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Advocate Wins $300K Prize to Fund 'Life's Work' of Helping Survivors of Gender-Based Violence

Sonya Passi, founder and CEO of FreeFrom, is one of 10 winners of the 2024 Elevate Prize

<p>Courtesy of the Elevate Prize Foundation</p>

Courtesy of the Elevate Prize Foundation

Sonya Passi realized her “life’s work” at the age of 16 when she was perusing a pamphlet for Amnesty International.

“One in three women will experience gender-based violence in a lifetime, Passi, now 36, tells PEOPLE. “I just remember being so confused as to why I was learning this for the first time and why this wasn't breaking news every single day in the front page of the newspaper."

"In that moment it really crystallized for me that this is my life's work. This is what I want to spend my time doing," she adds. "I had no idea what that looked like, but as I got older, I found where my passion and my talent meet.”

Passi went on to become the founder and CEO of FreeFrom, a national organization that focuses on the long-term safety for survivors of gender-based violence — and on Tuesday, she was announced as one of 10 winners of the Elevate Prize, all of whom will receive $300,000 to advance the missions of their organization.

“My role to play here is transforming the way that we're thinking about the issue, transforming and innovating solutions to the issue, and really building a survival-led movement that gets us to a world in which there isn't gender-based violence,” the activist tells PEOPLE.

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After realizing what she wanted the focus of her life's work to be, Passi received a pair of degrees from the University of Cambridge (Trinity College) before moving to the United States to attend law school at the University of California-Berkeley.

Passi went on to launch the Family Violence Appellate Project in Oakland — while still in law school! — which provides free appellate legal services to survivors of intimate partner violence in California and has worked to fundamentally transform the legal landscape in California.

Now, Passi is seven years into her crusade to change the way gender-based violence is addressed.

“In this country, it is really kind of like we do hurricane relief. It's crisis intervention. It's support that is really only offered at a moment of acute crisis," says Passi, who hails from the U.K. "And the support that is offered is short-term shelters, restraining orders, access to public assistance.”

Where FreeFrom differs from other domestic violence related organizations is that it aims to build “an entire ecosystem of support around survivors that begins long before a moment of acute crisis and continues long after,” Passi said.

Its nationwide initiatives include cash assistance and savings matching programs that equip those who are survivors of domestic violence with the means to overcome their own difficult situations.

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To date, FreeFrom has supported over 1,600 survivors, helping them save over $600,000.

One such survivor is Cherry Morse, who began working for Gifted, the organization’s online store which sells products made by victims of domestic violence, nearly four years ago.

“I was so excited when I got introduced to FreeFrom,” Morse tells PEOPLE. “One week’s worth of work became two weeks of work and then it became a month of work and then it became six months and then a year. Two years ago I was promoted as a sales and marketing team manager, and I'm now managing the sales and the social media and all of the other staff reaching out to bulk order customers.”

She adds, “I love people very much and what we do at Gifted is very impactful and I'm just so happy and excited every day to help survivors like me.”

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Elevate Prize organizers were happy salute Passi and nine other winners of the grant.

In addition to Passi, winners of the prize include: Mpindi Abaas, Media Challenge Initiative; Zarlasht Halaimzai, Amna; Wawira Njiru, Food for Education; Melissa Malzkuhn, Motion Light Lab; Daniel Forkkio, Represent Justice; Isabelle Kamariza, Solid’Africa; Sam Bencheghib, Sungai Watch; Dr. Kwan Stewart, Project Street Vet; and Gayatri Datar, EarthEnable.

"Our mission at the Elevate Prize Foundation is to Make Good Famous by bringing visibility to extraordinary change makers' work and their stories, creating a global fanbase for them, and helping foster a world where more people are inspired to take action," Carolina García Jayaram, CEO of the Elevate Prize Foundation, said in a statement to PEOPLE. "We believe in Sonya and FreeFrom because her proximity to the issue directly informs her incredible impact.”

Jayaram added, “We trust that she and her community of survivors know best how to invest the $300,000 prize money and together we can catapult her solution by giving this issue much needed visibility and create a world where gender-based violence doesn't exist."

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