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.



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?