Shafiq Khan

EMPOWER PEOPLE: Grinnell Prize Winner Shafiq Khan

Shafiq Khan at Saints Rest Coffee House
2019 Grinnell Prize Winner Shafiq Khan

It is easy to build a nation. It is far more difficult to build a society and that is what I am doing.

Shafiq Khan, founder and CEO of EMPOWER PEOPLE

Season 2 Episode 2

The Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize began in 2011, to extend the College’s educational mission beyond the campus and alumni community to individuals anywhere who believe innovative social justice programs create a better world. The Prize entails $100,000 split evenly between the winner and their organization. 

In this episode, we talk with Shafiq Khan, founder and CEO of EMPOWER PEOPLE and 2019 winner of the  Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize, discusses how he became involved in the fight against bride trafficking, his vision for the organization, what he has learned from working with survivors and other feminist mentors, and the significance of the Grinnell Prize to their mission. 

EMPOWER PEOPLE works “to develop community support and solidarity among trafficked brides living with their ‘husbands’ and children in destination.” By organizing village communes managed and led by survivors, EMPOWER PEOPLE works to address the root causes of bride trafficking. The communes, in addition to facilitating regular community conversations, provide career development training for the women where they come together and build solidarity with other women.

oil painting of wedding cloth in a knot around a chain
Oil painting, 10.5 x 8 inches, by Tilly Woodward, inspired by Shafiq Khan and EMPOWER PEOPLE.

Khan’s strategy and vision are constantly evolving based on what he learns from his work and talking to people, especially survivors, whom he sees as the real revolutionaries and leaders of the organization. As Khan’s understanding of bride trafficking evolves, so, too, does the organization’s approach to uprooting the conditions that enable bride trafficking to proliferate. 

Because of its unique approach among anti-trafficking organizations, EMPOWER PEOPLE is a perfect match for the Grinnell Prize. Unlike most grant money, the Grinnell Prize does not stipulate how the winner and organization can use the prize money. Khan has received very little financial support in the form of grants because many grant programs seek to control the terms of the organization’s work. Because EMPOWER PEOPLE’s work is dictated by the survivor leaders and their evolving vision, adhering to the requirements of grant money is often impossible. 

Survivor leaders will decide how the organization’s prize money is utilized, but Khan foresees equipment purchases for the organization, including a car to use for rescue operations. Currently, they often use rental cars, which can be unreliable. As for Khan’s half of the prize, he plans to create a company that would market goods produced by survivors.

As a change-maker, Khan sees his role as working beyond the scope of the law, making creative partnerships and collaborating with stakeholders, including traffickers themselves. As Khan has observed, bride trafficking victimizes the trafficked women, but also disrupts the communities of destination. Thus, he works with destination communities to allow them to see how working to end bride trafficking is in their best interest. Khan works in collaboration with communities to understand the specific conditions that enable bride trafficking, and through conversations, he uses religion, folk stories, and music to connect with people with his vision for equality and liberation.

Even though Khan confesses he isn’t a big fan of numbers, his organization’s achievements are impressive. To date, EMPOWER PEOPLE has rescued and rehabilitated approximately 4,250 trafficked women and girls, intervened in 88 cases of honor killings, and taken up 27,500 cases of domestic violence. Through the support of EMPOWER PEOPLE, approximately 3,200 girls are continuing their education, and 12,650 children of trafficked women are attending school in 85 villages across 10 Indian states. Additionally, more than 400 women survivors have obtained land in their destination communities, an essential step in establishing their sovereignty and preventing re-trafficking.

Shafiq Khan addresses a crowd at a march in India
Shafiq Khan addresses a crowd at a recent march.

Khan has been on campus all week, his first time outside of India, and he’s been soaking up all Grinnell has to offer and interacting with the College community, sharing his unique insights. There have been a number of events for Prize week, but Khan has also visited classes and spent countless hours sharing meaningful conversations. 

Cynthia Hansen, the chair of the Grinnell Prize selection committee, remarked on the value of Khan’s visit to Grinnell, “Our hope in presenting the Prize to Shafiq and EMPOWER PEOPLE is that he will continue this innovative work, advocating for social justice for these women and their communities. I think we are already seeing how coming to Grinnell has helped hone his message and the focus of his work, and I look forward to seeing where Shafiq takes this work in the future.”

As past winners of the award have done, Khan will look to build on his visit to Grinnell and cement his connection with the College through collaborations with students, faculty, staff, and other people he met throughout the week. Reflecting on what the Grinnell Prize means to him and his organization, Khan says, “When your recognition comes from some academic institution, you know you are worthy and it makes you feel like, yes, you were doing something which needed to be done. So, this recognition is a kind of validation for us as an organization and as a person. And it will encourage me to find a new way with a new idea and work continuously with these things.”

Follow Shafiq on Twitter @shafiqrkhanInstagram @shafiqrkhan, and Facebook, and follow along with the work of EMPOWER PEOPLE on Twitter @empowerpeoplein.

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