'I Rescue Kids from Human Traffickers'

Freedom has always been a theme in my life, often to the great frustration of my parents. I wanted to make my own decisions, my own mistakes. From a young age, I campaigned for prisoners by collecting money and writing letters for Amnesty International. I always felt sick on 4 May, the day of remembrance in the Netherlands, because I couldn't imagine how people in the Second World War were rounded up, taken to camps and gassed. I believed and still believe that no one has the right to take away anyone's freedom, let alone kill or exploit them.

At the same time, I spent years searching for my real goal in life. I did a four-year degree at Haarlem Business School, because I wanted to get rich, and then pursued a career in sales and marketing. But that still didn't feel like the real thing. At 30, I woke up one morning and felt that I'd seen the light. I would put my sales skills to use for a better world. That same day, I quit my job and handed in my car. Three months later, I was working for one of the world's largest development organizations, and a year later I was working in Asia. Making the world a little better for children in China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia.

And then I turned 35. I read an article about children who were imprisoned in cages in brothels. Nine-year-old girls, snatched away from their parents. The information made me physically sick, but it also made me want to fight. This had to be stopped. Why wasn't anyone doing anything about it? Then I realized that I could do something. As Nelson Mandela's famous saying goes, Be the change you want to see in the world. That day I came up with the idea for Free a Girl. I'd found my goal in life. I've been able to draw on my commercial experience, because you run a charity like you'd run a business: with passion. A huge amount of passion.

Dangerous undercover work

Free a Girl fights the sexual exploitation of children (especially girls) by rescuing them from illegal brothels. Our rescue teams go undercover in red light districts in countries such as India, Thailand and Nepal, searching for minor girls. They pretend to be clients; it's extremely dangerous work.

Once they've collected enough evidence, they raid the premises jointly with the police. These days, exploiters and clients are increasing going online. Girls are offered via special platforms, but also via Facebook. We're currently training our teams in online research methods, as this knowledge is lacking in many countries.

After a victim has been recused, we offer her care and emergency assistance. We also provide legal aid. We think it's essential that the perpetrators are convicted. But we also feel it's profound important that the girls are given every opportunity and support to transform their sorrow and pain into strength and, if they so desire, to get a job that allows them to be part of the solution—including as criminal lawyers and legal professionals joining the fight against the exploitation of other girls.

Perhaps the story that exemplifies this best is that of Sinaj Khatun. She was lured by a promise of a well-paid government job, and invested all of her savings in preparing for it. But when she showed up for her interview, she was brutally raped, kidnapped to Behrampore in West Bengal, and passed between different men for an entire month—at one point, even being compelled to "marry" one of them. She was finally released when she threatened to approach police. As she had no money to hire a lawyer, she decided to become one herself, with help from our organisation. She is now in the final stage of her legal degree, and is hoping to put her attackers behind bars—and then become a judge.

But there are so many others, and each story can be so heartbreaking. I remember meeting with a mother, whose daughter had been kidnapped on her way to school at the age of sixteen. She managed to phone her mother from a brothel in India, crying for help. The pain the mother had, I can actually feel it right now. It still gives me goosebumps.Her pain was harrowing.

The good news is that we found her daughter, eight months later. That gives me such satisfaction.

Today, twelve years after our first operation, we've rescued nearly 5,000 girls. We work in nine countries and have our own offices in the Netherlands, the United States and India. We aren't a huge organisation in terms of personnel—we're just 10 people—but we work as much as we can with local partner organizations, because they understand the local cultures best.

I believe that good will always triumph over evil. I am incredibly grateful for the increasing focus on child prostitution, one of the darkest and most intractable problems in the world. It's not a topic that we like to talk about, but we have to. I believe that the solution does not lie in legislation alone. That's there already. I believe that we need to give victims more support. It is not just up to them; it's essential to break the taboo, create a safe environment and report the crimes.

Evelien Hölsken is the CEO of Free A Girl, an international organization fighting child sexual exploitation and human trafficking.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.