Women working in a sweater factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Asian Development Bank/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)
In the summer of 2009, when I first arrived at one of the most well-known ‘rescue and rehabilitation’ centres for women and girls in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I was immediately struck by the iron bars on all the doors and windows. A number of female security guards paced up and down the dark hallways. The atmosphere in the building was a far cry from what the NGO staff at the main office had described as an “oasis of freedom from violence and degradation”. I had learned about this organisation long before setting foot in Bangladesh. Its reputation as an organisation committed to women’s economic empowerment nationally was widely acknowledged by national and international funding agencies. Since the 1980s, its stated mission has been to end violence and discrimination against women at home and in the workplace. Inspired by its history of struggle for women’s rights rooted in Bangladeshi culture, I was eager to come on board as a volunteer.
In the weeks and months that followed, my conversations with the young women whom the shelter labelled as ‘trafficking survivors’ revealed that, for them, ‘trafficking’ was not a single event that ‘happened’ to them. Rather, they had experienced a series of complex, interrelated events that involved varying degrees of coercion. Likewise, their emancipation was not simply achieved at the moment of ‘rescue’. Instead, their ‘rescue’ had frequently led to another series of experiences of coercion and disempowerment, this time perpetrated, if perhaps unwittingly, by their ‘rescuers’.
Most of the young women I met at the shelter were placed there by the courts under what is called ‘protective custody’. Many of them were ‘rescued’ during police raids of brothels or from Indian jails, where they were being held as undocumented immigrants. Others had escaped violence and exploitation from households in which they worked as domestic workers. The NGO, in its zeal to secure custody and resources for the women who either come willingly or are brought to the agency, often misleadingly labels most women and girls as ‘trafficked’. In this vein, for the NGO, ‘trafficking’ becomes a catchall word to describe a wide range of trauma or exploitation. For example, one young woman, let’s call her Saima, and her boyfriend had willingly migrated to India because their families would not allow them to get married. Her boyfriend crossed the border first, while Saima gave all of her savings to an Indian man who promised to get her across. He turned her into the authorities instead, but not before raping her. According to Saima, trafficking or “whatever you call it” was a “learning experience”. She told me, “Of course I’ll try again when I get out of here. But now I’m smarter. Next time I try to cross, I’ll know better than to trust a man to help me”.
When I asked why these women were not reunited with their families, the NGO staff explained that it was not safe for them to return home as many had been “sold into slavery” by their families and community members. This was particularly true if criminal charges were being brought against their traffickers. The problem was that such cases frequently went on for years, while these women were left to languish in the shelters indefinitely. Some had been there for over three years. Thus, in spite of the NGO’s rhetoric of empowerment for survivors, the system turned these women into victims who require permanent paternalistic protection.
Often the women confided to me that they had been kept in the dark regarding the status of their cases. Uncertainty about their future combined with the dread and pain of possibly having to testify against family members in court meant that these women were living with constant anxiety. As Jasmin, a sixteen-year-old woman, explained: “I feel like I am floating in the ocean – I don’t know where to go. This place is like a prison.” Then she asked, “sister, can you tell me why I am imprisoned like this if I’m the one who was wronged?”
To ameliorate the effects of continued trauma and anxiety, the NGO arranged for ‘art therapy’ sessions. Generally speaking, this meant women were taught to embroider pillowcases or make beaded jewellery that could then be sold to raise funds for the NGO. Most of the survivors received little to no education, even though many of them expressed a deep desire to learn. The NGO boasted that it offered vocational training programmes for women as part of the ‘empowerment package’. These, unfortunately, pushed women into low-wage, gendered industries – most often into the garment industry. While the garment industry has been critical to the economic empowerment of thousands of Bangladeshi women, these factories are also frequently referred to as ‘death machines’ because employees often work in unstable buildings, often without access to water and bathrooms, for little more than a pittance. This is hardly a promising future.
The same NGO also aided boys as young as nine who had been sent to the Middle East as camel jockeys. Unlike the girls, these boys were allowed to return to their families upon their repatriation and their families were offered micro-loans to set up businesses. Several of the young women I spoke to pointed out this double standard. They resented the fact that boys had the opportunity to receive training in repairing electronics, refrigerators and even cars, while the women received sewing machines. A group of survivors went to the NGO staff with a demand to be trained as drivers so that they could set up a taxi service. Hasina, 23, explained, “If you asked me if I would become a driver when I was still in the village, I would laugh and tell you, ‘why would I ruin myself by working outside in a man’s profession?’ But now that I have already been ‘ruined’, I don’t have to worry about that…I have nothing to lose. So I can do whatever I want”. Another young woman, Maria, added, “I think it would be good to have women taxi drivers. That way other women can go around the city without worry. If I were a driver, I would only take female passengers. That would be ok.”
This comment not only expresses a feminist aspiration, but it also reflects the fact that Maria sees her experience with ‘trafficking’ as a learning experience, one that pushes her to help other women avoid similar risks. At the same time, her comments also seek to legitimise the work by expressly stating that she would only work for (and thus share the close space of the taxi with) other women.
However, this demand was met with resistance and incredulity from the staff. As one staff member said to me, “These girls are permanently traumatised. It would not be safe for them to drive.” There seemed to be a crisis of imagination in the minds of the NGO staff and leaders – many of them highly accomplished women themselves – who could not imagine these women as capable of anything beyond sewing.
The NGO also discourages women from trying to work in beauty salons. As one staff member explained:
Those places are the worst. Either the clients will treat them like garbage, or the girls will get addicted to cosmetics and consumeristic things. Addiction to cosmetics is bad because it leads to other kinds of temptations. This is how women fall into the trap of sex work. They see things they cannot afford, and then they become tempted to do anything to make enough money to buy them…and these girls are already vulnerable to the sex trade. It is a precarious place they are in. Anything can push them over the edge.
One young woman, Sheila, confessed to me in a one-on-one interview that when she told her case manager she wanted to take on a job at a beauty salon, the case manager threatened to force her to leave the shelter. Out of fear of becoming homeless, Sheila continued to work at the shelter kitchen and babysit the younger children. Once again, it is clear that the NGO’s conception of what constitutes safety and protection for ‘trafficking survivors’ mediates the kind of work they are allowed to pursue and overrides the women’s own stated desires.
Furthermore, the discourse on safety and protection is heavily gendered and class-based. The reason employment in the beauty salons is seen as dangerous is because enhancing their looks – or being in proximity of women who do – will allegedly give them ‘new’ reasons to need money while stimulating their inherent tendencies to be temptresses. This, according to the NGO, will lead them right back into the arms of ‘traffickers’. This assertion reveals the implied assumption among the staff that the ‘sex-trafficked woman’ is, at least in part, to be blamed for her situation. This reinforces the idea that all such women sex are inherently flawed, ‘ruined’, and cannot be trusted. There is a widespread, culturally-grounded ‘othering’ of these young women as both dangerous and vulnerable. This Janus-faced identity of sex-trafficked women as simultaneously deviant and vulnerable sanctions the systemic governance of their desires, activities, and movement, as well as reproduces inequalities of gender and class.
Such instances of moral policing were all the more surprising because the NGO in question was not a traditional religious organisation. In fact, this NGO is run by secular Bangladeshi women who have a long history of fighting for gender justice – they even protested the conservative government’s plans to demolish brothels in the 1980s. However, like many NGOs, this one depends on the support of American funding agencies. As a result, they have come to adopt the dominant American approach to the issue of trafficking and have become a part of what others have called the ‘anti-trafficking rehabilitation complex’.
All too often the story that is told about trafficking is a simplistic one made up of dark, nefarious villains who prey on naïve and innocent girls. The reality is much more complex. Often it is mothers and fathers who give away their children to strangers because they cannot bear to watch them starve before their eyes. In other instances, young women risk life and limb to cross over to the Indian border to escape poverty, violence, or forced marriage. A rescue framework flattens these complexities. It turns stories of struggle and survival into narratives of victimhood. It also obscures the tremendous structural violence that lies at its roots.
Bangladesh is a country approximately the size of the US state of Montana but with 156 times its population (around one million vs. 156 million), making it the eighth most populous country in the world. It has witnessed the ravages of war, military dictatorships, and religious fundamentalism. The country’s labouring classes have been pauperised and politically weakened by the World Bank’s structural adjustment programmes. Compounding all this, the country now faces the grim threat of rising seas and other devastating effects of climate change. In the face of these insurmountable odds, the poor still rise and struggle to survive – often by migrating. If we are serious about helping to end violence and exploitation, we must first free ourselves from our narrow ideas about victimhood and rescue. Only then can we stand in solidarity with those fighting for their rights to migrate, work, and live in dignity free from violence.