Because so much of it goes on in cultures we little understand, we seldom hear about it. The details given here are similar to those I would often hear about in my refugee hearing room.
Made by Survivors is one organization that’s addressing the situation. If things go as I think they will, it won’t be long before many more organizations will join in as well. Thanks to Laurie and Geoff.
Kathleen McGowan, Made by Survivors
The United Nations released a statistic recently that declared that there are 27 million people enslaved worldwide.
I hate that number.
I hate that number for so many reasons. I hate it, first and foremost, for what it is: a sad and terrible statement of how far humanity needs to go to end this terrible plague of slavery. But the real crime of this number is that it is so huge that it is overwhelming. The number is a disservice to activists in the abolition movement in many ways, because when it is quoted, we watch people shut down. Their eyes roll back a little in their heads and they take an almost imperceptible step back. 27 MILLION? How is that possible?
Recently at a Made By Survivors fundraiser, I used this number in my presentation. I knew it was a risk, because when people are faced with a number this big, their first instinct is to shut down. The natural first reaction is: I can’t possibly have an impact on a problem of such extreme and global proportions.
But I have seen another reaction to this number that is stronger than mere resistance. It’s denial. Following my speech about the personal and visceral reasons which caused me to get involved in the issue of trafficking in the first place, Sarah Symons took over at the microphone. Sarah is the founder of MBS and a constant inspiration to me. Sarah related a few personal stories about the girls we work with in India, stories that moved almost everyone in the audience to tears. I have heard these stories before and know the truths behind them, yet they impact me to the core every single time.
The one man in the audience who was clearly not moved approached me following the speeches. He cornered me, angry and aggressive, demanding to know where that number of 27 million comes from. He barraged me with a verbal landslide of all of the reasons why this number cannot possibly be real, why it is impossible to estimate the number of enslaved humans on earth. He implied that it was all invented for the purpose of fundraising.
I took a deep breath and tried to keep my own reaction under control.
My first instinct was to dish his aggression right back to him. I wanted to rant, “Mister, you have just heard truly terrible stories about how young girls are sold as commodities, tortured and abused in unspeakable ways, and how we are trying to stop that from happening. If after hearing these stories the only thing you can focus on is the MATH, then I think you have some soul searching of your own to do. YOU are part of the problem. Why don’t you leave the dark side of apathy and denial and come into the light and actually do something to make a difference?”
I did not say that. What I said was this, “That statistic comes from the UN. You are free to call them and ask how they gather their data. Have a nice night and thank you for listening to the presentations. I hope you got something more out of them than just a number.”
I vowed then to never use that cursed number in any future presentation.
Flash forward five months and I am in rural West Bengal, volunteering in a women’s shelter for survivors of trafficking and little girls at high risk. Here are 27 of the most beautiful, precious, loving little girls and young women I have ever had the privilege to meet. Each of them has a deeply moving – and often, horrifically dark – story of what has brought them to this place. The shelter is clean, bright and run by incredibly caring women. It is a haven of safety and hope for each of these girls.
But it is also radically overcrowded and underfunded, with the majority of the girls sleeping in one large room in a series of bunk beds. The girls have chosen to cover the walls with posters of their heroes: Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, the great Bengali spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda, and the poet laureate of India, Rabindranath Tagore. They have made their shelter a shrine to service and spirit; they have made the most of what they have been given. But they are in dire need of a larger space.
The greatest threats to rescued and “at risk” girls are the lack of shelter facilities and the insufficient resources to protect and care for them once they are rescued. In this region, the ruined economy and decline of the local tea trade has added to the poverty and exacerbated the trafficking problem. There is a desperate need here for far more shelter space.
The good news: A spectacular piece of land has been donated by a local man to create a safe, new shelter home in a beautiful environment. Once completed, the new facility will have the ability to hold up to 125 girls comfortably. The challenging news: The building project is stalled because an additional 50,000 dollars is needed to complete the first level, which would provide 6000 square feet of nearly immediate living space for healing survivors, most of whom are minors, in this region.
In my years of fundraising for Made By Survivors, my friends and readers have joined me in funding a number of important projects, but I believe that this is the most important of all thus far. It is also the biggest challenge, and the hardest number to reach. But it is a challenge that I have decided deserves my total commitment. In response, I have created the Heaven On Earth Campaign to raise the $50,000 by October of this year, when it is desperately needed. I like that number 50. I celebrated my 50th birthday while I was in Asia doing this work, and it felt appropriate for me to make the pledge on my 50th birthday.
Meet one of the Survivors who will benefit from this project:
The Girl from Bangladesh, by Kathleen McGowan
The newest arrival to the shelter stands in the corner, quietly. She appears to be in her early to mid-teens. Her eyes are huge and filled with terror. She is in a safe place, one filled with love and compassion for all she has endured – but has not yet accepted this as her reality. She is fresh from her ordeal, and all she knows is mistrust and trauma. It does not seem possible that there will ever be a world where there is safety for her. To imagine this is beyond her current capacity, for to begin the process of imagining safety is dangerous. It makes one weak. And the risks are too great.
Because what if she allows herself that one little moment of imagining, of letting down the guard, of believing it is possible that she may actually be in a place of real safety – and then she turns out to be wrong? The idea of enduring that brand of psychological torture, is beyond bearing ever again. It is easier to believe that one can never again know real safety or trust than to risk having such hope dashed yet again. All of this is apparent on her achingly beautiful face as she watches the younger girls giggle and display their sports trophies and crayon drawings to us. She stands apart from all of them.
Aloka Mitra, the founder and chairman of our partner organization in India, Women’s Interlink Foundation, has done this work for 40 years. She recognizes the stages of trauma that a rescued girl goes through. Aloka calls the girl over and begins to speak with her softly. She asks the girl a question in her native Bengali. The girl says nothing in reply but the unshed tears behind her eyes come to the surface. They are never far away.
Aloka coaxes her to speak, stroking her hair in a maternal way, reassuring her she is safe. She tells the girl that we are here to ensure that no one hurts her again. She asks her a few more questions in Bengali, and the girls slender shoulders begin to shake as the tears break through completely.
The Girl from Bangladesh, we shall call her Anika, is 17 but looks younger. It is as if her face has maintained the innocence she possessed prior to the terrible time before was sold. And she is tiny from malnutrition. She came from a very poor area of Dhaka, and she just wanted to help her mother. She was offered a job by a local man, an opportunity to make money to help her mother and little sister. It would require her to leave Bangladesh for West Bengal, but the money she could make to save her family would be worth it.
This is perhaps the most common of the trafficker’s tricks: the promise of a job, and of some relief from terrible poverty. The girls who are at risk for this tactic are the most vulnerable members of our human family: too young, too poor, too compassionate, too desperate to help their mothers and younger siblings in any way possible. It works every time. Anika is just one of the countless girls who have lost their freedom due to their desperation to help their families.
Anika was trafficked to India and imprisoned in a brothel where she endured abuse that is unimaginable to most of us in the civilized world. These girls are trapped in windowless, concrete cells where they are forced to service up to 20 clients per day. Escape is impossible, and refusal to cooperate is met with terrifying violence – and threats against the family back home. If you try to escape we will kill your mother and do the same to your baby sister. Their ordeal is the very definition of cruelty.
But it is not the re-telling of her story that makes Anika shake with her tears. It is the kindness that she is receiving from Aloka. It is the realization in this moment that someone is offering her a future which does not include violence, abuse and terror. I do not speak Bengali, but Aloka later translates for me. Yet even before hearing the story in English, it is told on the girl’s face and through her body language.
Aloka: You need to start thinking about what trade you would like to learn. We will educate you, and help you find something that you really love to do.
Anika: No, you won’t. Why would you – a stranger in India – spend money to give a poor and worthless girl like me an education?
Aloka: Because you are a perfect and beautiful young woman, a valued member of the human race. And you have much to offer.
Anika: How can you say that when I am so ruined?
Aloka: You are not ruined. People hurt you because you were poor and they were cruel and greedy. Nothing that has happened to you is your fault. We can return you to Dhaka to be with your mother and sister if that is what you want.
At the mention of returning to Bangladesh, Anika looks panic stricken. She then confesses that she is 5 months pregnant. By the time she understood her condition, it was too late to do anything about it. Since she arrived at the shelter, she has received medical care for herself and the baby. But she cannot go back to Bangladesh pregnant as she would be ostracized and never accepted back into her community. Anika says that she prefers to stay here and have the baby, give it up for adoption, and get an education.
Aloka: If you have a trade, whether you return to Bangladesh or If you remain here, you will be valuable to your community as an empowered woman who can earn money. Now, what do you think you would like to do? You can go to beautician school, or learn clerical skills, or you can enter our jewelry and design program. Do any of these things interest you?
Anika, just cries as the shadows returns to her face. The last person who spoke to her about having a future sold her into sexual slavery. It is almost too much to consider that this time could be different.
But this time it is different, and it is different because of YOU. Because you care enough to make a contribution to this shelter, we can expand our operations in this region of rural India where there is such a great need for shelter space. Girls who are rescued from slavery face heavy odds of being trafficked again because there is not enough shelter space to keep them safe. We can change that. We will change that. 100% of the money raised in this campaign is going directly to building the new shelter where Anika and up to 125 of her sisters will be cared for, educated and given vocational training. Thank you for being a part of our global family. Thank you for caring about our sisters and daughters in India.