Blog post by Sarah de Carvalho MBE, CEO and Founder

Wow! I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since I founded It’s a Penalty … it’s been so challenging at times but also so worth it and honestly only possible thanks to my amazing team and board.  Many people ask me how it started, so here’s my story.

Sometimes in life there are moments that can change the course of what we’re doing.  For me that was in 2013 when I met a young girl called Rose, on the streets in Recife, in the northeast of Brazil.  She was with a group of young girls dressed up to look older than they were selling themselves outside a motel.   I was with a street team from another charity I founded called Happy Child (who rescued and rehabilitated over 11,500 street children) and she told me that she’d been sent to the streets by her mother because there was no food at home, and she’d quickly got caught up with a trafficker who had exploited her for 5 years.

Shockingly, Rose told me that she could take me then and there to a house where traffickers were selling children as young as 9 and 10 years old!  Rose also told me that she’d given birth to 2 babies who were back in the shantytown and that her clients came from all over the world.  She looked at me and she said, “Please do something to help us!” Rose represents one of the 50 million people who are estimated to be in modern slavery (ILO source).  It is the fastest growing illegal business in the world today.

And that for me that was the moment.  I came back to the UK and spoke to a journalist friend of mine, Chris Rogers, who made a report for BBC News at 10 and BBC World News about what was happening in the northeast Brazil.  Our concern was that Brazil was going to host the FIFA football World Cup in 2014, with hundreds and thousands of sporting fans visiting from all around the world, and we knew that these underaged girls and boys would be exploited.

As a result of this report the Met Police contacted us at Happy Child and asked if we could help them with some information.  It was confidential at the time, but they were setting up bogus websites to try and catch potential offenders before they got to Brazil.  During one of these meetings at Scotland Yard, the officers told me about the Extra Territorial Legislation, which is provisions in law for countries to prosecute their citizens for the abuse of children if it takes place abroad.  They said, if you run a campaign with the run up to the football world cup, raise awareness about the issue, penalties for offenders, educate about the signs to look out for and a hotline to dial, it could prevent up to 95% potential offenders from committing the crime!

I knew that human trafficking, exploitation, and abuse is a difficult subject to talk about, so I thought who better than the footballers themselves to front this campaign.  At that time most of the Brazilian footballers played for Chelsea, including David Luiz, Oscar and Ramires. A friend of mine told me that her hairdresser’s clients were some of the footballers’ wives.  So, I wrote a letter, and the hairdresser gave it to Paulo Ferreira’s wife, and I got a phone call inviting me to their house.  Paulo, who is Portuguese, said that he loved the idea of the campaign and invited me to speak to the rest of his team after a training session at the Chelsea training ground in Cobham!   I was so nervous, but David Luiz said, you’ve helped children in my country for many years, this is the least I can do I’m in! Then the others said they’d join and even Frank Lampard said he’d be an ambassador as well.   

A friend of mine who had a Design/Ad Agency agreed to make the film and happened to be playing golf with the then chairman of British Airways, Sir Martin Broughton.  Martin said that if we made a 30 sec film with these footballers raising awareness about human trafficking and exploitation, he would show it on every single British Airways flight with the run up and during the Football World Cup in Brazil.  Sir Martin Broughton told Gary Lineker about It’s a Penalty, and Gary said he’d also like to be an ambassador!

We launched the campaign, together with our founding partners, A21, and Jubilee campaign at the National Crime Agency in June 2014.  Gary Lineker came and spoke, as did David Luiz. The room was packed with press, the sports industry, law enforcement and government figures.  I stood up and told them the story of Rose, and you could’ve heard a pin drop.

There were 4,252 calls to the hotline reporting child exploitation during the FIFA Games in 2014! Everyone said that the campaign was a trial run, and would we run another It’s a Penalty campaign during the Olympics & Paralympics in 2016 which Brazil was also hosting.

Since then, It’s a Penalty has developed a model and we harnesses the power of sport for positive social change. These major sporting events provide a platform to educate about this issue in order to prevent it, covering the travel touch points and partnering with the travel & tourism and hospitality industry, sports industry, law enforcement and local NGO’s for greater impact. It’s about working collaboratively.

Over the last 10 years here are some of It’s a Penalty’s achievements:

  • 18 campaigns during major global sporting events
  • Over 3 billion people reached.
  • 94 missing children recovered during our campaigns (1 in 6 missing children end up being trafficked NCMEC)
  • 10 countries we’ve campaigned in
  • 17,028 survivors have been protected through our partnerships.
  • 53 Ambassadors have joined forces with us.
  • 12,549 hospitality staff trained.
  • 16 participating airlines have featured our 30 sec campaign films inflight.
  • CommonProtect – our advocacy programme on legal reform to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse throughout the commonwealth.
  • Student Ambassador Programme – educating and empowering university students in UK and US to help put an end to human trafficking.

There are the same challenges for a CEO in the Charity sector as in the Private and Public sectors – management, strategy plans, budgets/cash flow, marketing – in fact I believe there are probably more challenges in the Charity sector with fundraising, public perception and trust of charity, regulation and operating as a lean model but having high impact. But if I’ve learned anything over these last 10 years it’s to persevere, and to surround myself with team members who are better at what they do than I am.

When you persevere, the encouragement comes … 94 missing children found during our Super Bowl campaigns in the US; the It’s a Penalty campaign film being shown for a week during the Tokyo Olympic & Paralympics games on a giant screen at the Shibuya Crossing – the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world reaching 14.4 million people; an 11 year old boy who saw the It’s a Penalty campaign film for the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens on a Cathay Pacific flight then had the courage to report that his swimming coach was abusing him; training Uber drivers ahead of the Atlanta Super Bowl who said they were often aware of carrying traffickers and victims and offenders in their cars and didn’t know what to do, so It’s a Penalty produced rear view hang tags with the hotline to dial and to this day lots of them still have them hanging in their taxi ride shares.

There’s still lots to do, so many people don’t know about human trafficking. Awareness educates and education changes behaviour. Prevention is better than cure.  The consequences of climate change and growing migration is only going to increase the risk of the vulnerable to trafficking, and the traffickers make a lot of money out of selling the same girl or boy over and over. If there wasn’t the demand, there wouldn’t be a business. Human trafficking generates $150 million illegal dollars a year.

How can you help?  Volunteering, Partnerships, Social Media sharing and support, Donations.  See: or email

There is a proverb that says, speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all those who are destitute.  We need to be the voice for the voiceless.   

Written by Sarah de Carvalho MBE

CEO of It’s a Penalty