The terrified screams of a traumatised sex-trafficked teenager, witnessed by an Australian billionaire, have led to a history-making alliance between three of the world’s major religions to end slavery. At the Vatican recently West Australian iron ore magnate Andrew Forrest launched the Global Freedom Network – a new organisation led by the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar in Egypt.  The network aims to free the world’s estimated 30 million slaves, and has set itself specific, ambitious targets to achieve this.

It has taken almost a year of negotiation to pull together. Its roots, Forrest said, lie in an experience that deeply shook him, and changed both his business practice and his life. ”This isn’t something I’ve tripped over, it’s something I got dragged into,” he said. Five years ago his daughter Grace, aged 15, volunteered at an orphanage in Nepal – but then found out that all the children she had been looking after had been ”groomed” for sex work. ”It was horrible for Grace,” Forrest said. He set up a team to find out what happened: they had been trafficked through India into the Middle East. Forrest travelled to Asia and met some of the victims.

”There was one kid there (from Kathmandu) who could only say she had been sent to a land where the men wore long dresses,” he said. Her ordeal began when she was only nine, and three years later she was put on a plane back to India. ”She hadn’t spoken for several months. She gave her story and from that point on would only rock on her bed and whimper. ”When I walked through the little columns of beds to this kid, she was wailing at the back and just rocking from side to side. The screams she let out when she saw an approaching male, and the horror and revulsion and the terror on her little face will be stuck with my wife Nicola and I forever.”

Forrest started researching the slave industry. He commanded a review of all his supply chains at Fortescue and required affidavits of all suppliers that they had reviewed their own supply chains, and to his disgust found that ”3 or 4 had trouble signing that affidavit”.  It led him to resign as chief executive of Fortescue, taking a position as non-executive director, and now he spends most of his time on philanthropic causes. ”It all spins off that experience really – to live a useful life you have got to help others.” He started building Walk Free Foundation which was launched in 2012. Last year it published a Global Slavery Index, identifying the countries where the problem is most acute.

Forrest is also pushing corporations to clean their supply chains. ”You’re up against defensive chief executive behaviour,” he said. At a lunch of executives of major corporations chaired by Bill Clinton last year Forrest forced most of them to admit they had slavery in their supply chains. ”Then we had a really constructive conversation,” Forrest said, after they realised their culpability and the risk to their public image. But there was a gap that frustrated him. ”Wherever we’ve gone around the world we’ve found quite significant gaps: the holy texts, no matter which one you turn to, has ambiguity in it around slavery,” he said. ”That, we knew, was being used as justification by slavers all over the world.”

Last year he found an opportunity to close that gap. A meeting of mining executives and charities at the Vatican (Forrest is Christian, though not Catholic) gave him a chance to engage with the church on the topic. Pope Francis has identified slavery as one of the evils he is most keen to combat: in his first Easter message last year he said human trafficking was a threat to peace and he instructed the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences to focus on the issue. ”He is of the view that it is one of the worst scourges of humanity,” Forrest said. Forrest proposed an alliance between the different faiths and his Walk Free Foundation.

He got the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, on board, and then flew to Cairo and recruited the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, one of the highest scholarly authorities in Sunni Islam. In a major coup for the nascent Global Freedom Network, Sheikh Tayyeb agreed to join the group and issue a fatwa, or religious ruling, which was officially published last week. It declares that ”the worst type of human trafficking is the kidnapping of women and girls”, prohibits ”modern-day slavery in all of its types”, and commits al-Azhar to an official study which will ”clearly explain the position of Islam on slavery”.

This joint venture between the faiths will be a ”major operating company”, Mr Forrest pledges. The network’s aims include:

* All global faiths to remove any slavery-related organisations from their supply chains and investments.

* 162 governments and 30 heads of state to endorse the network by the end of this year.

* Political leaders to slavery-proof government supply chains.

* The G20 to adopt a new anti-slavery and human trafficking initiative.

* Fifty major multi-national businesses to commit to ”slavery-proofing” their supply chains.

* It defines slavery broadly, including sex trafficking, forced labour and forced marriage.

”When I heard the news that all parties had agreed to the venture I have to admit I became emotional; this is going to change everything,” Forrest said. Mosques and churches and their communities will get the message that slavery is wrong and must be fought. He met the Pope privately last month once the deal was ready to go. He says ”the Pope wants slavery beaten or mortally wounded so it will never recover, by 2020”. The group will set a budget, raised from big donors to a global fund to be launched at Davos next year, to help governments close the gap between policy and enforcement, to set up new strategies and put them into action.

”This is set up like a high-achieving, measurement-driven, totally target-oriented company,” Forrest said. ”It’s like a hard-edged business. We are out to defeat slavery, we are not out to feel good. This is our mission. ”You see the complete hopelessness in the eyes of enslaved people. It’s like ‘I’m stuck, I will never get help, I am dirt’. ”Then you know that you can’t rest until you free them.”

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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Social services groups have welcomed the government’s $115 million pledge for homelessness funding but say there is more work to be done on a long-term plan.  The federal government has breathed another year of life to the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness (NPAH), which was due to lapse on June 30 because it had not been budgeted for. It will mean about 180 homelessness services across the nation will continue to provide services to vulnerable Australians until at least June 30, 2015. Homelessness Australia said the funding would give victims of domestic violence and those suffering from health and mental health issues somewhere safe to sleep for another year.

But the sector has called for the formulation of long-term solutions to tackle homelessness. Mission Australia said it was essential that federal and state governments come together to put a new multi-year agreement in place. “We can’t afford to let another year go by without a long-term plan. That is what happened last year,” spokesman Martin Thomas said in a statement. The Australian Council of Social Services said a new agreement should focus on developing a proper national affordable housing plan to increase the supply of affordable houses. “We have a problem and there’s more work to be done,” CEO Cassandra Goldie said.

The federal opposition said the announcement was cold comfort to those agencies reliant on the funds. It meant a cut of $44 million off the original $159 million NPAH plan, which included $43 million for housing infrastructure and $4 million into homelessness research. Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews said the government will consider long-term arrangements on housing policy over the next year, with talks with the sector and the states and territories. He also called on the state and territory governments to add their share to the deal so that there will be $230 million in total for services next financial year.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) has expressed disappointment at a senate inquiry report recommendation to extend the time by which Australia increase its foreign aid. Last week, a senate inquiry into Australia’s overseas aid and development assistance program released its report, with one of its 24 recommendations suggesting Australia’s target of 0.5 per cent of gross national income (GNI) be met by 2024-25. ACL’s Managing Director Lyle Shelton said both Labor and the Coalition had pledged to meet this target by 2015. “Australia is a prosperous country and has a moral responsibility to provide greater aid to the world’s poorest,” he said.

“This new time frame is a major step back in our country’s role in meeting the Millennium Development Goals. More importantly, it’s a huge failure to the millions of people whose lives are at risk each day because of poverty,” he said. Mr Shelton said overseas aid is an expression not only of mercy and national generosity but of justice. “In a region where there are enormous vulnerabilities for natural disasters and public health issues, Australia’s contribution to increasing aid is a means of acting justly to ensure the long term peace, health and wellbeing of the region in which it resides,” he said.

However, Mr Shelton welcomed the recommendations for the government to release an overarching policy framework for Australia’s aid program and to refrain from mid-year changes to the aid budget. “We urge the government to build upon the strategic and policy framework for assessing Australia’s aid program which was developed in recent years,” he said.

Source: Australian Christian Lobby

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