While sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic has helped many stay safe, Sharmila Wijeyakumar ’19 MS wants people to know that the pandemic has led to an unprecedented increase in human trafficking.
“We normally only see this spike in need during a major convention or during big sporting events, but even those numbers have doubled during COVID-19,” says Wijeyakumar, who is the chief operations officer at Rahab’s Daughters, a nonprofit she founded to rescue, rehabilitate and reintegrate survivors of human trafficking in Illinois.
The human trafficking industry — now valued at an estimated $38 billion — is one of the most profitable criminal enterprises in the world. While traffickers often take advantage of emergencies like natural disasters or times of political unrest to target victims, Wijeyakumar says that during the COVID-19 pandemic, traffickers have focused their attention online, where it can be hard to track their widespread use of social media for recruitment.
“Online recruitment can be very hard to pinpoint, and it’s a much bigger problem than we could have imagined,” says Wijeyakumar. “All the organizations like ours across the country are facing the same crisis.”
Wijeyakumar, who is a survivor of human trafficking herself, founded Rahab’s Daughters to fill a dire need she saw for rescue and rehabilitation services in Illinois. In addition to finding and providing shelter and basic needs, Rahab’s Daughters connects survivors to educational and training opportunities.
Prevention efforts are also part of the organization’s mission, with recent efforts including webinars that address cyberbullying and other online targeting methods.
“When I moved to Chicago in 2013, I knew I wanted to help, but it was really hard to find a place to volunteer,” says Wijeyakumar. “In retrospect, that shortage of services allowed me to create, from scratch, the program that I knew was needed. Still, we need all the help we can get.”
To get that help during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wijeyakumar reached out to her cohort of classmates from the Master of Science in Communication program at Northwestern. Many members of the cohort, some of whom serve on boards for the organization year-round, stepped in to help with food and clothing donations, grant writing and social media, all of which has allowed Wijeyakumar to focus on rescues.
“My Northwestern cohort really is an extension of my family,” says Wijeyakumar, whose husband and daughter, currently a student in the Master of Science in Communication program, are already closely involved with Rahab’s Daughters.
When Wijeyakumar isn’t working on Rahab’s Daughters, she is a vice president at Veriday, a technology company with a focus on digital marketing solutions. She credits her degree from Northwestern with providing the coursework — including classes in nonprofit marketing and crisis communications — and skills she can apply to both jobs.
“Northwestern gave me this great foundation from which to create my vision for work and service,” says Wijeyakumar. “From the network of professors, mentors and peers, I feel confident and supported in pursuing what I believe to be my purpose in this world.”