Prevention: We all need to get in this fight

Truly the issue of human trafficking is a complex one. It’s probably largely an issue of economics. Desperate people who are willing to go anywhere to gain food and an income for their families. Desperate parents willing to send their daughters to work in someone’s home when they are but 10 or 11 figuring at least their daughter will get some food in the home of a weathy family. Or willing to marry them off to a strange boy who doesn’t ask a dowry with the grim hope that he is actually decent fella (though they rarely are even close to decent). Desperation clouds judgement, hunger trumps morality, the risk is worth the possible gain. Sadly the risk often does not pay off and fathers end up in forced labor situations and mothers picking apart stones for pennies, and boys of 7 or 8 working in leather factories chained to tables or young girls end up on the doorsteps and then the confines of brothels losing both their youth, their innocence and what little value their gender afforded them in the first place.

So again I posit that economics are a large part of human trafficking. Supply and demand at work, demand for work and demand for cheap labor, a supply of laborers is a needed to make the world run, a middle man with a heart full of greed sees an opportunity to dupe vulnerable people and sources the demand for cheap material goods in western countries with a supply of men, women and children to be both physically, sexually and financially exploited. Where are the jobs with fair wages? For men in India at least there is a greater chance for some education, the learning of some trade that will support a family. Still wages may not even equal a dollar a day for all the family members that these wages must support. (Think about this, the $100 we spend on an outfit at a major retailer is the equivalent that the worker got for 45 hours a week as a months wages–seems out of balance right?) But when it comes to women and girls, their gender makes them even more vulnerable less likely to be able to get job besides washing floors and cooking in someone home for a pittance.

So the next issue is gender. Being a girl just might be the hardest thing the world at least as a starting point in life in certain places, if not all places. Please forgive me, as I am about to give self righteousness a beating. In America we have Barbie’s and Miley’s showing the world that women have no dignity and value outside of our physical appearance and sexuality. We both men and women of the west submit to the objectification culture and are lured with pornagrpahy, both male and female objectification in advertising and fashion mags(the porn of the teenage girl and the adult woman). The female gender is commodified and sold in neat packages like American Apparel. We have purity rings and father daughter dances too which just feed the idea that men must protect women/ daughters as property rather than rather empowered self sufficient powerhouses of strength, dignity, intelligence and beauty. Hey to be clear I’m not knocking father daughter relationships or even possible valuable and unique events that they can share in together. I’ve got a great dad who both called me a princess and who told me I was smart and capable and I could do anything I wanted.  And I have parents who taught me sexuality is a gift, not a power tool and certainly not the only thing that defines me as a person. This is an issue to of being whole people, not just body parts, not just beauty and flat bellies but also brains and emotions and creative energy.

On the other side of the planet we find it easy to target the bad guys, those men who visit and traffick the girls in India, Thailand, Nepal, Cambodia and Vietnam. Those cultures that are backward and don’t value women and girls, they are the bad ones. But really it’s just the same as western cultures, the systematic objectification and devaluing of the female gender just looks a little less candy coated. In Asia it’s called slavery and trafficking, the exploitation of girls and women, in America is called advertising and self expression. Same same but different.

And IT IS different in praxis. The actually enslavement of another for sexual exploitation is indeed a far worse offense in the physicality of it. Far worse because choice is taken away, dreams stolen, lives ruined. It is serialized rape and the destruction of the personhood and dignity of human being, a boy, a son, a girl, a women, a sister, a self. It is a heinous crime.

And I might also say that we are willing slaves to the de-personification of the female gender in the west. Hello,ladies, yes we love to hate ourselves, our bodies, our bellies and our breasts, our wrinkles and our grays , we willing have submitted to our own objectification on some level. We have been trained to do it and it’s an ugly habit that needs a butt kicking. I know I’m guilty, it has been a lifelong process to dig myself out of this hole, and I’m still digging. And gentle reminder to the gentlemen out there #realmendontbuysex and #realmendontseewomenasobjects and I’m so sorry that advertisers sell a women’s body’s to you when they are selling a car and sell your manhood to you via pretty girl offering you a Budweiser. Really I am sorry. The question must be asked are we all not conspirators and collaborators in the crisises of the objectification and subjugation of women on one level or another? Aren’t both women and men contributing to the historical and ongoing crisis of gender inequality and in both action and word, subconsciously and consciously. Until we confront the objectification and valuing issues in our own hearts, how will things change, how can we demand change of others in this area and not expect to do the same within ourselves. It’s that log splinter issue.

So back on topic, prevention of human trafficking as both and economic and gender issue (by the way, I am only naming two of innumerable root issues in relation to social and systemic evils that contribute to human trafficking) can be addressed by creating economic and educational opportunities for women and girls in vulnerable places. We at Sari Bari were tired of seeing new girls coming into the red light area every week. Tired of of fresh faces becoming hard, and empty. Enough was enough, restoration for women exiting the sex trade was and is important but the flip side is stopping the exploitation and mass trade in women for sexual purposes in the first place. So thankfully we 4 years ago this week we opened a manufacturing unit 100% devoted to the cause of prevention of trafficking. And now 4 years later we are marking the anniversary our first Sari Bari prevention unit ( we hope there will be more) focused on women 17-25 who are vulnerable to trafficking and mothers 25-35 with daughters who are vulnerable and whom the mothers agree to keep in school with our education assistance program. More than 50 have come through the doors, 32 working still and none of them have ended up in the trade. Some have come and saved up money and gotten married, some have moved to other jobs, some have left and come back when finances strained. A safe place has been established, vulnerability has been lessened, just a scratch on the surface of the problem, or a just a sandbag in the stemming of the tide but maybe the whole world to the 32 women who can save for their marriages, feed their kids and their parents right here in Their own village.

My hope is that we can continue to grow the area of preventing further exploitation of all human persons and in particular the female gender through employment and I also hope that both the women and the men who read this will consider in their own hearts how to both prevent and heal the wounds of the exploitation and objectification of women and girls within our home cultures.



This safe place

I ache when she comes to work like this, bruised and swollen.  We all know what happened last night, she bears the remnants of the beating for some unknown, unjustified reason.   There is no reason in it.  Just another broken man, beating his broken wife, my dear friend, again.

Somehow, she finds the will to come to work.   She almost never misses, sick as anything, she will come to “be” here.  We dreamed of creating a safe place. It is…not perfect but certainly safe.   So many women, find it a safe place, a home of sorts, a place of welcome, respect and dignity, so much so that I have heard it often said, “if we were open on Sunday, I would come here”.  For this, we are thankful. And we are broken, that home for so many of the women of Sari Bari is still not a safe place.

So, my friend, our sister, she makes her way to work beaten or sick or sad, she steps toward safety, toward love, toward community.   She makes her way toward a safe place, our shared home and workplace to find welcome and comfort; a place where her wounds both physical and emotional are tended.  She is a unique gift to our community. She loves with a strength that I find difficult to comprehend, a deep well that springs with mothering care, forgiveness and compassion.  She is undoubtedly one of my hero’s, a woman I follow after, want to be like, to be able press forward,  even in pain, and still love with abundance.

I don’t want to her to stay with her husband, I desperately want her to leave, for her know her own value, her own strength, to be able to see herself, as I do, as we do, who sit around her as she stitches the finishing touches on most every blanket and scarf that comes through for final quality control.  She is our finishing artist, our faithful friend who feeds us, and mothers us and holds us as we hold her.

Until all places are safe, we press on…


The Downhill

Yesterday marked the 5th significant loss to our community this year. We have lost 1 woman to a long term illness and one woman yesterday to a sudden onset of dengue fever that was complicated by other health problems, she was 46, at work one day and we were at her funeral the next. We also lost the husband of one of women to illness and 2 significant staff members returned to the USA (one who had been apart of the community in one way or another for the better part of 8 years.). These losses make our year and how we have been able to live it, not so easy. Being present in the moment is a struggle as I subconsciously struggle with who will leave next, who will we lose to sickness, what is the next crisis we will face. We as a community generally bear up well under the losses, we have learned to be all stars in a crisis because the fact of the matter is we faced too too many.

I have begun to think of these times of crisis and loss as the uphill walk. When I was walking the Camino (Camino De Santiago, the uphills were hard and took a significant effort. They were an exercise in will especially the first day with a 5000 foot climb over about 22 miles. Yet I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Taking a break when I needed it. By the end the uphills became my favorite part.  I loved the conquering, the exhilaration of my body being able to do what it had struggled too do only weeks earlier. The uphill is conquerable, the crisis, you just push through and you can to become a master of it.

The downhills were a big surprise to me. I though they would be the easy part. Turns out that’s not true, the downhill, means a slow down and control of your body in different ways, a strategy for how to protect your knees, mastering the zig zagging gallop or whatever might work best for body to take the stress off. The downhill is hard, I might even describe it as the most difficult part…because of the conflict of my brain telling me to stay controlled and use of the strategies to minimize the pain and my body crying out in pain to stop and heart urging me forward, a belief in the the vague promise that the pain ends eventually. Truly, the downhill puts stress on places that you don’t feel unless you are walking downhill.

I think post crisis or loss is the like the downhill, it is surprisingly hard, maybe even harder than the actual moment of crisis or loss. It’s the postscript that causes the most pain. The post stressors of the crisis seem to have a lag in effect, that is much more difficult to deal with than the actual crisis. How do I pick up the pieces, where do I go from here, where do I or don’t I see God in all of it. The downhill, hurts. I mean it really hurts. As  I have now almost spent as much time off the Camnio as I did on it, I find myself in the middle of another type of downhill. The post Camino downhill of where am I now, who am I now, what do I want now and where in the world is God now? And beyond that in yet again another downhill walk with the sudden loss of a friend yesterday. I am not here alone, there’s a whole community of folks walking the Downhill of this loss with me. Come to think of it, the downhills were easiest on the Camnio when I was walking with someone, —you know who you are—, somehow the knee pain seemed less and time went faster.

All that said, the downhill still sucks and hurts worse than all the rest. And it is always true that for every uphill there is a down hill and a season in the plains. I just wish there was a guidebook so I could better prepare for what was coming.

Yesterday, we said goodbye to our friend Gita. A woman with a ready laugh and the ability to laugh at herself whose presence will be deeply missed by all the women at our Sonagacchi office, and the people in her home in the red light area, and most deeply by the 15 women who sat with her upstairs, who knew her stories and and her hurts and she knew theirs.

So here I go again walking the downhill again in more ways than one. Can I say again the downhill sucks and it is better when your not alone. Can I get an amen?

The Bitterness Dance

I do it, we all do it! Dancing around the bodies of people or situations who have hurt us, so full of pain. Swinging a kick, a punch or a well worded tirade of truth, masked in ugliness, in the direction of the hurt and or the one who cause the hurt.

Bitterness is, I think, one of many normal human reactions to hurt, violation of trust etc. A fruit of unreleased anger or fear; sometimes well warranted in the direction of the one who caused harm and almost never beneficial to me, to my soul, to our souls together. Each kick, rehashing and attempt to make sense of those senseless hurts especially, draws us down, down, down into the pit.

The pit of bitterness, like a grave with the sides kicked out, is a rut. A place we do not want to dwell but cannot seem to escape.

I think the only way I know how to escape is to do two things. One is forgive and move on even if there is no reconcillation (not easy at all but Freedom does come) and the second is tell the truth to the person who hurt me and just get it out. I am not going to give bitterness space rent free in my head or my heart in 2013.

So I might say to my friend, my colleague or my family member…You hurt me. I will forgive you or try really hard…just give me a little time. What you did was not okay with me. I do not need you to say I am sorry though that would be nice, maybe even ideal. I forgive you for me. Because my being bitter does not hurt you, probably it just gives you a reason to write me off as crazy, immature, an unforgiving compassionless zealot. And yes, it’s true you might be right but mostly I am acting out of a hurt that makes it hard to confront, hard to tell the truth, hard to forgive and I am wrapped up so tight that I can not see my way out. (“You” in this paragraph refers the hypothetical person–not “you” the reader 🙂

But “screw” hard. (oh, that sounds bad) What I mean is hello, hard, nice to meet you, I am going to own you. I want to and I need to be free. This bitterness is not who I am or want to become. So hard means nothing. Lots of things are hard but we do them anyway because they save us or offer something to some one else that is profoundly important (your personal senario here–where do you willing go to hard places for yourself or for others because you know the benefit outweighs the cost).

So I offer my bitterness and ask forgiveness for it. And I am not going to back down on forgiving or telling the truth…it’s a double whammy of hard painful stuff and just being a whole and healthy human being, darn it.

The bitterness dance sucks and I am no wallflower, I do not need it’s attention and I do not need to give it the time of day.

Good bye Bitterness. See you again never!

The way I walk…

I walk the same way to work everyday. Out my door, take a left and then a right winding my way past my friend who makes Chai tea.  This woman who graces me with her smiles coming and going and has offered to kick a little butt when I am being followed.  Down the alley a bit, to the sweet old man who always say’s”good morning” and “goodnight” but never at the right time of day.  Past the man who sells fish and sometimes curiously and shyly inquires why I am coming or going.  Into the red light area, where sometimes on some days, I pass some hero’s on their way to Freeset (a freedom Business), who greet me with smiles and an occasional accusation as to why I am not yet married.  I go farther along, past some jewelry and sundries shops, past an idol, past groups of men sitting in chairs idylling the morning or evening away. As I enter the main lane, busy with men, always busy with men, I meet the eyes of every girl I know, chat a little, and try to meet the eyes of those I do not know with a smile.  Sometimes I get a smile back and it feels like it might be a good day.  Sometimes the girls who are working farther down the line call after me and scold me for not stopping if I happen to be in a hurry and there is no hurrying past.  Some of them know my name and some of them just call me by the name of whatever friend they can remember, Puja or Moussumi.  If I do not come by or have been out of town, they all notice and ask where I have been and even if it has only been a few days, they ask if I went to my country.  I turn left walking past the some of the youngest, freshest faces working the line, toward Sari Bari.  Still a ways to go, passing another idol, maybe a caudron of something cooking in a vat for some puja I do not know about. Men line the lane.  Shopkeepers nod.  Children zig and zag in slow motion across my path competing with the street dogs for dominance.  To the left a circle of women gather water, filling their jugs for the day, chatting, gossips, observing everything and a little ways over men bathing on the road nearby. This lane is so dirty, always muddy.  Walking past some madams nodding, smiling, past the open cesspool of urine and trash on the corner winding my way, holding my breath. Deeper in now, I chat with more women I know, begging some of the scary madam to smile back at me, willing it.  Looking for an invitation to speak.  Sometimes, women from Sari Bari who live in this lane, pull me in to their rooms for tea and breakfast.  Sometimes, it’s a race to see who will get to the door of the office first or out the door first depending on the time of day.  Walking past another trash dump, greeting more women already waiting for customers in the morning at 10am and going home in the evening more women out than before, weariness from the day already drawing down their faces.  And then up the stairs into Sari Bari, past the potted plants, where the guys are cutting bags, and the air rings with greetings.  The floor is full of stuff, beautiful stuff, blankets in the making and the scraps of every type of sari and color imaginable.  This is the tale of my daily comings and goings. It is the way that I walk from home to home and back again.  And I say that someday this walk through these lanes into the beautiful space of Sari Bari will bear much fruit.  At least that is what I dream.

Why I don’t know any prostitutes…

I am not a big fan of labels. Of easy words that make it easy to classify and categorize people into the good ones, the bad ones, and the one’s that we like and the one’s that are harder to like because we find them different. Labels to me to seem like an easy way out of understanding how complicated and complex we are as human beings.

There are few among us who are all dark and no light, all good and no evil. We are complex, layered, intricately woven and not completely understandable, even to ourselves much of the time.

My time in India, in Kolkata particularly among people who are poor and among women who prostitute or are prostituted has helped my reframe my paradigm of labels. I was once asked, by some visitors to Sari Bari, “How many prostitutes work here?” My response was “none, no prostitutes work here and in fact I do not know any prostitutes.” Prostitute is a label that I find abhorrent. Because I only know women, mothers, daughters, sisters and friends who have been involved in sex work for one reason or another. They have in fact been prostituted by poverty, exploitation, and the greed of other human beings. The women I know are intricately woven works of God art. Within them are darkness and light, pain and joy, beauty and ugliness.

We would like to draw a line between women who are prostituted, say men, women and children who have been trafficked and the others who we see as making a choice. Much of the western paradigm of prostitution carries with it a stigma of a person who has made poor choices and therefore does not deserve the dignity of personhood. Some lightly dismiss the women whose weary faces may appear in the newspaper on arrests for prostitution…somehow this feels like justice to us for their crimes to be listed for all to see in a newspaper. I have read through these pages of newspapers many times and what I see are women destroyed by addiction and often controlled by a pimp. Women arrested for prostitution 60 times did not make that choice. She has been victimized. She is likely to have been abused (95% of all those engaged in the act of prostitution internationally have been sexually abused) and whether it is an addiction or pimp that is keeping her enslaved, this is and was not the life that she chose for herself. And to choose to find freedom requires a tremendous amount of resources that may or not be available to her. She may be 35, if she is under the control of a pimp, she may not even able to decide when she is able to use the bathroom. So she may not actually be able to make the smallest choices for herself. There is a requirement of safety and the basic needs of life being met before she can even begin to take a step in the right direction. If we call her a prostitute, we can easily dismiss responsibility for walking with her. If we see her as a woman, a mother, someone like us, it becomes much harder to dismiss and hopefully much easier to want to help.

It is not only the word prostitute that bothers me. It is any label that prevents us from seeing others as whole human beings. The word victim is not among my favorites. Many have been victimized by human trafficking and calling women and children who have been trafficked a victim limits them. Words like victim help causes raise money and may fail to consider the human being who has a complex story and who though victimized will move beyond a label as their story moves forward. I heard Luis CdeBaca ( the Anti Human trafficking ambassador speak a couple years ago and his words have continued to ring in my mind when I hear the word victim. This is my paraphrase of what he said: “People who have been trafficked are vulnerable because of poverty and other circumstances, but often those who are trafficked for labor or sex, are the ones who believed that opportunity and taking a risk for that opportunity is worth it. Unfortunately taking the risk did not pay off and when rescued, we should not count them as victims for long because they will again make a new way to a new life.” Many have been victimized we should not dismiss the complexity of who they are by calling them victims.

Can we change they way we use our language to something more humanizing. Instead of saying victims of human trafficking, can we say women and children who have been victimized by human trafficking? Instead of calling women engaged in prostitution, “prostitutes”, can we say women who are prostituting or women who have been prostituted? The words victim and prostitute are nouns, indicating a person, place or thing. Prostituted and victimized are adverbs or adjectives that describe what has happened to living, breathing, complex and complicated human beings.

When I describe the women that I know at Sari Bari, it will never be with the words victim or prostitute because I do not know who that is. I know women who have been victimized and trafficked and prostituted. I know their names, their stories of trauma and their stories of new life. I see their darkness and their light, their good and their bad and they see mine.

What are some more labels that can be reframed with dignifying language?