A MOTHER-OF-TWO has given up her day job to help support survivors and potential victims of child trafficking.
Ten years ago, primary school teacher Mel Manning, of Stanley Road, South Woodford, had never really thought about child trafficking.
But after the now 40-year-old went to an awareness event organised by Stop the Traffik in 2006, she “knew she had to do something”.
She said: “I’d never heard about it before, but as soon as I did, I couldn’t believe such a horrible thing could happen to such young children.
“It was so far removed from anything I had ever experienced or even heard about.
“I wanted to know what I could do to help, but I was also pregnant at the time so had to put it all on hold.”
After giving birth to her children and leaving teaching, she worked in special needs, but stopped in 2014 to pursue a masters in anthropology, human rights and justice at the University of East London.
During her course Mrs Manning spent time with Essex Police’s trafficking unit and did her dissertation on the importance of training in protecting children from crime and exploitation.
She then worked for a series of organisations including PAC-UK and the Medaille Trust, where she worked with children who had been through the care system and victims of child trafficking.
But in October last year, Mrs Manning decided to give it up and set up her own support network for vulnerable girls.
She said: “Throughout my entire life I’ve always had a voice.
“But when children and young people are exploited that voice is taken away from them.
“Also, when you have children yourself you’ll do anything to protect them.
“So Freedom2 is about giving girls back that voice and ensuring that fundamental right of a child to feel safe and to feel like they’re worth something.”
Mrs Manning hopes to have her first Freedom2 group ready by April, but is yet to secure a premises and recruit volunteers.
She is in the process of contacting schools, councils, youth organisations, and care groups, who she hopes will refer teenage girls who seem particularly vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation, or abuse.
She said: “I’m just getting the ball rolling at the moment and getting the word out there.
“But I’m putting everything into this, because the goal is for every girl to be free of exploitation, know their own self-worth, and know they can realise their potential whatever that is.”
The mother-of-two will take small groups of 14-17-year-old girls for seven weekly interactive sessions.
She added: “Seven weeks isn’t very long but it’s long enough to increase someone’s self-esteem and to improve their confidence.
“I wouldn’t dream of not taking someone because they don’t match certain criteria, because if we’re honest, as women as girls we all suffer with a lack of self-confidence sometimes.
"This is a preventative group, not just one for survivors.
“I just want to make sure all girls have the freedom to be happy – that’s where the name comes from.”