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Jennifer Swedberg and the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery – A Big Title for a Big Task


To most Americans, slavery was a practice that ended in the civil war.  Unfortunately, reality contrasts starkly with this perception.  In truth, forms of slavery still exist and more people suffer in slavery today compared to any other time in history.  Modern-day slavery exists in many forms and includes practices such as child labor, servile marriage, trafficking in persons (especially women and children), and the exploitation of domestic and migrant labor. Such slavery-like practices often exist below a community’s surface and, in certain cases, are accepted as a part of society, making them difficult to discover and eliminate. Making matters worse, the victims of contemporary slavery are often a community’s poorest and most vulnerable members. 


As a 2009 Robina Foundation Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellow, Jennifer Swedberg worked to defeat modern manifestations of slavery through her work with the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, a recognized world leader in the fight to eradicate slavery.  Established in 1991, the Trust Fund strives to bring global attention to contemporary forms of slavery and its elimination and works to assist victims directly through the projects it funds.  In her role with the Trust Fund, Jennifer reviewed project grants and managed applications.  Jennifer worked to identify viable humanitarian, legal, and financial aid organizations that were spearheading programs to eliminate slavery.  Thanks to work like Jennifer’s, the fund has financed projects that have liberated women from marital slavery through financial empowerment in Cameroon, rehabilitated women and children rescued from trafficking in Nigeria, and advocated for eradication of slave labor in Brazil. 


Jennifer’s work with the U.N. Voluntary Trust Fund was an expression of the motivations that brought her to pursue a legal education at the University of Minnesota.  Jennifer has a background in social science through her studies in anthropology and is interested in issues relating to trafficking and slavery.  During her fellowship, Jennifer found her work both rewarding and challenging.  She observed that the hardest part of her job was rejecting good projects that seemed viable, but did not focus sufficiently on the issues of contemporary slavery.  She also recognized that the UN Voluntary Fund faced staff shortages that restricted its ability to conduct more exhaustive research, though she acknowledged that this circumstance made her contribution all the more meaningful. 


As part of her fellowship, Jennifer was able to travel to Geneva, Switzerland to participate in a board meeting of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund.  While there, she observed the board as it engaged in the project assessment process.   Jennifer noted that through this experience she was able to appreciate the diverse cultural perspectives and varied work experiences of the different board members.   It became clear to her that the variation in their viewpoints enabled the board to recognize and consider aspects of projects that a more homogenous group would otherwise have overlooked.  

Jennifer’s experience changed her perception of how large the issue of contemporary slavery is.  She says that the recounted experiences of the various board members had a significant impact on her.  In the future, Jennifer aspires to remain actively engaged in human rights law. 



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