Liberating Women in Romania: Ioana’s Changemaker Journey

Starting in grade school, Ioana found her voice for standing up and speaking out for girls and women to live lives with dignity, choice, and power.
Ioana Bauer

Among European countries, Romania has the highest number of people who are trafficked or work in conditions that compromise their safety, health, and dignity. Not only poverty but, above all, dreams of a better life can make people vulnerable to deception and exploitation.

Ioana Bauer - eLiberare

Ashoka Fellow depuis mar 2020

Ioana Bauer, a scholar, leader, entrepreneur, and a native of Romania, is a devotee to systemic change. She leads eLiberare, representing a social movement against human trafficking in Romania.

ELiberare addresses the vulnerabilities and traumas of trafficking within her country by targeting their root causes and building durable barriers between potential traffickers and victims. She and her team weave together a resilient social network of empowered citizens to stop modern slavery. Her journey as a changemaker, however, started when she was in grade school during her early years of acute sensitivity and proactive dismantling of the status quo.

Finding her voice in 4th grade

Growing up in the reconstruction era of post-communist Romania, Ioana fondly remembers in 4th grade when her family could access cartoon network. However, her school culture did not change as fast as entertainment on television after the Revolution. She recalls her schooling to be overly focused on rote learning, as opposed to critical thinking and problem-solving, like in many Western European schools.

While her mother worked long hours, Ioana was raised by her father. Although she was not an only child, her siblings were much older than her and had moved out of the house, so she grew up with an innate sense of independence. However, despite the encouragement of her family to find her own personality and unique voice, Ioana realized early on that her personality, marked by her civic-minded spirit and fearless self-expression, did not conform to common expectations of young girls.

In elementary school, she recalls taking decisive action against a male classmate who regularly bullied a female classmate in elementary school. Amidst the silence of the teachers and the assumed accommodation of other classmates, Ioana spoke up. She took it upon herself to survey her female classmates, confirm a collective sense of fear, and call out school leaders to act against the student who was eventually reprimanded and transferred out of the class. Thus, from a young age, Ioana was quickly deemed to be a “troublemaker” for breaking the silence, courageously speaking out and questioning authority when she sensed unfairness.

Fighting a culture of sexism in her school

At 14-years-old, Ioana was certain she did not want to attend a high school focused on math and science. Despite pressure to follow her brother – to study computer engineering and find a stable job in software engineering – Ioana instead enrolled in a humanities-focused school.

This school was subjected to sweeping negative stereotypes about the power of young women. Professors and librarians patronized their abilities despite all the national academic awards their female students earned over the years. Ioana was determined to challenge the culture of sexism within the education system at her school by unifying students to take charge.

Ioana and her close friends started a student-led revolution and their classmates quickly followed. Through numerous acts of community organizing, they managed to have problematic faculty members replaced and sponsor the creation of a brand-new library.

In search for books, Ioana and her friends befriended an American volunteer who was yearning for community service opportunities in Romania. He offered to coordinate a series of book deliveries via suitcases from the United States. Together, they filled the library with hundreds of books, many focused on highly demanded social justice topics. Years later, students at the school continue to expand the library through local fundraisers and book drives.

Reflecting on her yearbook from her final year of grade school, Ioana distinctly remembers her classmates deeming her the “the school politician,” a title she initially rejected. She was not interested in politics. Instead, her true aspiration was move to the United States to build her adult life.

In search of her calling

Itching to leave Romania, Ioana was checking her final grades while boarding her flight on a one-way ticket to the States. For four months, she lived in Atlanta, Georgia with a couple her family had hosted during their travels across Eastern Europe. When things did not go as planned, she returned to Romania and enrolled at an esteemed college for international affairs and politics, contrary to what she had originally believed she wanted to study.

Upon graduating, she moved to the States a second time, again with a one-way ticket in mind, to pursue her Master's in Communications. She later started her professional career in the healthcare industry in east Tennessee. While in Tennessee, she canvased for organizations and supported initiatives for clean water, poverty reduction, and education access.

Yet, it was during her volunteer experiences in the States in which she learned that Romania stood as the number one country of origin for human trafficking in Europe. This newly learned fact, coupled with Ioana’s engagement with trafficking survivors during a conference, compelled Ioana to return to Romania during the summers and volunteer for organizations combating human trafficking.

After several years of donating and volunteering, Ioana was energized to fully commit to this line of work and first joined a shelter working with survivors in a European destination country. After that, she joined eLiberare, this newly started venture that basically gave her the opportunity to write her own job description and a reason to come back to Romania., despite her plans to enter the corporate world. In this moment, her childhood spirit of fearlessness and selfless courage rekindled into a career dedicated towards protecting human dignity and choice.

Leading a cultural shift in Romania

Ioana and her team at eLiberare tirelessly serve women and children across the region through healing collective trauma and managing crisis despite scarce resources. And especially during a time of unprecedented uncertainty, eLiberare is implementing new programs for the safety of victims and survivors.

Part of Ioana’s solution is training and equipping students with the skills to identify and intervene in incidences of trafficking before, during, and after they occur – developing a school curriculum that has reached over 600,000 students. To date, Ioana and her team have transformed the approach of over 1500 first responders, piloted educational awareness in 18 other countries, and garnered engagement from nearly 730,000 people in online advocacy. By changing the whole system behind human trafficking, eLiberare pressures government to change policies and bring adequate retribution against perpetrators.

Today, as a young parent of a daughter full of personality and drive, Ioana feels she’s responsible to also encourage her child to have a voice. Ioana aspires to teach her daughter the power of saying “no”, setting her own boundaries, and defining her own path to success. While raising her daughter in a world dramatically different than the one she grew up in, Ioana is leading a cultural shift for young women to harness the power of their voices to speak out against exploitation and live with dignity.