As part of my volunteer work here, I have been spending time with women who are current or former prostitutes -- some of whom have been trafficked, some were coerced and some whose realities were so bad it didn't make a difference to them one way or another. Some choose sex work to pay their way through school or support their family. I visit women in brothels, in the Immigration Detention Center and on the street. Some are mothers, some are orphans. Most are cisgender, some are trans. A few are from as far away as Madagascar. Evidently, it's not the singing lemur paradise I thought it was. The Bangkok money-for-sex scene unfortunately appeals to such diverse groups of men from around the world that you meet women from just about everywhere.
Sometimes I'm amazed at the access I have to vulnerable people, but then I realize it's because no one else wants to hang out with them. I show up on day one and they tell me their whole story, perhaps because no one has ever showed up before, or because they know their story is the only currency they have left. I am not a social worker or counselor -- I'm barely even a compassionate person (just ask my husband when he's sick how compassionate I am). My brother recently visited and I gave him a tour of the redlight area near my house where some friends I know work. He asked why I do this, why I visit with women and children in and around the redlight areas. He asked if it's one of those making-a-difference-to-that-one-starfish kind of thing. My answer surprised me as I said it, "I just can't look away. I can't not be here." I guess that's why. I am the weirdest bystander ever.
There are very real constraints that make any grandiose ideas of progress in anti-trafficking work, particularly in Southeast Asia, seem almost laughable. President Obama just last week signed an anti-slavery bill that will hopefully limit Americans' access to imported goods produced by slaves, which is great. But was anyone else kind of eye-rolling that this hadn't been done already? It's a complex problem, sure. The women I know tell stories brought to you by such deep-rooted, intractable problems as... WAR! GENDER INEQUALITY! RACISM! OIL PRICES! Trafficking is oftentimes a problem of migration or crumbling former Soviet or post-colonial, post-war African economies. Does anyone feel like taking on colonization and sex trafficking on any given day? Hell no. In terms of living in Bangkok specifically, an article came out last week that helped me to contextualize my angst. The New York Times Southeast Asia bureau chief wrote about living in and covering the area for the last nine years:
I despaired at the venality of the elites and the corruption that engulfed the lives of so many people I interviewed. I came to see Southeast Asia as a land of great people and bad governments, of remarkable graciousness but distressing levels of impunity.
Trying to make anti-trafficking headway in this atmosphere of impunity is like trying to save raindrops from drowning. So... why am I here? How dumb am I, really? Technically, I am a philanthropy and communications consultant. Reading Gloria Steinem and Eve Ensler's accounts of women they've met is the closest I've ever come to recognizing myself. They are Women (with a capital W) who listen to other women and tell their stories, elevating their voices. This is what I've ended up doing by default, in my desire to just do something, to bear witness. I sit with people, refugees and women in sex work, and hear their stories, creating a space for their past traumas and future selves to co-mingle. I don't even share the stories anywhere; It's just letting people be themselves. I hope that every woman I meet recognizes her inherent worth and value and feels accepted down to her very soul. A shortcut would be to use the word empowerment. Empowerment is so hot right now. As a tagline, it's nice and concise and tells a story. But I try really hard not to use the E word when I am the subject of the sentence. I empower women or this organization empowers women reveals a dangerous subtext. Utilizing my privilege (time, money, and safe, quiet spaces), I try to be with them in their grief or triumph and hope that they begin the process of empowering themselves. Listening is a quiet revolution. A woman I visited with in IDC thanked me for listening and said it helped her feel strong. Empowerment is, if you're doing it right, a spectator sport. You can create the space and be present. I'm amazed by how strong these women are who are in the process of saving themselves.
"Power can be taken but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment in itself." -Gloria Steinem
Once I've heard and listened, the temptation is to use the stories to draw attention to myself or to "the cause." But I've struggled time and again with telling the stories of the women I meet. It's just not up to me. I'm grateful for Eve Ensler traveling to Congo and Gloria Steinem working alongside Native American women and telling their stories. But I hope that we are moving towards more women telling stories for themselves and the rest of us LISTENING. There is so much to be learned, so many women who are capable of claiming their own power. This can be relational, one-on-one sharing, or public or, sometimes, if she so chooses, not at all. Sometimes it's just too painful to deal with and what's done and the pain is best left in the past. My greatest accomplishment here will not be what I say, but what I'm trusted with hearing.
On Wednesday, I go back to the States for work, carrying the stories of these women with me. I'm hoping to come back in a month with fresh ideas for how to help these women tell their own stories and move on and through and up. Perspective and distance will hopefully help. Also, queso.