An Interview with Sharon Cohn Wu from International Justice Mission (IJM)

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Sharon Cohn Wu has led teams that have brought rescue to thousands of children, women, and men around the world. Her direct efforts have resulted in the release of children from the Philippines, Thailand, India, Cote d’Ivoire, and Cambodia from modern day slavery.

Sharon currently serves as International Justice Mission’s (IJM) Senior Vice President of Justice System Transformation, and she provides broad principles and best practices to governments working alongside IJM. IJM is the world’s largest international anti-slavery organization working in 17 communities across the developing world to combat slavery, trafficking, and other forms of violence against the poor by rescuing and restoring victims, holding perpetrators accountable, and transforming broken public justice systems.

Through resources, training, and accountability, together IJM and the local government is able to improve and strengthen the local justice system in that country. Under Sharon’s leadership, the IJM team rigorously monitors and evaluates their work in order to design the most effective programs and then apply their learnings in other countries. The result is that instead of violence against the poor being commonplace, the justice system works to protect all of its citizens.

The first time Sharon saw the denial and abuse of those in the developing world, was as a lawyer working on pro bono asylum cases. It was then that she first got excited about using the power of law to protect. When she first heard about IJM’s mission, she was inspired by the vision of the organization and the founder, Gary Haugen’s, leadership.

Shortly after beginning work with IJM, Sharon was sent to countries where IJM was working with the local governments to conduct rescue operations, and she remembers when it was all about rescuing the one child, girl, and family.

It was blaring clear to me what the point is. It would be indisputable, you would not want slavery and abuse to happen to anybody,” said Sharon.

After 16 years with IJM, Sharon has been able to see the transformation in the justice systems where IJM works, specifically in Cambodia. It was estimated that the prevalence of minors being sexually exploited in Phnom Penh was as high as 15-30%. After 15 years of building trusting relationships with the Cambodian government and training those in the criminal justice system, it was found that minors 15 years and younger made up just 0.1%.

This evidence-based model of justice system change is an example that other struggling nations can learn from,” Sharon said.

Cambodia’s progression is an example that shows justice for the poor is possible. Children can be rescued and restored, perpetrators can be apprehended and punished, and police can be trained effectively.

In the field, Sharon saw the face of victims and noticed that the people exploiting them are not as undefeatable as they seemed to be. Human trafficking is an intentional crime, where great effort is taken for the purpose of gaining a tremendous amount of personal profit. She found that when letting other perpetrators and traffickers know intentional crimes of exploitation will not be committed with impunity, behaviors will change.

No matter how large IJM got, the thought is that the local government would be able to rescue people and work effectively so that they wouldn’t be abused in the first place,” said Sharon.

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"Human trafficking is an intentional crime, where great effort is taken for the purpose of gaining a tremendous amount of personal profit. She found that when letting other perpetrators and traffickers know intentional crimes of exploitation will not be committed with impunity, behaviors will change."

Sharon’s longevity at IJM has allowed her to see a lot of love and compassion for those still in slavery. If there are more people to protect than there are to exploit, then slavery will end. Sharon loves to see advocates bring innovative and fun ways to fight human trafficking in every sector of their lives, specifically with Dressember.

There is no limit to creativity for ways to join the fight to end modern-day slavery. The vision of Dressember is a tribute to that creativity and innovation that everybody has something to bring.”

IJM was Dressember’s first partner organization and Dressember has been able to donate $2,083,000 to IJM. Sharon has been inspired by the contribution Dressember has made to provide resources for IJM that were not present before. Sharon loves supporting those who participate in Dressember and is thankful for advocates who take the time to do whatever they can, wherever they can, leading to the rescue of more people.

Working so close to human trafficking has brought its challenges. Sharon explains, there’s no shortage of need and it’s important to be engaged in the long run.

“As you consider how to work well in the fight for a long time, you have to look at it a bit like athletes look at training for a run.”

This includes personal disciplines, preparation, fighting really hard, resting, re-engaging, and fighting again. Sharon’s advice for everyone wanting to know more is to become a student - understand what it’s like for the survivor, read, listen well, and learn from the experiences of others.

We’re in this together at Dressember. Through partnerships with organizations like IJM and through the support of one another as advocates, together we can make a difference. For more information on IJM and the work they do, follow the link below:

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About the Author

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Kaitlyn Wanta is about to graduate college and face the real world. After learning how to stay warm in a dress during Wisconsin's winter, she is excited to hear and share the stories of fellow Dressember advocates. Her bucket list includes riding in a hot air balloon, finishing a cookbook by making all the recipes, and catching a fish larger than herself.