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The Scarlet & Black

Shafiq Khan shares his mission and his motivation

Shafiq R. Khan, founder and CEO of Empower People, is awarded the 2019 Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize during a ceremony Oct. 1, 2019. Khan and Empower People have been instrumental in the fight to eradicate bride trafficking in North India and in empowering the independence, agency, and leadership of girls and women who have been affected by this issue.
(Photo by Justin Hayworth/Grinnell College)


As this year’s winner of the Grinnell Prize, activist Shafiq Khan has been very busy. This has been especially true this week as he visited classes and spoke with students and faculty about his work. Khan is the founder of EMPOWER PEOPLE, which is primarily based in northern India and fights for the rights of women caught in bridal trafficking.

Despite his young age, Khan has been involved with social justice for many years. After leaving school in 8th grade, he joined a communist group and was moved by their values. “I was impressed by [their] ideas,” said Khan, “so I joined a communist party. … [There] I met a woman … and we worked with her and learned about different types of discrimination and exploitation that people were facing.”

However, Khan left the party shortly after, realizing that it wasn’t the type of work he wanted to do. “I decided [that] it was not for me,” said Khan, “because most of the time people were using pain and suffering for political purposes, and that was not my aim.” Instead, Khan wanted to help people. “I just wanted to assist someone,” he said. “I just wanted to make someone smile.”

After leaving the party, Khan worked briefly for a local political campaign, then moved to Delhi and started focusing more on his social outreach work. During this time, he helped lead multiple marches, many focused on female feticide. While leading one such march in Haryana, Khan met a woman from his hometown who had been trafficked. This woman asked for help—she wanted to escape. Without any resources, though, Khan did not feel that he was able to adequately assist her.

“We were in between steps in our plan,” said Khan. “We were marching, so [we] were not ready to help her. … After two or three months I realized I made a mistake. I had sinned. I realized that she was asking, and I was not helping, so I was full of guilt. So, I went to [Haryana]. But when I inquired about that girl, people told me that she had been sold after that. She was sold to some other village. And it was so shocking to me.”

Wracked with guilt, Khan proposed a plan to help other women caught in bride trafficking. His methods largely surround informed consent. The idea of informed consent gave Khan a way to intervene in crisis situations while also allowing victims to make active choices about their life. In 2006, he proposed this idea to another social worker, Kamla Bhasin. Bhasin was able to give Khan the funding he needed to make his project possible, and Khan was finally able to begin his work.

“There was a process,” said Khan of the birth of his organization. “At one point I was very much an egotistical social worker who used to think, ‘I am doing this for the people.’ Now it’s different. I am doing this for me because I do not like how things are. So, I am fighting for my ideas … I am going to serve [trafficked women] I am going to assist them and ask them what they want. This is how we started believing in the concept of consent [for] everything.”

According to Khan, the root of the trafficking crisis is a lack of consent. Specifically, informed consent. “The problem is everywhere. Informed consent is what I work for. When people would ask me about trafficking, I would say that trafficking is just a cause that we are working [to eliminate], but we can use this to approach each and every social issue. This is why we are going deep into trafficking, deep into property rights, deep into [the] roots of trafficking. This is not just about the fact that a man is buying, and a woman is being sold. This is about how we are oppressing each other. How people are using power dynamics to oppress each other. So, I am working on trafficking, but it is not only limited to trafficking.”

As a man, Khan acknowledges that he has privilege. However, he is using his position in order to help make positive change possible.

Khan’s first rescue happened right after moving to the Mewat district in India. “At that time in 2006 was [the] first rescue of a girl,” said Khan. “I was feeling like God. [I thought that] I [could] solve this for everyone. We went there and asked, ‘Do you want to be rescued?’ and she said yes. She told us that they were beating [her] and treating [her] badly. [She said she] wanted to leave, so we went to [the] police but the police wouldn’t help us. So, I decided to rescue her with a bike. … We biked away.”

Looking back, Khan criticizes himself for letting his ego become involved in his work. He says that over time he has become a humbler man. “I realized these women, these trafficked women, who are a victim of marriage, and a victim of culture, and a victim of patriarchy, deserve [help] more than anyone else. … And while working with them I was evolving. And I am becoming more and more humble and I [am] seeing different aspects of the problem.”

Despite the thousands of people he’s helped, Khan still struggles with immense guilt. He thinks about the woman who approached him in Haryana often. “We are still searching for that woman,” said Khan. “That is why I have guilt. I was not able to help her—no, we cannot make light of this—I decided to not help. The real word is decided. I decided to not help her because of my personal greed. … Failure inspires you. Most of the time when you make an attempt, you fail, and it inspires you. Maybe this inspires me. She asked me for help, and I was not ready to help.”

These days, however, Khan is more than ready to help. He also advises all people, not just self-described “activists” to help better their societies and the lives of others. To the students of Grinnell College, Khan says: “I suggest to them … to think beyond the law. Hundreds of years ago, the founder of this College, he was speaking against slavery when slavery was legal. He was speaking against a legal thing. People should be aware that law can be changed, and law should be evolved with the community. … We need to understand informed consent and we need to understand what [the] patriarchy means. We need to understand [that] equality matters. … If you don’t, you have no idea about your own world. You are not seeing [the] future; you are seeing [the] past. These days, most of us and our friends are living in the past. They always want someone to oppress—they always want someone to enslave—in a different way. Slavery and trafficking haven’t gone away. They’ve just changed.”

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    Gitesh KaushikOct 10, 2019 at 3:54 am

    The ngo empower people is doing great job in this area

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    Gitesh KaushikOct 10, 2019 at 3:52 am

    It’s really great I am also doing my PhD on bride trafficking and it is a continuas phenomenon in Indian society especially in northern India.