Last Reviewed on April 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1547
Srey Rath recounts her story dispassionately as a tropical rainstorm falls over the busy border town of Poipet, Cambodia. As she speaks, her fidgeting hands betray “only a hint of anxiety or trauma” in the otherwise confident teenager.
She was fifteen when she and her friends were tricked by a trafficker with a false job offer. They were peasant girls from rural Cambodia—pretty and poor—and their jobs agent claimed to have work for them in a restaurant in Thailand. Instead, they were taken farther, to the seemingly “safe and welcoming” Malaysian capital city, Kuala Lumpur. There, among signs they could not read and a language they could not speak, their new boss explained that they owed him a debt. After rapes, beatings, and death threats, Rath was forced to “simulate joy” as customers without condoms paid to have sex with her. She worked fifteen hours each day.
Eventually, she and three others were able to escape by crawling across an unsteady plank of wood balanced between the girls’ tenth-floor balcony and an adjacent building. When they asked for help at a police station, they were arrested for illegal immigration. Rath spent a year in a Malaysian prison before being driven to Thailand by an officer who she believed was taking her home. Instead, he sold her to another brothel.
Two months after the policeman betrayed her, Srey Rath escaped from the Thai brothel and traveled home to Cambodia. A social worker and aid organization provided the support and funding that enabled Rath to begin selling fruit from a cart in Poipet. She used her “good looks and outgoing personality,” as well as her entrepreneurial spirit, to expand from a small cart of merchandise to a stall. Now married with a young son, she is able to support her parents and sisters with the profits from her business.
Kristof and WuDunn consider Rath to be an example of the power of women and girls to transform the social and economic growth of a nation. The authors summarize research by development economists who conclude that when women thrive financially, they raise the standard of living not only for themselves but also for their families and communities. This “girl effect” on global poverty contributes to better nutrition, health, and education outcomes; greater economic productivity; and reduced rates of infant and maternal mortality.
Meena Hasina was “eight or nine years old” when she was kidnapped and sold into the sex trade. She tells the authors that despite “merciless” beatings, she was able to fight off each of the initial customers who had paid for her virginity. Her resistance enraged the brothel’s owners, who fed her wine and raped her. When she awoke and realized what they had done, she considered herself “wasted” and began to comply with the customers’ demands. Before long, she became pregnant, and her two children were taken away to live with the brothel’s owner, Ainul Bibi.
Ainul Bibi participated in “intergenerational prostitution,” a practice where the children of prostitutes are raised to become prostitutes themselves. Meena, desperate to protect her children as they grew older, escaped to the local police station and begged for help. When corrupt officers returned her to the brothel, she knew she would be killed. She had no choice but to leave her children behind as she ran.
When she received news that her preteen daughter had been forced into prostitution, Meena reached out to Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an anti–sex slavery organization whose founder, Ruchira Gupta, was one of few people advocating for women in the region. Ruchira pressured the national police to raid Ainul Bibi’s brothel, the first raid ever to take place in the “impoverished northern Indian state of Bihar.” After a struggle, Meena’s daughter was rescued.
For each girl who is freed, countless others are left behind. While it is important to save those already enslaved, efforts to prevent the problem are more effective than treatments for trauma that has already occurred. Frank Grijalva, principal of the exclusive Overlake School in Washington State, had this in mind when he inspired his students to raise money to build a school in rural Cambodia.
“Overlake School in Cambodia” student Kun Sokkea became the first in her family to graduate from elementary school, and she is far from the program’s only beneficiary. American Overlake students continue to support their Cambodian friends through regular email exchanges, service learning projects, and sponsorship efforts. Grijalva believes that his students get as much from the program as they give, as their exposure to poverty and injustice makes them more empathetic and engaged members of the global community.
On his way out of Bihar, Kristof watches the traffic flow freely across the border between Nepal and India. None of the other travelers seem to bother with the customs paperwork he has stopped to fill out.
An English-speaking officer from India’s national intelligence bureau is present in the guard station, and Kristof inquires about the duties of his job. The officer claims to be “[monitoring] the border” for “terrorists, or terror supplies . . . or pirated goods.” Kristof asks about the large numbers of trafficked girls brought in from Nepal: aren’t they monitoring for them?
The affable officer laughs and explains that although there are many, they are only illiterate “peasants.” If people like them weren’t sold into prostitution, Indian men would have nothing to do between turning eighteen and marrying at thirty. It’s prostitution, he says, that preserves the virtue of “good Indian middle-class girls.”
The authors recognize in this the same mentality that allowed the Atlantic slave trade to flourish. It’s easy to oppress others when they are seen as something less than fully human. “India had delegated an intelligence officer to look for pirated goods because it knew that the United States cares about intellectual property,” the authors write. The government will instruct its officers to stop trafficking once the Unites States shows that it cares “as much about slavery as it does about DVDs.”
The officer’s belief that “prostitution is inevitable” is common, even among academics and women’s rights advocates. In their view, prohibiting prostitution will only force it further “underground.” If prostitution is legal and regulated, they argue, brothels can be monitored for sexually-transmitted infections and coercive recruitment tactics.
To better understand the “legalize-and-regulate model,” Kristof and WuDunn “[probe] the numbers” of the acclaimed Sonagachi Project, a regulated “red-light district in Kolkata” that claims to promote health and defend autonomy for Indian sex workers. At best, the authors find, the benefits of regulation have been overstated. At worst, Sonagachi and its sex workers’ union are little more than “a front for the brothel owners.”
In Poipet, Cambodia, the border town where Srey Rath sells souvenirs, Kristof learns that “rescuing girls is the easy part.” He describes paying a total of $353 to liberate two teenagers, Srey Neth and Srey Momm, from the brothels where they were held. Receipts in hand, the journalist became at once a modern-day slave owner and a well-intentioned abolitionist. He drove the girls home to their families and arranged for American Assistance in Cambodia to manage their continuing care. Soon, however, the scars of slavery became apparent. The girls endured difficult readjustments, including financial instability, drug dependency, social stigma, and an HIV scare.
Neth and Momm’s journey toward recovery teaches the authors that aid work is “difficult and unpredictable,” but failure isn’t always final, and success can be even better than it initially seems.
Usha Narayane and her family are Dalit, the “Untouchables” within India’s hereditary caste system. They live in the Kasturba Nagar slum, where sewage flows in open ditches along the neighborhood’s dirt roads. In this impoverished community, where jobs are “menial” and education is uncommon, Usha and her four siblings are the first people to earn college degrees.
By the time Usha was to begin a promising career in hotel management, neighborhood mobster Akku Yadav had been “terrorizing” Kasturba Nagar for fifteen years. He and his associates gang-raped women in the streets, tortured and killed those who opposed them, and bribed police officers into complicity. The one family he did not prey upon was Usha’s, because he was afraid that their university education had given them “the power to complain effectively.”
Everything changed when Usha called the police to report threats made against her neighbor. Akku Yadav and forty men surrounded the Narayane home, threatening Usha with an acid attack, rape, and murder. When the police did not come to her aid, she turned on her gas stove and told the mob that if they did not leave, she would light a match and blow up the house and every man surrounding it.
Usha’s “fearlessness” encouraged her neighbors into action. They attacked the mob with stones, marched to Akka Yadav’s house, and burned the house down. The police arrested Akka Yadav for his “own protection,” intending to release him at a downtown bail hearing. They were astonished when hundreds of Dalit women entered the city courthouse, where a “confident and unrepentant” Akka Yadav antagonized his many victims. Suddenly, the women descended upon him, pulled concealed blades from beneath their “faded saris,” and killed him.
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