The Predatory Community
There was no mistaking it, walking through the narrow, crowded, pollution-filled alleyways of Sonagachi, the largest “red light district” in Asia: the economic engine of this community is sex trafficking. The merchandise is the bodies of girls and young women, often kidnapped in their native countries of Nepal and Bangladesh and enslaved in what their buyers and sellers call “sex work,” really serial rape coupled with false imprisonment. The wealth their enslavement generates flows out of the pockets of the buyers, most of whom, it appears, are ordinary male citizens of Kolkata (I didn’t see the Western sex tourists so prevalent in the red light districts of Southeast Asia), into the bank accounts of the traffickers and brothel landlords. Our guides from Apne Aap pointed out the luxurious homes looming in stark contrast over the hovels where the women and their children struggle to survive. This community extinguishes the hopes and dreams, the health and futures of its women, many brought here as teenagers and discarded as broken, prematurely aged old women. This community devours its girls.
This wasn’t a completely new phenomenon to me. Last year at a conference in Puebla, Mexico, I had the opportunity to visit Sonagachi’s Latin American equivalent: a series of small, Mexican towns, the best known of which is Tenancingo. I first heard about Tenancingo from several of Sanctuary’s clients, young women from Mexico who had escaped sexual slavery. Unlike Sonagachi, Tenancingo wasn’t their eventual home; it was that of their fiancés, a place the women stayed in relatively briefly. Schooled to be pimps, like all of the boys in their town, the men take their victims home for seduction and grooming, promising them homes in which to live and raise their children– if they follow the plan. The plan is prostitution, first in Mexico City and then in the United States, where the big money is.
At first glance the rural Mexican towns seem the antithesis of Sonagachi: sleepy, picturesque, a lovely stucco church in the center, a procession of congregants following their priest carrying a crucifix standard, old women and children looking on. But then you see the telltale signs: glimpses of teenage girls in posadas and beauty parlors where they are being readied for sale in the big cities. Furtive movements behind the shutters fronting the windows: we were being watched. Next to the shabby little houses, large garish mansions—the ostentatious homes of the local pimps. As in Sonagachi, the economic engine of this community is sex trafficking. Like Sonagachi, this community feeds on the women brought to it as teenagers.
At our first Move to End Violence gathering, like Martin Luther King we envisioned a beloved community. That vision becomes even more precious in the face of actual communities so dangerous that the only hope for survival of the women and girls in their maw is escape. The women of Sonagachi know that: the lucky ones save the lives and futures of their daughters by sending them away to boarding schools. Their and their daughters’ good fortune comes at a terrible psychological cost to both. We saw it in the tears of the mothers who wept at their separation from their girls. One can only imagine the price paid by the daughters who must live with the knowledge of their mothers’ sacrifice and the degradation it entailed.
So much of my work as a lawyer and director of a legal services program in New York City involves assistance to those who have had to escape their communities to survive. For many, perhaps even most of them, there is no going back. There are the two Afghani teenage cousins whose parents had begun to beat them because they suspected the girls had boyfriends and were making plans to take them back home to Kabul to force them into marriage, or if the girls resisted, prostitution. From other regions of the world–scores of countries in the Middle East and Africa– there are the girls and women for whom acceptance in their communities, respectability and marriageability (the two are synonymous), requires enduring the surgeon’s scalpel, or more commonly, the old woman’s dirty razor. Women who resist face persecution and ostracism; little girls who resist are dragged into huts, held down, and cut. For our LGBTQ clients, communities can be especially violent, requiring them to conceal their sexual identities or face physical attacks, imprisonment, or even death. For almost all our clients, when the community is not the direct source of persecution, it is complicit in its indifference, the excuses it makes for abusers, the harsh judgments it levels at victims, its failure to protect.
I believe that Martin Luther King knew this all too well. The beloved community he evoked stands in stark contrast to the communities of the post-Reconstruction South in which he came of age. There, systematic disenfranchisement, racial segregation, and racial violence, including lynching—all that has come to be denoted as Jim Crow—were community norms for African Americans. The only hope was protection from the federal government through enforcement of the Civil Rights Acts, effectively used to stop Klan terror until a President hostile to racial equality stopped enforcing them. By the end of the first decade of the Twentieth Century, it became clear that the only solution was escape: millions of African Americans fled their communities in the South to the industrial cities of the North in what is now called “The Great Migration.”
What are the lessons for those of us yearning to realize the vision of the Beloved Community but confronting communities that pose a clear and present danger to the women, men, and children we represent as “the last girl”? First, I think it is imperative that we recognize and confront the reality of that danger. This, in fact, has been a major contribution of the global feminist movement: the Platform of Action that emerged from the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995 identified the three arenas of violence against women as violence “occurring in the family,” violence “perpetrated or condoned by the State,” and violence “occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment . . . [and] trafficking in women.”
Second, we must develop and implement strategies to protect and assist the women and girls—and men and boys—in danger in their communities. This may mean helping them physically leave hostile communities by providing them with help exiting them and with refuge and other assistance once they enter environments in which they are safe. Examples of such strategies include the boarding schools in which Apne Aap helps the daughters of trafficked women find safety. Another is the alternative community that Anurada Koirala, the founder of Maiti Nepal, has built for trafficked Nepali girls who have returned home from brothels in India, often HIV Positive, only to be rejected by their families and communities. In Turin, Italy, Esohe Aghatese, a lawyer originally from Nigeria, has developed a program with shelter, counseling, and legal services for girls and women trafficked from Nigeria into Italy by exploiters who terrorize and control their victims with black magic rites. Return to Nigeria too often places victims back in the control of their traffickers.
Third, women and girls forced to flee their communities require much more than refuge: they need on-going legal and social supports as well as assistance building alternative communities that provide them with loving relationships, economic security, and a sense of family, not just in the short term but for the long haul. Understandably focused on emergency assistance and safety to women and families in crisis, this is something that few organizations offer, Maiti Nepal being a notable exception. At Sanctuary for Families we’ve taken steps in this direction. Not only do we provide legal and counseling services to women long after they have emerged from crisis but we offer groups that enable our immigrant clients who have fled abuse to build relationships and support systems with others who share their language and culture.
Finally, we must identify communities in which seeds of the Beloved Community can be planted and nurture their growth. I have seen the potential for Beloved Community in some unlikely places. A few years ago one of our staff members, a talented young community organizer, spearheaded an event called the Day of AWE (African Women’s Empowerment) in City Hall. Scores of our African clients, almost all survivors of domestic violence and female genital mutilation and many of child marriage as well, poured into the New York City Council chambers. Many raised their hands and demanded to share the stage with the panelists. They spoke with eloquence and emotion about the violence they had survived and the need for change in their communities. I didn’t realize then that some of the members of the media filming their testimony would broadcast it back in the home countries from which many of the speakers had been granted asylum. At the next week’s support group, Mariama Diallo, its facilitator, heard from our clients that rather than sparking outrage back home the coverage had elicited admiration. Families and communities were proud of their sisters and daughters for their evident stature in their new country and for speaking out so boldly.
The last girl as a change agent within her own community? Not inside Sonagachi or Tenancingo, at least not anytime in the immediate future. Obviously we cannot leave brutalized women and girls or their male counterparts at the mercy of predatory communities. But if provided with protection and support, if empowered through education, if nurtured within an alternative Beloved Community, will the last girl emerge equipped for this urgent task? I’m counting on her.
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