One-woman nonprofit tackles sex trafficking

OAKWOOD HILLS – Belle Staurowsky lives what she has always believed to be a privileged life.

The 48-year-old works as a home-based business development consultant, loves to study human spirituality, among other things, and holds a first-degree black belt in karate – an accomplishment that has allowed her to compete internationally.

Her more than 18 years of martial arts training combined with the desire to help the less fortunate left the Oakwood Hills resident searching for a way to give back.

That search ended in 2009 after she read a column in The New York Times about a young Pakistani girl who was abducted and raped, and later raped again by police when she thought she had been freed.

The then-16-year-old later sought prosecution against her kidnappers and the police, against all odds.

“This woman with absolutely nothing found something inside her that made her stand up for herself,” Staurowsky said. “I looked at my life and thought, ‘I have so much; if she can do that, certainly I can do things to support women like her.’ ”

A short time later the Green Tara Project was born – a one-woman nonprofit organization that teaches self-defense to girls who are victims or at risk for sex trafficking.

It is estimated that between 20 million and 30 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking, according to the CNN Freedom Project, which aims to end the form of modern-day slavery. That includes forced, bonded and child labor; sex trafficking of adults and children; debt bondage among migrant workers; involuntary domestic servitude; and child soldiers.

Human trafficking is second to the drug trade as the biggest illegal business in the nation, experts say.

More than half of forced labor victims are women and girls, with the overwhelming majority involving sex trafficking, according to the U.N.’s International Labor Organization. That includes 11.7 million people being subject to forced labor in Asia and the Pacific region.

Through the project, Staurowsky was able to partner with an organization in India that works with victims of sex trafficking.

Her martial arts experience provided the opportunity to train more than 250 girls in some of the poorest areas of the country on two separate occasions – in August 2010 and last April.

Although the training is physical in nature, it aims to help the women mentally.

“[The girls] go from not believing they can do anything to believing they can do a lot more,” said Staurowsky, who trains at Focus Martial Arts and Fitness in Lake in the Hills. “It’s that initial kind of opening of the eyes that allows them to connect with a larger pool of possibilities.”

She hopes to go back to India in December to implement ongoing training plans for the girls and women who range in age from 6 to 22. Staurowsky also is in talks with organizations in search of similar training.

Locally, about 4,400 prostitutes are active in Chicago in an average week, a 2007 study by the University of Chicago showed. Narrowing down just how many people are trafficked in Illinois and Chicago has proved difficult because of prostitution’s underground mentality, experts say.

Staurowsky has contacted several advocacy groups in the McHenry County area about implementing similar self-defense courses to the ones she teaches in Lake in the Hills and overseas.

“Girls often victimized once will be victimized again,” she said. “They don’t overcome and heal. This nonprofit is meant to bridge that gap and help other organizations that handle the heavy lifting that coincides with trafficking.”

For information about the Green Tara Project, which is named for a female Buddha representing enlightenment and action, visit www.greentaraproject.com.

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