I heard my mom’s laughter upstairs. “Michelle, come take a look at this!” I bolted up the steps and saw her pointing at the large stuffed animal mouse that stood in the corner of her bedroom. Its face was covered in lipstick, the red marks concentrated primarily on the lips and eyes. We considered the culprit – my little sister, who had just learned how to walk – and wondered how she’d managed to find a lipstick and create such a masterpiece during her short nap.
After some investigation, we figured that my sister had crawled over the guardrails on her bed, pushed aside obstacles that were supposed to keep her out of my mom’s drawer, picked out the lipstick and used it on the mouse, returned the lipstick in its rightful place in the drawer, and crawled back into bed as if nothing had happened. My mom tried to her best to reprimand my sister without breaking into a smile, and we both thought her plan was ingenious and adorable.
I remember marvelling at the keen awareness of a two-year-old. Whether she had seen my mom put on lipstick, me put on lip gloss, or a commercial advertising eye shadow, my sister understood the basic premise of make-up. While at her age it came down to mere curiosity and wanting to imitate the women around her, in our appearance-obsessed society there is a point where, for many young girls, curiosity can switch to insecurity.
During our documentary film tour this spring, I met someone who told me of a tactic that some traffickers were using in their area. They would go to a place where teenage girls were hanging out, like a mall or park, and strike up conversation. They’d find ways to compliment each girl in some way, whether it was about her hair, her eyes, or her body, and strategically gauge their reaction. Some girls would ignore them entirely. Others would respond with “thank you.” Some would immediately gush out “no I don’t” or “I’m so ugly,” and these were the girls that would be selected for the grooming process. A little attention goes a long way for a girl starved of self worth, and traffickers would merely pose as boyfriends, showering them with gifts, compliments, and affection, while gradually grooming them into a life of prostitution.
Those of us who are adult women have a responsibility to set an example for young girls. Are we masking our natural beauty because we are insecure? Do we complain about our bodies in front of our children, our nieces, our sisters? What are the possible repercussions of living out of fear? Let’s examine our hearts and our minds, so we can empower the younger generation to live with contentment, gratitude, and courage. It’s a subtle way to guard our children from predators seeking to exploit insecurity.
Jay and I love meeting fellow storytellers. Once of our favourites is Roxanne Krystalli, who has some wise words about stewarding the stories of those who have experienced violence and trauma. Based on her experience in conflict and post-conflict zones around the world, Roxanne shares some insights that we can all learn from.
Red Light Green Light addresses a critical piece of the anti-trafficking discussion that is often absent: prevention. Canada is currently reconsidering its prostitution laws, and a deeper understanding of this issue is timely and important for every Canadian who wants to prevent sexual exploitation. Other countries are also weighing various responses to sex trafficking, making Red Light Green Light an important part of the global discussion.
My husband, Jay, was chatting with children’s author Peter Reynolds this week, and Peter shared an incredibly insightful short video (3 mins) that relates to sex trafficking.
While we were filming our upcoming documentary, we interviewed a researcher who told us about a particularly disturbing tradition in the Philippines- young men are taken to brothels for their “initiation” into manhood. It’s considered ‘manly’ to pay for sex with a prostituted woman.
Which is interesting, because in socially progressive countries like Sweden, they see it oppositely- paying for sex isn’t considered manly, at all.
We can end commercial sexual exploitation in our lifetime. I believe we could do it in twenty years. And it starts with teaching men to honor women.
I recently watched It’s a Girl, a documentary about gendercide in India and China. It opened my eyes to how issues of gender inequality – domestic violence, rape, gendercide, sex trafficking, and income inequality – all bleed into each other. Evan Grae Davis, the director of It’s a Girl, kindly agreed to an interview with Hope for the Sold.
If you could use 5 words to describe the experience of making of It’s a Girl, what would they be?
What are some things you learned that surprised or shocked you?
As the Shadowline Films team traveled in India, we experienced many instances where we were surprised or shocked by discoveries we made about gendercide. For instance, we had understood that it was primarily poor families who were ridding themselves of girls because they could not afford dowry, so we were taken aback when we discovered that it is often just as common, and in some communities, more common among the wealthier class. The story of Dr. Mitu Khurana, who comes from a well-educated family of doctors and married into the same, but yet was tortured and harassed to have a sex-determination test and to abort her twin girls, was a real eye-opener.
The scale of devaluation and neglect of girls and women, from birth to old age, dismayed us. We were horrified to hear that dowry violence and bride burning was so common still today.
And the medical ethics issue, which was addressed by Dr. Puneet Bedi and Dr. Sabu George, surprised us. They spoke of the profit motive of doctors and purveyors of ultrasound technology to exploit the son preference culture in India for personal gain.
How does gendercide in China and India affect sex trafficking?
In both China and India, as a result of sex selection, there are far more men living today than women. In China, there are currently 37 million more men than women and over one million more boys are born than girls each year. In India, there are entire villages in some regions where there has not been a single female birth in a generation.
These severely skewed sex ratios have resulted in an epidemic of sex trafficking. In China, 70,000 girls are stolen from their families every year to be sold to other families who would otherwise have no hope of finding brides for their sons.
On a personal level, what was the most difficult interview for you to conduct and why?
Finding myself standing at the edge of a field in Southern India listening to a woman sharing how she had personally strangled eight of her own newborn daughters in her quest for a son was by far the most difficult interview. She shared so matter-of-factly, often smiling or laughing, as she talked about how she couldn’t afford to raise daughters and made statements like, “Women have the power to give life and the power to take it away.”
Later in the interview, she shared a song about her plight as a woman and the pain of being given in an arranged marriage at a young age. She told us how when she was 15, she was excelling in school and had high hopes for her future, when it was decided that she was to be given as a second wife to her sister’s husband because her sister was unable to have children. Her purpose in life was to bear her husband a son.
This was when gendercide took on a whole new meaning for me, because I realized she was simply a product of the environment in which she lives.
You mentioned that our post on compassion fatigue resonated with you. What was it like to hear such heartbreaking stories, day in day out, and how do you take care of yourself?
After nearly two decades of traveling the world capturing stories of human need for humanitarian and development non-profits and NGOs, I have learned the dangers of compassion fatigue. I have had to learn the balance between not allowing oneself to become numb or uncaring while at the same time protecting your heart from overloading on the seeming hopelessness and overwhelming scope of the need in the world.
But I have to admit, this project challenged me on a whole new level. Besides the multiple trips filming, editing 80 hours of footage into a one hour film over a year and a half sent me right to the edge. I have learned I have to keep reminding myself that I am doing what I can and making a difference and it isn’t up to me to single-handedly solve all the world’s problems (as much as I would like to).
How can we inspire men to be part of the movement? Clearly men feel they have much to lose by empowering women, but what do you think they could gain by doing so?
I have often been asked at film screenings by audiences of 99.9% women why so few men are involved in the movement to end violence against women. I can’t speak for other men, but my journey to becoming an VAW activist began when filming for It’s a Girl in India. I felt intense anger towards the men perpetrating this violence on women. At the same time, I imagined my own wife and daughter (who was 11 at the time) suffering the same fate and felt anger at the thought of good men who might be in a position to defend them, but chose to stand passively by.
But I also think it must be acknowledged that many men may not become involved because the women’s empowerment movement can often feel like a hostile place for men. Sometimes, the most vocal and aggressive women in the feminist movement can make statements implicating all of mankind. The message this sends to the majority of good men who honor and respect women is that we really can’t win in this, we are going to be lumped in with the bad men anyway, so why try. The men who we want involved are the men who are practicing values of honoring women in their own lives , and often don’t even think about it because they grew up in a home that taught them those values, like mine.
Previous to my life-changing experience filming It’s a Girl, I believed that loving and honoring the women in my own life was enough. But I no longer believe that. More men need to take action and add their voices to the movement. I challenge men every chance I get to not remain silent.
You’ve probably had a variety of responses from the film so far. Are there any that stand out to you?
We have been honored and humbled by the amazing response to It’s a Girl! In the few short months since It’s a Girl hit the world stage, over 400,000 people have joined the cause, with thousands more adding to that number every week! Nearly 1 million actions have been taken, ranging from signing petitions to donating to our partners working to combat gendercide in India and China on the front lines.
But above all, we are most proud of the many of you who have responded to the call to action and become culture changers and activists in your own spheres of influence as a result of seeing It’s a Girl. Besides the ongoing dedication of organizations like Women’s Rights Without Frontiers and Invisible Girl Project, there have been some who have stepped up and taken action representing the kind of response we could only dream of.
People like Deesh Sekhon, a wife and mother from Abbotsford, BC who, after seeing the trailer, launched GirlKind Foundation, which is advocating and educating for change in cultural beliefs and taking a stand against Gendercide in India. People like former UN diplomat Michael Platzer and his team, who, after seeing It’s a Girl, organized a one-day symposium at the UN in Vienna on fighting femicide (gendercide), where ambassadors, social scientists, NGO representatives, statisticians, lawyers and feminist activists had the opportunity to speak about gendercide, explain its meaning and causes, and present examples of best practice in fighting gendercide.
I wish I could mention all of the champions who have stepped up after seeing the film and made it all worth while! We look forward to 2013 being a year that history will look back upon as a turning point in the battle to restore value and equality to the women of India and China.
Are there any hopeful trends or stories that signify hope for change?
There is significant work occurring on many fronts in the battle to end gendercide. As the issue gains more exposure through the stories coming out of India and China, and as more people become aware, we are seeing champions and heroes of the cause emerging practically every day! But the son preference culture that underlies gendercide is the result of centuries-old traditions and beliefs and will not change overnight.
But there are many who are innovating new ways to bring change. For instance, Will Muir is an Indian businessman who has started an organization called Equal Community Foundation, and is working to change the fundamental attitudes men have towards women and engage men and boys as a positive force in the fight for the rights of women and girls. He has recruited innovators and creative thinkers throughout Asia to help determine new ideas for mobilizing men to understand and defend the value and dignity of women in India.
Will is just one example of a movement growing throughout the world today. My hope is that It’s a Girl will educate and mobilize many more to join this movement and, one day, we will see gendercide become a distant memory of the past.
I’ve been listening to this song on the radio this week, and watched an interview with Serena Ryder about how depression can leave people overwhelmed and paralyzed. Her song talks about overcoming these struggles, and I thought it would serve as a perfect follow-up to my previous post about compassion fatigue. This song is for all of you who are survivors of exploitation trying to move on, as well as those of you working day in, day out trying to make a difference. STOMPA!
Last week in LA’s San Fernando Valley, where 95% of the world’s legal porn is made or distributed, Jay and I met a wonderful woman named Harmony. Harmony used to be a stripper and now runs Treasures, an organization that comes alongside women to help them discover their worth and purpose in an industry that leaves so many empty.
Recently Harmony joined up with Crissy, an ex-porn star, and Bronwen, an ex-prostitute, to launch a short film series called X-Girls. In it, these three women answer questions about life in and after the sex industry. (Note: I usually use the word “prostituted” instead of “prostitute,” but for this post I will let it reflect the series).
How did the three of you meet?
I met Crissy soon after she made the bold decision to walk away from porn. At that point, she was still under contract and had already signed away the rights to the content her website was using. She was making at least $15,000 a month in residual income from her website alone. After unsuccessfully trying to get them to take the site down, they asked her where they should continue to send her checks. She told them she didn’t want any money from them and decided to never take another dime from that industry. She has been courageous since the beginning and has always had a heart to use her story to inspire others. It has been an honor to be her mentor for the past 6 years.
As for Bronwen, I was in Australia at a conference and met someone who knew Bronwen. She was determined to connect us, saying “I met someone just like you! You have to meet her!” I hear that from time to time, but in this case, it was true. In Bronwen I found a kindred friend. It’s like our heart beats to the same drum. The fact that we live on opposite sides of the globe hasn’t stood in the way of our friendship thanks to Skype and airplanes! She has become like a sister to me.
Why did you create this series, and why now?
The strategy of Treasures has always been to reach locally and think globally. That is why we have offered Sex Industry Outreach Trainings for leaders interested in developing sex industry outreaches in their communities for the past 7 years. My desire is to see an outreach happening in every major city across the globe. So far we are up to 60 cities with Treasures-trained outreaches!
At the same time, given that there are more women in the sex industry than any other time in history, there are thousands upon thousands of women who don’t have local support. This became especially clear to us when we were featured in Glamour Magazine. We were so inundated with calls and emails from women around the world looking for help that it crashed our website, email and phone lines!
Since then, we have always been thinking about strategies that would help us reach and serve these women. When we started offering workshops for the women here in LA, a light bulb went on. I realized that if we could create something web-based on the same topics we were developing workshops for, we could reach a much broader audience. Because we believe that story is so powerful, I thought who better to be a voice in this than women who have “been there”. In order to capture a wider range of experiences, I thought it would be a good idea to get a couple of friends together who had worked in different areas of the sex industry. And that is how the idea of X Girls was birthed An x-stripper, x-porn star and an x-prostitute answering questions about the impact of the sex industry and life after sex work.
What has the response been so far?
My hope for X Girls is that not only will it reach women who don’t have the benefit of local support, but it will also be used by sex industry outreaches to facilitate support groups in their communities. To help with that we are developing a curriculum that will be released in March, 2013.
So far, the response to X Girls has been awesome! I am so thrilled to have this tool available and am really believing that it will bring breakthrough to our viewers. In just two weeks we have already had over 4,700 views. I believe that this is just the beginning!
You can watch the rest of episode 1, which includes Crissy’s and Bronwen’s stories, as well as episode 2, in which the X Girls talk about “getting out and staying out” here.
Episode 3 coming soon!
If you know someone in the sex industry, or others who would be interested or encouraged by the X-Girls series, please spread the word.
For more on Treasures, you can check out their website. Harmony has also written a book called Scars and Stillettos, which is currently sitting on my night table as my next read!
Harmony, thank you for your incredible courage, your contagious joy, and your passion to love others as you are loved.
We have been on the road for a couple of months now, and sometimes we don’t have the best opportunities to eat healthy meals. There have been days where crackers and cookies get us through the day, after which we don’t feel very good. A real meal is such a luxury.
I recently came across this video clip on Holly Austin Smith’s blog. It offers us a glimpse into some of the everyday moments that victims of sexual exploitation experience. It is quite moving. When we think of trafficking victims, our minds usually go to the trauma of the sexual acts themselves, as well as the abuse that goes along with “the life.” But there are more subtle traumas that most people don’t realize – like that of being alone, or eating unhealthy road snacks as if they were meals, or bearing the judgment of others.
Sometimes it is easy to figure out what someone does, but it is much harder to know their story. May this be a reminder to us to extend love, grace, and understanding to those around us, especially those who we would more easily judge or look down upon.
This week we met with a lovely woman from Brazil who was trafficked to Switzerland for prostitution. She was willing to take part in an audio interview, which ended up being over an hour in length. By the end, the emotion in that room was palpable.
I often struggle knowing what to say to someone who has experienced such violence and trauma. But I set aside my fears of saying the wrong thing, looked her directly in the eyes, and told her she was beautiful, and brave, and precious. Tears streamed down her face. Words of life have more power than we realize, especially when someone has heard so many words of death. As I’ve reflected on this encounter, Toby Mac’s Speak Life has become the week’s theme song.