RALEIGH When Kristen Murphy traveled to India this summer, she was no ordinary tourist.
Instead, Murphy had a clear mission: helping girls who had been victims of human trafficking or were at risk for exploitation.
Murphy, who graduated from Leesville Road High School in 2012, spent two weeks teaching English and art to groups of girls and learning about the legal system’s efforts to combat trafficking. And now that she’s gotten to know the girls, she’s committed to finding more ways to help.
“They get to you,” she said. “They get in your heart.”
Murphy, 19, made her first trip to India the summer after she graduated from high school. She was immediately captivated by the country’s food, customs, people and the way those elements shifted as she visited various regions of the country.
When Murphy headed off to Virginia Commonwealth University last year, where she is an art education and sociology major, she began researching India more deeply. Along the way, she learned about the problem of human trafficking in India and decided she had to help those at risk in the country.
Trafficking, which happens in countries around the world to millions of people, can involve sexual exploitation as well as forced labor or other types of enslavement.
With help from her mother, who traveled with her this summer, Murphy contacted a non-governmental organization called Made by Survivors to find out what she could do. The organization helps women who were victims of slavery and related human rights abuses to know their rights and have economic security through education and employment programs.
Made by Survivors helped Murphy find opportunities to volunteer with girls at shelters in Kolkata affiliated with the organization. She spent each day with the girls, learning about their lives and leading art projects and English classes.
Murphy said the girls were so similar to the girls she knows in the U.S. – eager to play games, wear jewelry or talk about boys. But she also was struck by their appreciation for things that Americans often take for granted, such as education or clean water. Some of the girls would walk for hours to reach an after-school program.
“It gave me a wake-up call,” she said. “Why do I ever complain about anything?”
Murphy also spent time in New Delhi observing the work of a human rights organization, Shakti Vahini, and especially its efforts to improve child welfare through the legal system.
During her time volunteering, Murphy said it was particularly helpful to talk with local workers to understand how poverty and inadequate access to education factor into trafficking, and the best ways to fight trafficking in the long term.
Not everything about the trip was easy. There were language barriers to contend with, and scenes and stories of life in extreme poverty that were difficult to see and hear.
Murphy also sometimes was harassed by men on the streets. But, she says, people also were quick to protect her, from the girls she met to taxi drivers.
Now that she’s back in the U.S., Murphy is continuing her work. She sponsors several girls in India, hopes to bring speakers to VCU to educate other students about trafficking, and has plans to host an art show that features portraits she has drawn of the girls she met. The proceeds will go to organizations that help them.
Murphy is also planning to return to India to volunteer again, with the hope of staying for at least several months. She wants the girls she met to know that she’s committed to their cause.
“I don’t know how anyone could not keep going back,” she said.