Voices to the Voiceless: Confronting Sex-Trafficking and Other Gender-based Issues Worldwide by M. Pitter

We are living in an age still plagued by slavery and direct violations on human rights, a modern age in which there are people brutalized out of whim or exploited as chattel for red light pleasures. Millions of young girls worldwide, born into destitution often find themselves as the products of the sex traffic industry while a multitude of others are considered insignificant enough to be forgotten, to die pitifully from treatable conditions. By virtue of their helplessness, they easily become victims in various respects, which effectively subdues their abilities to establish agency over themselves. Trafficking, an international system, is one major manifestation, among others, of the unfortunate qualities of womanhood in many places. Conditions of extreme poverty often fail to protect women medically or economically, which leaves them to eke out a most abject existence in which a great suspension of hope amongst them is certainly justified. In response to these horrors, New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn travelled to certain parts of Asia and Africa, where these occurrences are especially rampant and severe, to document what they saw and heard from people which resulted in a book entitled Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and resulted also in the emergence of a movement aimed at freeing these women from bondage and despair.

An Indian Brothel

Nicholas Kristof writes in a New York Times op-ed piece that in a Sierra Leone treatment center for the sexually assaulted, he “met a 3-year-old patient named Jessica [who] had been raped and was infected with gonorrhea.”[i] Shockingly, the ages of like-victims range from 2-months-old to 5-years-old to 12 and beyond. The sheer lack of representation for these girls in various parts of both Africa and Asia allows for these disturbing acts against them to happen. Rape, sex slavery and inadequate attention to maternal health that renders womanhood an utter curse are widespread in Europe and the United States as well. But according to Kristof, in war-stricken places like Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Congo, sexual violence and sex-based discrimination occurs often without much attention paid. Such predicaments under which populations of females find themselves deny them the opportunities to live, to educate themselves and to eventually achieve economic independence, as modern humans should.

In Ethiopia, a 21-year-old peasant named Simeesh Segaye became pregnant but then “endured two days of obstructed labor.”[ii] As inadequate transport from her home to a hospital denied her a living baby, “she began leaking urine and feces from her vagina, a result of a childbirth injury called obstetric fistula.” The foul smell of a dead baby inside of her led her to being ousted from the bus. Living, ashamed and still carrying the baby, in a hut outside of her family’s home where she barely ate or drank, she curled “in a fetal position for two years, thinking about killing herself.” Her family could not afford to have her transported to a hospital. Eventually, after the sale of the family’s livestock, her skeletal self was brought to Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital where she received treatment and underwent recovery. She almost became one of the hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian women who die each year in childbirth.

Awareness of these heinous truths, as a means to bring aid to the suffering, has been on the rise. As these global issues indeed draw global attention, the efforts of some observers and activists in America have stood out as effective in the liberation of these women into a state of being where each can manage the future course of her life.

Women Suffer Worldwide

The Half The Sky Movement set on “Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” was inspired by a documentary based on the book of the same title written by New York Times journalists Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. These demonstrations of concern function as potential catalysts to call upon citizens of the world to take action in the resistance against gender-based inequality. Those involved range from college students to celebrities to a collection of NGOs to ex-victims and to anyone who cares, essentially.

Joshua Bennett, a producer at Show Of Force, an award winning production company  that created the Half The Sky documentary, explains that the tactics in approaching this cause are “centered around individual storytelling”. This gives voice to the voiceless “that speaks to the larger truths and that hopefully provokes an emotional and cathartic response” pushing viewers to finally act. The descriptions of and the solutions to the day-to-day problems experienced by these girls are not imposed upon them from without but rather from within; those afflicted tell the stories themselves providing a genuine basis for why they need the global audience to pay attention and help.

In Cambodia, a woman named Somaly Mam, an ex-prostitute “managed to escape…the brothel-owners [who] just wanted to kill her”[iii] after her evasion. She relayed to Nicholas Kristof her experiences of caged torture. In her freedom, she started AFESIP and the Somaly Mam Foundation, anti-trafficking groups that fight the brothels and help other poor girls escape and provide support and educational training to empower them. To date, she’s rescued over 7,000 girls.

Somaly Mam

In Kenya, a woman named Jane Ngoiri,“a prostitute-turned-businesswoman”, was forced into selling herself because of her economic situation. Doing it to fund her children’s education, she could not resist the overriding truth that “poverty becomes self-replicating.”[iv]With a small loan from Jamii Bora, a Kenyan microfinance organization, Jane began a dressmaking business, creating girls’ dresses from old wedding dresses, and making enough money to send her three children to school. “You do see that these are solvable problems”, says Bennett. Her education in this trade literally set her free from prostitution. Here, we see that “education goes hand in hand with lifting girls out of poverty so that they have opportunities.”

Prostitution in Europe

Nicholas Kristof and the Show Of Force group convey an unwavering optimism in their work. As Poverty itself creates the conditions that absorb these women into misery and render them disposable objects, it is Poverty itself that activists are confronting. Joshua Bennett states that the Show Of Force group is taking a “more holistic approach…[where] everyone has a piece of the Movement”, including well known celebrities like Gabrielle Union. (And while celebrities are only one part of the film, says Renée Muza from Show Of Force, they certainly are “magnetic” and able to draw people to the cause). But with this arsenal of collective effort, “overcoming poverty is [still] a tumultuous and uncertain task, but it can be done”[v] says Nicholas Kristof. Again, education gives the learnèd more opportunities to move about on their own.

Children in Lalibela, Ethiopia (credit: M. Pitter/In Parentheses)

Education in something, whether a trade or lay economics or something, is a step towards a more liberating, self-reliant existence for many of these battered girls. Co-producer at Show Of Force Rachel Koteen quoted Bennett saying that “there isn’t a silver bullet but rather a silver buckshot” in the sense that there is not one approach to the grand Solution of this truly multifaceted issue. Activists need to apply a range of tactics to combat the over all problem of poverty. There is no imposition of an American set of beliefs but only the “general human idea of wanting to live a life free from violence, free from pain, free from hunger” says Koteen. The more people learn of the global sex-based slavery, discrimination and inequality today, the more pressure that will be put on the regions of the world where it all happens for the practices to end and for those committing the practices to be brought to justice.

The Half The Sky documentary is set to broadcast on PBS October 1st and 2nd at 9PM Eastern Standard Time. For more information please visit: http://www.halftheskymovement.org/

[i] Kristof, Nicholas. “In This Rape Center, the Patient was 3” The New York Times Sunday Review: The Opinion Pages. 8 Oct 2011.

[ii] Kristof, Nicholas. “‘They Think They’ve Been Cursed by God’” The New York Times: The Opinion Pages. 25 Feb 2007.

[iii] Kristof, Nicholas. “Human Trafficking, There and Here” The New York Times: On te Ground. 1 May 2011.

[iv] Kristof, Nicholas. “Sewing Her Way Out of Poverty” The New York Times: The Opinion Pages. 14 Sept 2011.

[v] Ibid.

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