Life Story Grants: NoVo Invests $10M in Ending Sex Trafficking

life story grants
NoVo Foundation is investing $10 million in helping marginalized women in sex trafficking seek new options in life. (Photo credit: NoVo Foundation)

Despite the prevalence of the sexual exploitation of women and girls, gender-based violence funding accounts for just 1.8% of all foundation giving. And even within that small percentage, the majority of funds go to domestic violence, with commercial sexual exploitation often remaining neglected.

To bridge that crucial gap, the NoVo Foundation recently announced a $10 million, 3-year funding commitment for U.S.-based programs. The funding will go to programs that are aimed at “opening exit ramps” and “closing on-ramps” to the commercial sex trade–or, as it’s often called, The Life.

The recently announced Life Story Grants funding opportunity builds on the efforts of The Life Story project, launched by NoVo a year ago. The Life Story project was the culmination of a decade of listening to marginalized women’s stories about their efforts to leave the commercial sex trade, the reasons they became involved in the first place, and the ways that the systems in place to help them often fail them instead.

In partnership with victims of commercial sexual exploitation, The Life Story: Moments of Change initiative identified multiple potential “on-ramps” to women’s and girls’ exploitation, from childhood poverty and discrimination to sexual abuse, trauma, encounters with law enforcement, medical issues, and addiction. The project is meant to teach mental health counselors, educators, social workers, and health care providers about the ways they can adequately support women exploited by the commercial sex trade at these crucial moments. These watershed moments could provide the keys to protecting women as they seek to escape sexual exploitation.

Rather than treating commercial sexual exploitation as a simplistic individual problem, the NoVo Foundation is committed to helping people understand the complexities of sexual trauma and its aftermath in order to combat the problem at its systemic roots.

Of the initiative, Puja Dhawan, director of NoVo’s Initiative to End Violence Against Girls and Women, says: “From listening to girls and women who have experienced sexual exploitation, we learned that emotional, psychological, and physical violence is inherent to the sex trade. This trauma can last a lifetime, and it cannot be regulated away. Survivors shared that preventing vulnerable girls from getting into the Life altogether, and helping women in the Life leave when they are ready is one of the best things we can do in the short term, while working toward a world free of violence in the long term.”

NoVo Foundation, founded by Jennifer and Peter Buffett, the son and daughter-in-law of U.S. billionaire investor Warren Buffett, is one of the world’s largest private foundations that supports initiatives aimed at women and girls. Novo’s work is particularly notable for the way it centers on issues that disproportionately affect marginalized women, from Indigenous populations to immigrant communities. And while the #MeToo movement has opened up crucial conversations about gender-based violence, programs like NoVo’s new funding initiative seek to further integrate marginalized women in those conversations.

An intersectional feminist approach to combating sexual trauma and exploitation requires partnering with women from the most oppressed segments of the population in order to support their needs. And it’s by recognizing the ways that systems often fail society’s most marginalized women–from school expulsions to housing evictions–Pamela Shifman, executive director of the NoVo Foundation, argues that we can finally begin to address the underlying problems that contribute to sexual exploitation. “Practitioners in critical systems—like teachers, social workers, bus drivers, police officers, emergency room doctors, and immigration officials—come into contact with people in sexual exploitation every day,” she says. “By offering compassion, resources, and opportunity, these practitioners can close an on-ramp to exploitation—or open an exit ramp.”

Until April 19th, 2019, NoVo is seeking Letters of Inquiry from organizations working across education and other key sectors that will impact the effects of gender-based violence for years to come. NoVo seeks to fund programs that could close on-ramps into commercial sexual exploitation and open exit ramps across six key systemic “moments,” including housing, medical needs, law enforcement, trauma and mental health, immigration, and systems impacting youth.

To learn more and apply, visit


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Author: Laura Dorwart

Laura Dorwart is a writer with bylines in SELF, The Guardian, The New York Times, VICE, and many others. Follow her work at

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