Meet The 24-Year-Old Woman Fighting To End Modern Slavery

Photo: Liz Looker
In the last seven days, 24-year-old Grace Forrest has visited three continents and crossed countless time zones. She’s discussed revising the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UN, launched a report on the state of modern slavery in the Commonwealth, and given a speech at the Commonwealth Women’s Forum about the debilitating effect of forced marriage and commercial sexual exploitation.
I didn’t even make it to the gym.
It’s obvious, upon meeting Grace, that she’s no ordinary young woman. The eldest daughter of Australian billionaire businessman Andrew Forrest, she is the cofounder of the Walk Free Foundation, an organisation created to abolish modern slavery across the globe. This is a woman who decided, very early on, not to be defined by her privilege.
"It’s just genetic lottery that I was born in Australia where I can drink from the tap, where my education is valued and where I am safe to dream about what I want to be," she tells me. "But at the flip of a coin, another girl is sold off at the age of 6 to the child sex industry."
At age 15 she went, with her own hard-earned money, to visit an orphanage in Nepal. She returned two years later, with her family in tow, and discovered that the girls she had been working with had been re-trafficked. "I was so angry," she tells me. "It was an overwhelming experience and I wanted to do something about it."
So she did.
In 2012, aged 18, she decided to create the Walk Free Foundation with her father, himself a tireless activist and the founder of Australia’s Minderoo Foundation, which works on philanthropic projects across the globe, as well as specific initiatives to aid Australia’s indigenous communities.
"I think there is great power in our collaboration," she says. "He brings this very pragmatic, economic discussion about ending slavery and I represent the more cultural discussion." Their partnership has spawned brilliant initiatives, both global and domestic. At Grace’s insistence, they took nine refugee families from the Syrian crisis into their Australian home last year.
There are an estimated 40.3m people worldwide subject to modern slavery. The term comprises forced labour, forced marriage and human trafficking, all symptoms and causes of extreme poverty. Yet this is not just an issue facing the developing world. Recent findings defined over 5,000 people in the UK as modern slaves.
Women are disproportionately affected, taking up 70% of that total global estimate.
"As a woman, it’s really hard to not see that gender aspect and want to prioritise it," says Grace. "We work across all forms of slavery, and in all forms, bar one, women are overrepresented. In forced labour women and girls represent 51%, forced marriage 84%, commercial sexual exploitation 99%."
The issue is a complicated one, with the greatest barrier being entrenched cultural and social norms. On the ground, she works with local grassroots organisations to ensure that change is sustainable. She details her work with women rescued from sex trafficking in Nepal, where she lived for a year before university, and the stigmas they face when attempting to rehabilitate their lives. She tells of women she has met, born into slavery in remote rural areas of India due to the (now outlawed) caste system, who are hidden by their families to avoid sexual assault from the landlords who own them, and of meeting families in Lebanese refugee camps who have no choice but to marry their young daughters off to prevent them from being raped.
"Unless we address a woman’s right to be free and to choose when and whom she will marry, how can she ever meaningfully participate socially, economically or politically in her society?" Forrest asks before outlining one of her foundation’s biggest campaigns: to criminalise forced marriage. "Besides the human rights aspect of it, this is just a really good economic choice. How can any society sustainably grow and develop with 50% of the population systemically held back?"
Since its inception, her foundation has freed 16,047 people from slavery and helped get 36,231 at-risk children back into school. Yet she tells me of feeling overwhelmed by the work they still have to do. Even I feel emotionally drained by the gravitas of her job. What does she do, I wonder, to relax?
"Oh, THAT!" she laughs, momentarily confused by the concept of free time. "I don’t have a lot of balance, but I love the ocean and the beach, and cooking for my family. I have an amazing group of friends who are all over the world and I spend as much time as I can with them."
She’s also been watching the recent surge in social activism with keen interest, gushing so much about the March for Our Lives that she says she is "trying very hard not to use swear words".
I can’t help but wonder if she sees herself in them: young people affecting huge global change.
"My generation and their generation are going to start implementing change," she agrees. "The people that are going to, in the next 20 years, start going into parliament and becoming very successful, are going to feel a weight on their shoulders to try and make the world a fairer, safer place."
And with that she’s off to another continent, to try and make the world a fairer, safer place.

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