Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Need Plus Greed


By Katherine Marshall

"Don't give money to the beggar with a baby," a colleague cautioned me in Phnom Penh. "They rent them for around a dollar a day." I heard about little boys and girls with shocking injuries, about traffic in young housemaids, six and seven years old. The bar scene where anything is accepted. Families that sell their daughters so they can buy food or pay for an urgent operation.

These and countless other heart-rending stories I heard this summer, in several countries, reflect the dark recesses of the human condition. These are ancient abuses, but in our "modern" world, exploitation is happening on a far larger scale as barriers of distance and community restraints crumble. And today, we can't say we don't know about it.

Trafficking of women and children, a leading wedge in the broader patterns of human exploitation, is a cause that unites people across steep divides in the political spectrum and religious beliefs. Surprising coalitions and alliances have formed with trafficking as their main focus. Amid the political polarization in American society, it's heartening that evangelical Christians, liberal Jews, and non-religious human rights activists can unite behind a common cause.

Trafficking has helped bridge divides but it also brings out differences. Samantha Power's powerful New Yorker article, "The Enforcer" early this year was about Gary Haugen. His remarkable organization, the International Justice Mission, provides legal services to the poor in developing countries and tries to get local authorities to enforce the rule of law. Christian beliefs and practice are an inseparable part of Haugen's work: "Prayers help," he says. "Prayers and a lawyer help more."

Haugen sees Christian networks as an untapped resource for human rights, and he is trying to get American Christians to see the importance of what he's doing and get involved--to seek justice, as the Bible instructs. But his work does stir controversy, both because it is so anchored in Christianity, and because it steps into some hornets' nests of debates: is prostitution so evil that banning it is top priority, or is working with sex workers to protect them the pragmatic and humane way to go? Is it possible to work with police or are police the enemy? Powers concludes that, to realize his broader ambitions, Haugen will eventually have to widen his appeal, and he may need to choose between two goals: reforming justice systems abroad and reforming American Christianity.

Cambodia is notorious for many kinds of trafficking. There's plenty of action in Cambodia itself, Cambodia "exports" to neighboring countries and as far as Malaysia and the Middle East, and it "imports" both prostitutes and predators. The government, out of civic concern and stimulated alike by negative pressures from the international partners on which Cambodia depends and more positive offers of support, is acting with increasing vigor to crack down on egregious crimes - pedophiles are more often brought to justice and there are posters warning of consequences of trafficking all over Phnom Penh. Fighting trafficking has long been a central focus of the Ministry of Women's Affairs.

And there's an extraordinary array of nongovernmental organizations working to help victims, to educate women and children about their rights, and to go after the root causes. A remarkable organization in Phnom Penh, Chab Dai (which means linked hands in Khmer) has worked for the past six years to support the wide array of Christian groups seeking to protect children and women. It has a spiffy library, runs training workshops, advocates for the cause, and helps to strengthen management of its member organizations.

Helen Sworn, the English woman who founded Chab Dai, talks a language of partnership and cooperation - with government and private companies, women's groups and police. The challenge is to educate people about their rights, and to protect those who fall victim to circumstances or to crime. But she also sees the issues as an integral part of development and social change. As corridors for transportation open up, as borders are easier to cross, as tourism gains momentum, the pressures for trafficking increase. She argues that at the same time that we work to protect and help victims directly and prosecute those who break the law, far more effort should go to addressing the underlying causes.

And the underlying causes are ferociously complex. First and foremost it's about poverty, ignorance, and lack of opportunity. Grinding need drives desperate families to sell a daughter. Uneducated girls more easily fall prey to promises of a glittery life, only to end up trapped in a brothel. And simple greed exacerbates the problems. Weak government institutions and corrupt systems make it hard to enforce laws. Unequal relations between men and women are corrosive realities that translate into low priority to the work needed to bring about change.

We have plenty of knowledge about trafficking and exploitation of women and children. And we know it's deeply wrong - unjust and immoral. What's needed is to keep the issue on the priority agenda and to work both on the immediate issues and on their deeper causes. This is an issue for everyone, not just religious groups or human rights activists. If we work together, passionately and thoughtfully, surely we can bring an end to these shameful horrors of our time.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior adviser for the World Bank

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