Penny Attwells is restoring and empowering women who have survived human trafficking through an innovative support program, writes Hayley Lukabyo.
The trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children is the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world. Penny Attwells, founder of Iysha and a member of ADM’s 2018 Hub program, is committed to caring for the victims of such crimes in Australia.
For as long as Penny can remember, she has been “personally affronted by the oppression experienced by trafficked women”. However, it was an encounter with a woman supporting sex workers in Australia two years ago that convinced Penny to take action, and eventually led to the establishment of Iysha. “She explained to me that women are trafficked into Australian brothels, predominately from Asian countries,” Penny recalls. “She also explained that women in Australia can experience slavery as a result of forced labour or forced marriage. It was at this time that I started to feel a stirring to help. After doing some research, I realised the extent of human trafficking and slavery in Australia, and it is unacceptable.”
This year Penny is developing Iysha through The Hub. Iysha is committed to working towards the worldwide abolition of slavery, servitude and slavery-like practices, including forced labour, forced marriage, human trafficking and extreme labour exploitation. Iysha aims to empower and restore women who survive human trafficking by placing them with ‘safe families’ for periods of time. Many survivors are currently waiting for NSW priority housing or attempting to secure private rentals, and Penny hopes that that Iysha will provide them with the final step that they need before transitioning to independent living.
What makes Iysha unique from similar not-for-profits is its focus on Australia. Before founding Iysha, Penny noticed that while there were multiple organisations and charities focused on overseas women, those trafficked to Australia were being overlooked. “We wanted to establish a not-for-profit with a local focus,” Penny explains. “At the moment, there are only one or two safe houses in Sydney where survivors can be referred to for housing and support. We did consider starting another safe house, however, we decided to think about a strategy that was innovative, scalable and therapeutic.”
Penny hopes that through the work of Iysha, the lives of vulnerable women can be transformed by making them feel safe and connected. “We believe that the framework is restorative, empowering and has many therapeutic qualities,” she says. “Initially, we sought advice from a professional working directly with survivors and asked, ‘Do you think the survivors would feel safe in homes and would want to live in this sort of arrangement?’ Her response was ‘yes and yes’ because survivors want freedom of movement within the wider community, and they want to build new relationships and community connections. We believe that being placed with an Australian family provides a sense of connectedness and belonging, restores trust, provides positive experiences and helps survivors imagine a better future.”
Penny acknowledges that the goal of Iysha is “quite ambitious”, but she trusts that God has called her to pursue it. “I believe that God wired me to deeply care about women experiencing oppression. And I wholeheartedly believe God is grieved by the oppression of women … Jesus made no secret of being opposed to certain things during his life and ministry, and he took particular aim at oppression in various forms: social, religious, political, etc. I believe that a genuine love for the Lord will also meet those on the underside of power with mercy, compassion and justice. Whatever we do for the least, we do for Him.”
Penny is qualified in law and community development, and has worked for 15 years among people facing disadvantage and marginalisation. Her work has mostly focussed on child protection and working with children and families. Penny sees the work of God in both her own life and the development of Iysha. “Without trying to be overly 'spiritual', I do believe God has called me to start up lysha for ‘such a time as this’,” she says. “This is the first time I have led an initiative, and I believe I am ready and able for the task.”