Getting MADD

“It’s great that you are helping children recover after they have been trafficked. But what will you do to keep it from happening in the first place?”  

I was having lunch this week with a supporter who is very passionate to address the huge issue of child trafficking in India, and we had just started discussing World Vision’s strategy for a project to address this issue.

I’m actually thrilled when someone asks this question, moving the focus “upstream” from the high-profile programs that provide recovery, healing and restoration for girls sold into sex slavery and children forced into bonded servitude. Those are great efforts, but tremendous damage has already been done, and the per-person cost is very high, as well; truly a penny toward prevention is worth a dollar of cure.

Yet it’s easy for most people to envision and be touched by the stories and hidden-face photos of children in these recovery programs. Donors can give toward a halfway home, they can visit the facility, maybe even have it named for them with some organizations. This is vital work, and it is part of any holistic solution, but it’s the part you want to drive out of existence by shutting off the valve that produces such damage to children in the first place.

But the stuff of prevention, of community empowerment, of “systems strengthening”; ahh, that’s the critical piece, yet it sounds so theoretical and process-oriented. So it can be very hard to raise the funds to do the very things that need most to be done. 

So instead, I answered his good question by showing him some photos from my recent trip to Uganda, where we visited a child protection project to fight “child sacrifice”, that hideous witch-doctor practice of using the blood and vital organs of young children for good luck, incantations and healings. [See my earlier meditation for more on this.]

Because of our prevention project there, the number of children killed has dropped by an astounding 84% in less than two years.  What catalyzed this change? An intolerant and empowered populace!

Almost everyone believed that child sacrifice was a terrible tragedy, and they had prayed fervently that their own children would never be snatched.  But they also felt there was nothing they could really do about it—the problem was embedded in their society, it was bigger than them.

How this changed is a story that has direct parallels to our own communities, in our own lifetimes.  Remember when there was no such thing as a “Designated Driver?” When you first heard the term and thought, “Oh, how nice… and completely unrealistic!” Yet today, having a Designated Driver is almost a given with many young people, and the idea of taking your turn by not drinking for an evening for the safety of your friends is something not only accepted, but expected.  It’s an amazing social change in one generation!

What changed? A group of mothers got mad at the wasted deaths of young people from drunk driving and formed MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers). Over time, their tireless efforts completely changed the landscape. Prior to MADD, we all shook our heads and shrugged our shoulders at the tragedy of drunk driving deaths… and assumed there was almost nothing we could personally do about it.  MADD gave us the will, and the tools.

My first day home from Uganda, my phone vibrated with an AMBER Alert text message.  A child had been abducted within 100 miles, and I now was being made personally responsible to be on the watch for a black sedan with a specific license number. What?! How did that happen? I didn’t ask for these texts (or did I?). Either way, as of 2013, every U.S. warning-enabled phone is automatically enrolled!

Twenty years ago this was impossible, not only technologically, but societally. We would all read about abductions in the newspaper the next day or even later; we’d frown, maybe pray for the child and her parents; and we would hope the authorities (those people we pay to do all the good things we wish we could do ourselves) could find the child before it was too late. 

Once again, tragedy was the mother of invention and intolerance. The family and community of Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1996, decided that more could be done if everyone, not just the authorities, were quickly informed and deputized in the search for a missing child in the critical first hours, which could be the difference between life and death.

World Vision has implemented an urban AMBER Alert program in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and in Uganda we now have this successful rural version, complete with drums, cellphones, megaphones, and motorcycle taxi drivers who block the roads.  As a result of quick action by everyone in those first few hours, abductors get scared and often run away before the child is harmed.  

I’m preparing to lead a panel discussion on scalable innovation within large humanitarian organizations next month in San Francisco, and a colleague created a flier.  On the front, she included a photo of a loving mother and son. But they were dressed nicely, smiling, with him sitting peacefully on his mother’s lap, and the photo didn’t “speak” to me.  I asked Perri why she used it. 

“That little boy was saved from child sacrifice as part of the Innovation Fund project in Uganda,” she emailed back. “His name is Junior. They were able to use drums and megaphones to sound the alarm after Junior was taken to be sacrificed.” Perri sent me the story, which explained the photo completely: “Junior’s mother was ecstatic when she was reunited with her son.  ‘It was the happiest moment of my life,’ she says.”

There is a value in getting mad, and there’s a type of intolerance that can lead to great good. In every society, there are issues which we too once felt were completely beyond our control.  It turns out, we often simply need the right tools. And equipped with those tools, we find the courage to get MADD.

Or, as in the case of my lunch companion: After he reviewed the India child protection project plan, he looked up and said with quiet determination, “Let’s get this done.”

September 2015

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