything just came, you know, flashing in my mind. I was thinking about my nine year old daughter, like, how is she going to live? Like what, what, what is this activism life? Do you even know what the definitions are of some of the things that you’re stepping into? I had, I mean, honestly, I was, I the fear, for the first time, literally, I just was laced through every cell in my being. but I, but I had, the one thing that I think God gave me in that moment, was just a sense of. You will not lack, like I literally heard those words in my spirit. there’s nothing that you do right to, to bring forth the love of God into the world that will not, that will, that will ultimately put you in a position where you will, you know, will have to strive or suffer or, or, or be depleted in any way.
I heard those words in my spirit, you will not lack, and that, you know, for me was enough in that moment. To, to, absolve some of the fear that I had. but it, it didn’t necessarily give me direction, right? I wasn’t, you know, I, I remember coming home and thinking, okay, so what’s next? Right? Um, what’s next?
What do I do? Where do I, how do I start? And that was just a question I was asking God every day, Okay, here we are. Here we are. I still got three months, right? I had to give them three months notice, because I was a partner. in those three months, I just literally just sat, at the feasts of God and said, what is it that you want me to do?
And each day, um, you know, things just started getting downloaded. You know, in my mind I remember I had a vision, You know where I saw a scroll, and it was, you know, the scroll that, that Jesus Christ was reading when he was in the temple. And, um, there’s, there was a line where he’s talking, it’s essentially his manifesto and he’s talking about what God has called him to do, on the earth, to open the eyes of the blind to bind up the brokenhearted.
Um, and this is a ch a scripture in, in the book of Luke and. For whatever reason, the line bind up, the brokenhearted just popped out of the scroll and then it disappeared, and I thought, okay. All right. So you’ve called me to bind up the brokenhearted and Okay. Like is there, like, is what else? Is like, can you give me just a little bit more But I was, I, I still didn’t have a lot of clear direction and I think the next thing that God told me was, or reminded me of was my, was my nickname Pathfinder. And I was thinking, okay, what does that have to do with anything?
And. And I think what I recognized in that moment was, like I said earlier, it was prophetic, but it was also, what God was essentially calling me to do was to help women and girls find their path out of injustice, find their path out of difficult, tight situations, and to create access, right through a path for them to sustainable economic empowerment, um, to be able to change their, their narrative to be able to tell their stories and their own voices, and to create opportunities essentially.
Jay Ruderman: Yvonne, eventually you relocate and you go back to, um, your home in Benin City in, in Nigeria. when do you decide that your focus is gonna be about, uh, sexual trafficking and human slavery?
Evon Benson-Idahosa: So, On the flight over, uh, to Nigeria. This was Christmas cuz my, I resigned in October and I mentioned having to give, uh, my partners three months notices. So in December I get on the flight and my prayer on the flight is, God, open my eyes to whatever it is that you want me to do. I will be a willing, willing vessel if you just make it clear.
Because at this point I still wasn’t sure. I just knew it was, you know, women, I knew it was Nigeria. and I knew that the name was gonna be Pathfinder, but that’s essentially all I had. And so I, I, as I get off the plane, It’s, it’s as if you know, like, God, there’s some days like God hears your prayer like literally and responds right away.
And then there are other times when you’re waiting and you know, he speaks, through people eventually through circumstances. But this was almost like him and I, you know, God and I were having a conversation on the plane and he was like, okay, here you go. And I get, I get off the plane, And I run into to a woman who was doing sex, anti-sex trafficking work in adult states in Nigeria. And she just starts telling me about, oh, I’m so good to see you. And, and, and she starts telling me about the work. And so I’m thinking, okay, that’s a bit bizarre. Um, Maybe this is it, maybe it’s not. But as I get to Benin, cii, it becomes evident because everybody that God is sending to have a conversation with me is talking about this.
I’m running into, um, people who are, who are dealing with this in, in their, in their current life, people who are, essentially vulnerable to becoming trafficked. And because Edo State, where Benin City is, is. Unfortunately, infamously known as the hub of sex trafficking in, in all of Africa. it was so dominant in the conversations I was having and I think, God was trying to make it very clear to me that this is the area that you need to focus on.
And interestingly, I actually had, even though I wasn’t physically present at the time, I remember my father saying, you know, that God, The same way that God had called him, to bring liberation right to, um, to my home state. It, I had that same sense that this was what God was calling you to do to in, in the same, In the same location.
And so I started, I started just learning, you know, as much as I could about it. initially I was a little bit resistant because it is such heavy, dark work. Um, and it’s, and I’m the sort of person that I carry a emotions and feelings, uh, with me. I’m not, I can’t leave stuff at the, at the office at five o’clock.
Um, I carry that sort of stuff with me, and I did, I did not want the weight. Of what I knew this call would be. And so I, you know, I went back to God and I said, yeah, I remember that prayer that I prayed on the plane. I can we, like walk it back a little bit? Um, is there any room? Can we do a little, you know, something a bit more corporate because I’m comfortable with that.
You know, I get, I don’t, I don’t, there’s no emotions there. God pretty much was like, this is it. This is what I want you to do. this is what I meant by binding up the brokenhearted in.
Jay Ruderman: Can you give us a general overview on what is the state of affairs of, uh, sexual trafficking and, um, human slavery in the world in 2023?
Evon Benson-Idahosa: Yeah. On average, um, I think most people, most people would agree that there’s about 50 million people who are currently enslaved. I think a lot of people tend to think, you know, slavery was something that happened, you know, in the 15th, 16th, century in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
But there are actually more people enslaved. In this day and age than at any other point in history. there are, the overwhelming majority of people who are involved or enslaved, um, in sex trafficking, over 90% of women and girls. labor trafficking is also another, another big aspect, um, where people are, are forced, to work without pay or they’re, involved in what we refer to as debt bondage.
But, but I think a lot of people don’t tend to, Feel the reality of trafficking because they don’t necessarily know what to look for. It’s generally described as hidden and plain sight, but it’s happening in every country around the world. and it’s, you know, it’s, there are, there are cartels, there are, you know, rings, there are government officials that are allowing for the proliferation of trafficking.
It’s an insidious crime because it, what it does is it robs. Humanity of its soul, right? In many ways. And so it’s not just affecting the victims of trafficking, all of us who are complicit in it in some way, um, and complacent in some way are contributing to, to it, right? So every time you, you know, decide you wanna be involved in fast fashion, and you’re buying a t-shirt, for $1, and thinking that you’re, you know, ma saving, Saving however much it is.
There’s somebody in Bangladesh, for example, in one of these sweat shops that is getting paid next to nothing, that’s working 18, 19 hours a day, under the worst conditions. that we don’t necessarily, we don’t necessarily think about because our minds are not educated and it’s, it’s, it’s not comfortable, right? To allow yourself to lean into the reality of what someone else might be suffering.
Jay Ruderman: So let’s talk about a young woman in, Benin City and, and how she. become involved in sexual trafficking. What is the, the pipeline? Um, how easy is it for someone to become involved as a victim of sex sexual trafficking?
Evon Benson-Idahosa: You know, it’s, it’s actually unfortunately relatively easy. One in every three young girls in my home state has been recruited into sex trafficking. and a lot of it is because, it’s a combination of. Of abject poverty, um, with this mindset that prostitution, forced prostitution is a viable alternative, to poverty.
The reality is that most people are just looking for an opportunity, right, to be able to live a life. That’s dignified. There’s, there’s failure of, of government structures or the absence of government structures, social, systems, right, that would allow people, that would give people some sort of room to be able to overcome, catastrophes in their lives, right? So, so if, if a parent has a, a health challenge, there’s systemic failures within, within my own home country that that will.
Evon Benson-Idahosa: Result in maybe that parent not even surviving that illness. Right? And that then puts a young woman in a position where she becomes more vulnerable, um, to traffickers because then she, as a 13, 14, 15 year old, has to step up to find a way to be able to support her mother, who’s caring for, you know, multiple children or whatever the case might be.
And so it’s unfortunate, right, that we’ve created a world where we, we allow for, for some of these things to happen. And and, and when I say we, I’m saying it’s because it’s all of our collective contributions, uh, to it. But a young woman, you know, generally most of the girl women that we, girls that we work with, Are recruited from around 15, 16, 17.
Um, many of the young women are then trafficked, over land from Nigeria through Niger, into across the Sahara Desert, um, into Libya where they then, are where, where, where they’re traffickers who are primarily women who were themselves trafficked and they’re referred to as madams are in Europe somewhere endeavoring for them to cross the Mediterranean Sea. On these unworthy sea vessels, um, to try to get into Europe where they then serve the underbelly of the European sex industry. So it’s relatively easy. and the path is almost one that is accepted, um, in my home state because a lot of people don’t necessarily understand the reality of what their children, endure as a result of, of sex trafficking.
Jay Ruderman: So I’m wondering if you could tell us the story, which is a very, very sad story of faith.
Evon Benson-Idahosa: Yeah, I mean, faith, well, it’s, I actually just looked at, her, um, story again yesterday because I was. I remember, this was in September of 2016 when she, when she passed away, and I remember a phone call. The last words I heard her speak to me were, you know, she just screamed out, auntie, I’m dying.
I’m dying. I’m dying. And I remember thinking, this did not have to be. This did not have to be, but Faith was a young woman, who was trafficked from my home, my home, town to Libya initially. Um, and then she was trafficked, uh, to Moscow for sex and all because she had a young daughter who, I believe had malaria and she didn’t have enough money to be able to buy the.
You know, the, the medication to be able to help her daughter. And someone came up to her and, and offered her, the ability to be able to support her family financially. And she was deceived into, being trafficked. Um, she ended up in Moscow where she, w where she started, uh, developing reoccurring kidney infections and was literally discarded on the streets, when she was no longer.
Profitable for her traffickers. A good Samaritan founder, helped her get to the Nigerian embassy. The Nigerian embassy contacted, um, one of our partners and my, and and us, and we, worked with International Organization for Migration, which is the UN agency, to get her back home to Nigeria.
She was assisted on the flight with the medical team because they were so scared that she would actually die. On the, on the, on the plane. And when she got back, to Lagos, she, you know, was flown into Lagos, we’re in Benin, which is about a half hour flight from Lagos. when she got back to Lagos, uh, the doctor wasn’t sure that she was going to survive the night.
I’m not sure about the timing of this, but I remember, you know, we had just started my NGO in 2014. I had not, I had never had an experience of death in this work until I worked, um, until Faith came into my life and, when she got to Benin, we were able, to stabilize her.
And then I started thinking, oh, I’m sure there’s a system here that supports people in this condition. all I have to do is, you know, get in touch with the governor or get in touch with the, um, minister of Women’s Affairs or, you know, find some government agency, right, that will support people who, are in this condition and every single.
Organization or agency or person that I called essentially told me that there was nothing that they were gonna be able to do at that point. I didn’t even know anything about fundraising. I wasn’t able to find a way, to support her. But for six months, you know, we did everything that we could, you know, had her on dialysis a couple of times a week. And if, you know, in September of 2016, uh, she passed away.
Jay Ruderman: Of all, I’m so sorry for your loss. but I think it’s, it’s, uh, it is important for the audience to understand how, the economic disparity, causes someone to at least be pulled into this. And I think I, I, I, Saw a statistic that basically a woman who’s being pulled into the sex trafficking world, can be bought for approximately a hundred dollars and then they have a huge debt, something like 30, $40,000 that they have to pay back, which they requires them to have sex on a daily basis with 10 to 15 men a day.Evon Benson-Idahosa: That’s absolutely right.
Jay Ruderman: And it’s just horrific. you know, let me ask you, in terms of government Nigeria, world organizations, other governments around the world, the governments that are, at least people are ending up in, in, in countries where, these women are working. what is government’s responsibility and what is, what is, what are governments doing to try to end this, sex trafficking?
Evon Benson-Idahosa: You know, it kinda depends on, it depends on the country. Um, I think there’s a lot of intellectual dishonesty, with the level of complicity and complacency that a lot of these, um, particularly European governments, have a lot of our women from Nigeria are not trafficked into the us and so the.
The, the roots has always been to try to get them into Europe, and I think one of the things I always find, you know, when I’m asked to, speak or when I’m, you know, asked to consult, on solutions, right? Is the fact that people are always so other directed. They’re always so focused on, well, what are you doing in your country?
What are your people doing? What is the Nigerian government doing to address this issue? But I always, I, I think it’s so important that we each hold up the mirror to ourselves. And that’s, you know, part of my job as well is to say, well, let’s start here. I’m here at the moment, so let’s have, let’s have a conversation about what you’re doing.
Right? And so there’s, um, some level of a lack of disconnect between the reality that every single to every single action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction, right? There’s every time someone. Creates a foreign policy that, allows for X to happen in, in this, in this country. It creates vulnerability in, in elsewhere, right?
It increases vulnerability elsewhere. And so there is a responsibility, right? Because we are all in interconnected. you know what it affects one will ultimately affect all. And I think people. a lot of international governments tend to tend to lack that ability to make that connection, and so what, what that results in is.
Essentially an anti migration stance. Right? Um, a lot of that’s infused with a lot of racism with, with a lot of, unwillingness to, accept the fact that I am because you are right. that we are connected to each other. And so that, that is, I think one of my biggest frustrations is I. The, the lack of understanding.
Um, for something as simple as basic economics, the more demand that your country has for the bodies of African women, the more supply there will be. And so if you’re not taking a position that, Ensures that traffickers are not operating with impunity. If you’re not protecting the bodies of these young women by criminalizing the people who are buying known victims of, of, of human trafficking, then you are complicit.
You are complacent in the, in the posture that you’re taking and you are. Contributing to the dysfunction and the fraying of our shared humanity. And that is a responsibility because innocent blood does have a voice and it will cry out for justice. And at some point there will be a reckoning. Right? And in, in whatever that form that will look like, I’m not the one, I have no idea what that will be, but it, but one thing I know for sure.
And as even as I’m, I, I talk to you now, I hear Faith’s voice echoing in my mind and it, it, it will, there will be a reckoning someday, somehow, some somewhere. And so my, my role is to allow people the opportunity to see themselves in, in me, right? to see themselves in each of these stories that I tell, that I carry with me. Um, and then it becomes their responsibility to do something about it.
Jay Ruderman: It’s so true that I think we are all interconnected and we are all responsible at every step of the, of the way, and it’s, it’s hard to point a finger on where it begins. but the consumer is also responsible in the governments that know that people are crossing borders and, and not really putting a focus on stopping it or, um, or making it more difficult.
Um, this is a worldwide problem and it is shocking in today’s modern age that slavery, which essentially, this is, is happening right under our nose noses. Let’s talk about your organization, Pathfinders, um, justice Initiative and what are you doing on the ground to, deal with this situation and try to improve the situation.
Evon Benson-Idahosa: Our role has pretty much evolved over the years. one of the things that I, I consistently think about is the fact that faith, was literally consumed to death. By consumers, like her body was literally consumed to death and no one should ever be consumed to death.
And I think what we’re, what we’re endeavoring to do, um, particularly in Nigeria, is threefold, right? as a lawyer, I. My role is primarily focused on the justice initiative arm of the work that we do, and that’s what I generally refer to as influencing the influencers. It is ensuring that the people who have the power to end trafficking, um, are held accountable for doing that.
Um, yo, so we do a lot of research. we do focus groups. I do capacity building for other CSOs that are working in the space. I partner with government. I ensure that parliamentarians, know the imports of the decisions that they’re making, of the fact that every single time an a corrupt politician steals 150 million from, from Nigeria.
This is the implication I want, I, we center survivors in these, in, in these. in these platforms so that people can hear, because it’s really, really hard when you see somebody up close that your actions have had an implication on to be able to walk away, um, without, without that affecting you in some way.
And so that’s the justice arm, the justice initiative arm of the work that we do. I think what we’re probably most known for is the work that we do directly with survivors and women who are at risk. that’s the pathway to freedom arm of the work that we do. and that’s essentially, ensuring that there is structural transformation in the long term, sustainable economic, um, opportunities that women are able to have.
And so we work with survivors who’ve been trafficked or women who are, vulnerable to becoming trafficked to ensure that they have. opportunities, but not just, not just the economic aspects of it, but you also have to ensure that their mental health is whole again, right? That their physical beings are whole again, because there is no human body that can endure a rape on a consistent basis for.
Two to three years at a time when you’re being forced to sleep with 10 to 15 men on, there’s no, there’s no human. The, the human body was not intent. That was not God’s original design and intention. And so you have to be able to work essentially to make that person whole again, before you can actually put them in a position, um, where they can provide for themselves economically.
And so we utilize a holistic, Approach, through what we call our path plans, personalized action to healing plans. And these are, rehabilitation plans that are co-created with the survivors, right? They, we put them in a position to make a determination as to what. Rehabilitation looks like for them.
And so if they need legal support because they want to prosecute the trafficker, we provide that through our team of volunteer lawyers. Um, we also provide, as I mentioned, mental health supports as well as, medical, support because many of these women come back in broken pieces, because of the physical abuse as well that they’ve sustained and.
You know, that comes with shelter you know, education scholarships for the, those that want to return to school. but essentially we provide, options and then the survivors get to choose. And then the lost armor of the work that we do is truth tellers. And that’s the, that’s the awareness raising arm of the work.
And for me, it’s important that we center the community voice. In that. And so when we talk about interventions that we’re creating, we bring the community with us, we bring reformed traffickers, we bring survivors, and they’re the ones who tell us, they shape the interventions that are going to work in their respective communities.
And so it’s not just about speaking truth to power, which we do, um, through the justice initiative, but we speak true to the seemingly powerless. Right? By empowering those voices to say, you have a role to play in this. Right. What can you do with our supports to ensure that we change the landscape, as it currently appears?
Jay Ruderman: So Yvonne, I’m very curious, in Nigeria when these women come back and, and Nigeria being a very, conservative country in some ways in terms of its, uh, its, its values. How are these women accepted by the community?
Evon Benson-Idahosa: Well, I, I mean, I, I think I, I, I dispute the con conservative aspect cause there’s a lot of hypocrisy, um, in the, in the manner in which, um, Nigeria’s promoted as a religious country, I mean over 98% of the country, claims to, uh, agree, you know, to have some source of a religion.
Uh, but when it comes to the manner in which, that is actually. Implemented. there’s a lot of incongruity, there. And so I don’t know if we’re conservative, in that sense, you know, because the same person who, you know, um, ascribes to Islam for example, also believes in child marriage. The same person who was a Christian is also robbing, the church as a pastor, of the tides and the offerings that are being donated.
I guess my, my, my thoughts about that is that, a lot of the, what happens when the women come back is that there’s a lot of shame, right? They’re shrouded in a lot of shame and a lot of rejection, sometimes from family members, because the objective when these women, Voluntarily, and I put that in quotes, left the country was that, this person would be the redeemer, right?
They’re coming back to lift their family out of abject poverty. And so you see situations where, um, there’s a lot of disappointment, right? And, a lack of understanding until we actually sit down with the family members and help the woman unpack the reality of what she’s just experienced. there’s a, there’s a sense of.
This was not what I expected it to be, and, but we’ve been able to work. With community, right? By partnering with community leaders, by partnering with churches and imams and, and local, voices, to try to change that narrative so that people understand that these women should be coming back to a space of embrace, right to be, become, should be coming back, to support, uh, that they actually need and to ensure that they are not stepping back into the exact same conditions that rendered them vulnerable in the first place.
Jay Ruderman: So can you talk a little bit about how we as a society devalue women and, and how that by devaluating women, we allow this proliferation in human trafficking to continue.
Evon Benson-Idahosa: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s actually very simple, in, at least in my context and in, in. Sometimes even across the world, you see the subjugation, of women written into our laws. It’s in our customs, it’s in our religions, right? And it’s, it’s reflected. You know, for example, in one of our laws in, in Nigeria, a a man is, is allowed to, discipline his wife or and his children as long as it doesn’t, you know, result in, in gross injury.
Right? Who defines that? Right. And that’s a law. That’s a law. Like you’re allowed to do that. until just a few years ago, it was not illegal for you to rape your wife in Nigeria. other, other states in the country where child marriage is not frowned upon, right?
And so when you as a society embrace. Policies. and legislation that essentially devalue women and say that, for some reason, you know, you, you are not Adam, right? You’re, you’re, you, you, Adam only referred to, to the man as God, describes it in the book of Genesis, there is, there is a fragmentation.
That is not what God intended the Bible, and sorry, I don’t mean to get all religious, but the Bible does refer, or the Torah, you know, refers in the first, in the first five books, to this idea that, that God created man and woman and there was no distinction. Right. And breathe the same breath into them, gave them the same blessing, gave them the same, authority and dominion, but for whatever reason, we have.
Lost track of that. Right? And there’s this idea that women are second class, that we don’t necessarily have the same rights and ability and don’t, and should not have access to these platforms. And the interesting thing, at least for me, and you know, people find it funny that I, when I say I’m not a, I’m not a feminist.
Um, I do believe in equality, but I believe more strongly in equity because I think we all have different strengths and, and we, there’s balance that’s created when. Each person brings their strength to a space, right? And so, but the reality is that the rest of the world, mo the overwhelming majority of the world, still finds spa ways to create imbalance, primarily just because of, of a woman’s sex and, gender.
Jay Ruderman: Well, I want to thank you so much for everything that you’re doing and, and for the important work and for the fact that you are pursuing your calling, to the audience who’s listening and who want to get involved and wanna do something to try to help your cause, what can they do?
Evon Benson-Idahosa: If you do feel right that some of what I’ve been talking about, resonates with you, then there are lots of opportunities to be able to support us, right? And it’s not necessarily just financial, certainly. We need that financial support. But I want people to be connected in a way that brings life to themselves as well.
And what I mean by that is, is volunteering, right? Your time, your service, right? And so you may think, wow, this is, you know, an NGO that’s all the way in another country. How can I, as someone who’s in the US potentially help? We have volunteers from all over the world. The people who are great at graphic design, people who are great providing, Financial support, right? They’re accountants. I still count on my fingers, so I, I’m not, I’m definitely not able to, I’m not the one who’s gonna do the financial report, but I need help and support with that. there are people who can help us do research. They’re, you know, you’re, you may have a skillset that can help us, with social media.
There’s everybody contributing. Something will result in something being contributed to everybody. And so if you can take a moment to step back, right, with gratitude for what you currently have and all that you’ve been blessed with, and the privilege that you have. my thought is always that with great privilege comes great responsibility.
And once you’ve heard about the reality of what’s happening in the world, something within you should shift. and if it’s to support the work that we’re doing, then absolutely, please do that. But if, if it’s, if for whatever reason you can’t do that, then do the simple things by stepping into, love, right? Being generous with your time, right? Choosing kindness over being right. just doing the right thing, uh, because it’s the right thing to do.
Jay Ruderman: Such an important message and thank you for, ending with that message. If someone wants to reach out to your organization, what’s the best way for them to do so?
Evon Benson-Idahosa: Um, certainly please look us up on the website, which is Pathfinders, uh, with a s j I. For Justice Initiative Pathfinders, j i.org, you can certainly reach out to me on, on Instagram. Im at rebi daa, R E B I D A H O S A, or you can shoot us an email@example.com.
Jay Ruderman: Well, Yvonne, thank you so much for joining us on all About change. you’re doing the work of God and I am inspired by what you’ve done and I wish you to go from strength to strength. So thank you so much.
Evon Benson-Idahosa: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity to share my story.
Jay Ruderman: All About Change is a production of The Ruderman Family Foundation. This show is produced by Yochai Maital and Mijon Zulu.
As always – be sure to come back in two weeks for another inspiring story. I’ll be talking to Noah Tishby – Israeli actor writer and producer who has become a powerful voice for Israel and against Anti Semitism. In the meantime, you can go check out all of our previous content – live on our feed and linked on our website – Allaboutchangepodcast.com
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