My Choices Foundation is a women’s rights organization founded by Elca Grobler with an aim to empower women to make correct choices and lead violence-free lives. Operation Red Alert, their flagship program, has already made a mark in 1,600 villages in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, through its Safe Village Program initiative. This year, Operation Red Alert is on its way to cover another 1,200 villages in these five states, apart from expanding to other states like Jharkhand, Bihar, and Rajasthan.
By Kavitha Srinivasa
It is not every day that one comes across a South African woman working in the Indian NGO space. If that seems odd, it is even more difficult to comprehend the fact that a top-notch professional from Australia’s banking-finance world has zeroed in on India to add a new chapter to the country’s NGO community. This, in a nutshell, is Elca Grobler, a corporate professional who was working in Sydney, Australia, but decided to do something for women who are victims of domestic violence.
She saw that there were many underprivileged women suffering in silence and took it on herself to give them a voice as she had always felt strongly about the apathy faced by women from economically backward sections of society.
The cause has become her calling — willingly she shed her avatar from that of a banking-finance expert — to champion for women’s causes in India. Elca and her husband Roger Grobler took a leap of faith and moved to India with their three young children.
As her husband decided to work in the IT space, Hyderabad and not Bangalore became their chosen destination. Strangely at that time, she just knew one family in Hyderabad, but today she’s very much at home in the city. She has risen to the occasion by founding My Choices Foundation, a women’s protection organization. In fact, she is quite a public figure speaking at various platforms about her life’s calling - women’s safety. We at SAH caught up with Grobler, who took us through her endearing journey.
The heartfelt story of women’s agony proved to be the starting point. That’s how My Choices began as an NGO that provides free, grassroots services to victims of domestic violence and their families. The beginning was made in 2012 in Hyderabad.
In its effort to empower such women, the NGO has taken a collective and inclusive approach, as it prepares and counsels grassroots women, aptly called Peacemakers, to become agents of change within their communities. Besides that, the NGO has set out on a mission to eliminate sex trafficking in India by 2025. Having got her priorities right, Grobler initiated Operation Red Alert in early 2014, to prevent trafficking of young girls. By October 2014, Operation PeaceMaker and Operation Red Alert officially became the two operations of My Choices Foundation. While the seriousness of purpose remained intact, the two entities changed logos and names becoming Operation PeaceMaker and Operation Red Alert of My Choices Foundation. “Our work towards the prevention of sex trafficking began in the states of West Bengal and Telangana as these are high-risk areas. We then expanded to Karnataka and recently we began operations in Maharashtra as well. As per a UNICEF Report, about 200,000 Indian girls are tricked into slavery each year, many by their parents who don't know better. Girls as young as six years of age are trafficked for sexual exploitation,” said Grobler.
The organization equips and empowers NGOs to protect girls from less privileged homes so that they are not lured into the sex trade. This happens through various activities and awareness campaigns. “As we have the vision to end large-scale sex trafficking in India by 2025, we have begun to use technology for ensuring scale and accuracy,” she said, sharing her dream.
No doubt there are NGOs working towards women’s safety but My Choices Foundation is probably an early proponent of big data analytics. It’s no surprise that Grobler had the forethought and wherewithal to leverage technology because she is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) and Management Graduate (MBA) and has worked in global organizations in Sydney.
Considering Grobler once worked in Sydney, it didn’t take her long to join hands with Quantium, an Australian analytics company to create the required tech-based ecosystem for tracking high-risk hotspots. Besides, in India, Quantium has a presence in Hyderabad and the company has collaborated with My Choices Foundation under its corporate social responsibility (CSR) wing. “The 2011 Census has details about seven lakh villages. We identified key metrics from the census data that are most indicative of Sex/Human trafficking and developed a priority score for each village that relatively scores each village by its susceptibility to trafficking,” said N. M. Reddy Arimanda, Senior Engineer, Quantium. Metrics about female population, literacy, and employment levels were subject to algorithms. Besides the risk metrics, a complete village profile can also be obtained which uses the village amenities data of 2011. Along with that, the Quantium team collected information from government education data about the ratio of boys and girls in schools along with dropout rates. Other highlights include information related to population and distance taken to reach the nearest police station.
Once this substantial information gave an overview of the high-risk villages, the next thing was to focus on tech tools. The tool was entirely built on R-shiny with OpenStreetMaps for the visualization. This tool is now being gradually migrated to the Sisense BI tool, sought after for its efficiency and friendly User Interfaces.
“A small community of four-five users was selected for the piloting phase. Subsequently, the first version was released within 6 months and we have been improving the application over a year,” said Karthik Kumar J, Associate Engineer, Quantium.
Of course, there have been challenges, and this has been mostly to do with formats of datasets. “The datasets from different state government websites, NGO websites had a different format for presenting the information. So consolidating and framing the data into one piece has been a challenge,” explained Arimanda and Kumar.
There were other aspects that called for attention. “In the case of map visualization, we had to scrap the Geo-Location data (Latitude and Longitude) from the Internet for seven lakh villages, thousands of police stations and thousands of NGOs, this was another major challenge,” added Kumar.
After this was tackled, the next step was to develop a mobile app. The app captures information regarding the Safe Village Program conducted by the Implementing Partners of My Choices and for raising alerts about trafficking. The mobile application is being developed using Xamarin technologies.
“The Microsoft Azure servers are used to host the Web Application Programming Interface (APIs) to collect the data submitted through the forms in the Mobile application. This data is stored in the Microsoft SQL Server, which is also hosted in Microsoft Azure,” said Kumar and added, “The test version of the mobile application was developed within a month and was released in February 2018. It was tested by 10 member team from both My Choices and Quantium. We went into production mode in the first week of March 2018.”
The second phase of this app is being developed with more forms related to the Safe Village Program. This time the thrust is on giving notifications for the Implementing Partner NGOs.
It’s a known fact that listening to troubled people is so important for their healing. So initial interactions with the family and its members helped women feel empowered to share with Grobler their situation. Having come to terms with it, the crusader set up Operation Red Alert (ORA) in 2014 to end sex trafficking and prevent girls from entering the trade. It was also felt that Safe Village Programs (SVPs) will work out only if the entire family is made responsible for the girl child. The family is put on guard and is made aware of the pros and cons to such an extent that fathers, mothers, young girls and young men are stakeholders in trafficking prevention. To that affect, the organization has developed specific flyers for stakeholders and a comic book that places all of them at the center of the action. In addition to English, the comic books are now available in six Indian languages viz. Hindi, Telugu, Marathi, Bengali, Kannada, and Urdu.
ORA follows a three-pillar approach in combating trafficking. “Our first pillar is the grassroots education and awareness initiative called the Safe Village Program (SVP), well supported by the second pillar, the National Helpline to address sex trafficking; and our final one is a national mass media campaign to educate the general Indian public about sex trafficking,” she added.
The National Helpline is the first of its kind in India and serves as a link between the NGO and My Choices Foundation. We currently provide support in the regional languages in which we operate — Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali, and Marathi. The business model has been designed to serve a social purpose. The fact that the country is home to 95 million mobile phones is an opportunity which the Foundation has leveraged.
The Helpline has received 17,000 calls from various people including parents and school teachers. While many callers called in to acknowledge the program and our efforts, over 83 cases related to child marriage, missing cases, and sexual abuse have been handled.
The Helpline forms the backbone of SVP, which became operational in October 2015. Since then, awareness and prevention measures have been implemented in over 1,633 villages in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal and Karnataka through SVP.
In simple terms, the idea of making the village safe for children is put into the minds of its people through local field agents and the Safe Village toolkit comprising comic books. The local field agents who are stakeholders in the operation undergo an intensive three-day training whereby they are equipped to teach rural communities how to keep girls safe from trafficking.
Flyers are an integral part of the Safe Village Toolkit. Each flyer has been developed with specific, relevant messaging addressing the stakeholder's needs. A character or avatar is used for each stakeholder that has both familiar, relatable qualities as well as aspirational or inspirational qualities. The flyers foster a connection to the characters while inspiring real-life change through the character creeds/educational content.
The message goes across to schools children as well, as volunteers of the organization come forward to enact skits to convey the message of safety and protection. It’s an eye-opener for many of them. Lakshman Chandra Ghosh, the Headmaster at Nimichi Ramnarayan Vidyalaya School in West Bengal attended the event along with another teacher and they found the event very insightful. “The School is a perfect venue for the event, as it has adolescent children. They learn and get alerted against any ill-practices happening in the society through this kind of an event,” they felt.
Coming to the third pillar, the Foundation has come up with the idea of running mass media campaigns. The fact that the organization has tapped on social media and campaigns for visibility is understandable as it has won the Social Media for Empowerment award given by the Digital Empowerment Foundation in 2016.
The most visible campaign so far is the #Respect2Protect campaign picked up by national television channels, besides giving rise to conversations on Twitter and Facebook. Indian cricketers M.S. Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu and Ravi Shastri have been joined by AB de Villiers, South Africa’s cricket captain, as they have all made a pledge to respect women. #Respect2Protect is a pledge to respect the dreams, rights, choices and safety of women and girl. The initial phase of #Respect2Protect Campaign received viral support with 700+ thousand video views, 64+ million hashtag impressions, over 1,000 original social media posts, YouTube tribute videos and on the ground action from volunteers.
Another purposeful campaign is the 2018 Good Father Campaign, which is the first Operation Red Alert (ORA) Campaign. “The Good Father campaign is based on research by Operation Red Alert and commissioned by a first-of-its-kind research paper by the Behavioral Architects TM of Final Mile, Mumbai. The campaign will harness the power of affirming the good in men, including them as champions of the cause, and educating them on their potential to keep their girls and their country safe. It will be the first campaign of its kind in India, and aims to get the country rallied behind the cause and to commit to being on Red Alert,” said Grobler.
In the first phase of the Good Father Campaign, My Choices Foundation has released the world’s first virtual reality (VR) documentary on sex trafficking called Notes To My Father. The campaign came up because it was felt essential to address the Father to ensure that decisions are made in favour of the girls’ safety and long term wellbeing. Moreover, the father is the primary decision maker in Indian households, particularly in rural areas and can make choices about investment into his daughter’s future.
“We are proud of the impact our programs are creating in the society,” said Sudha Upadhyayula, Head of Operations, My Choices Foundation and added, “Be it a campaign or other activities, our programs are making the right connect, by impacting the father.” Take the case of Sakshi, a VIII grade student from Government school in a village in Maharashtra, who had learnt about sex trafficking and child marriage during an Operation Red Alert Safe Village Program in school. To her surprise, she learnt that it’s illegal for parents to marry off their daughters before she turns 18. When she took home the comic book and flyers, her father promised not to marry her off before age 18. “He also said I can be a strong guardian girl,” she affirmed. Incidentally, all ORA activities are for girl students from Standard six to 12.
The Foundation partners with NGOs which are referred to as implementing partners, in all 75 such strategic partnerships have been forged in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Karnataka. Until the end of February 2018, 1,633 villages have been covered by SVPs in these states. Operation Red Alert intends to cover 1,200 more villages in these five states as well as other villages in Jharkhand, Bihar and Rajasthan this year.
A local representative from the NGO becomes the link between the Foundation and the village community in all the states where the Foundation operates. “Often parents don’t know how the child went missing. They are ignorant and helpless, and don’t know what needs to be done to trace the child. So, they spend time with villagers and explain to them about what happens when a girl is trafficked, and their role in nurturing and protecting the girl child,” highlighted Grobler. This is where the Helpline becomes a platform for people to reach out to us for help, while SVP is a means to generate awareness among the people and learn about ways to prevent trafficking.
Apart from these efforts, the tech-savvy Foundation has a pulse on the people of various parts of the country by going online. For instance, on November 1, 2017, the organization received a request through its webpage from a person in Kerala. He said that his 24-year-old neighbour was being subject to commercial sexual abuse by her own mother. Against her will, she was forced to satisfy clients at home. “Though we had no operations in that state, through our strategic partners, we reached out to the Kerala State Women’s Commission, who verified the credentials of the complainant and found that it was a genuine complaint. Once a written complaint was lodged by us, a special team immediately sprung into action and helped initiate rescue of the girl from the abusive environment,” reasoned Upadhyayula.
Given these credentials, it’s no surprise that the organization has attracted a sizeable number of corporate donors and sponsors. Operation PeaceMaker and Operation Red Alert, two dimensions of My Choices Foundation, require an annual expenditure of AU$600,000 (Australian Dollar). While both segments are open to volunteering work, corporate donors and sponsorship have supported the budgetary allocation chalked out by Grobler and her team.
She may have taken to the profession like a fish to water but Grobler comes from a different background. This simple yet unconventional person has struck a chord with villagers in many parts of the country. Though she speaks very little Hindi, she doesn’t hesitate to step into an auto rickshaw and enjoys desi food. She also managed to reach out to people in non Hindi speaking regions through strategic alliances.
Grobler has seen the best of the corporate world and experienced life in Australia, and now the South African-born feels at home in India except that she misses rock climbing and mountain biking. Her work time is divided between Operation PeaceMaker and Operation Red Alert, a two-day schedule spent on each dimension of the Foundation. Fridays, by her admission, is a day she prefers to work from home. Come weekends, Grobler spends time with her family, loves to play the piano and also goes to Church.
In 2017 Grobler was awarded the ‘50 Most Impactful Social Innovators Globally’ Award and AGSM Alumni Award for Social Impact and Public Policy for her work in India.
Many of us do get affected when we see women suffer in silence. But Grobler actually went that extra mile to bring a visible change in the lives of such women. It was a life-altering decision to move to India and it seems to be the right decision.
Here’s wishing her the very best.