A few holy days in India

Last month I spent eight days in India on a study tour sponsored by the NoVo Foundation — created and led by Jennifer and Peter Buffett — focusing on sex trafficking and work that is being done with women and girls who are survivors or who are at risk for being forced into the trade.  As I always do when I travel, I kept a journal, and here are some excerpts from it. Since some of the details are sensitive, I erred on the side of caution and changed the name of the lovely girl we spent an afternoon with in Forbesganj.

Holy Thursday, April 5

Been here about three days now.  A little hard to reconcile the lavishness IMG_0880of the Imperial Hotel with the streets outside its gates in Delhi.  Indeed, with pictures of the colonial period everywhere, and almost exclusively white patrons being served by Indians in turbans, etc., you could be forgiven for thinking the Raj was still in place.

Started on Tuesday morning with an overview and introductions.  Jennifer Buffett mentioned, in her own introduction, how her father left her mother just before she would have gone to college and told her he was leaving money for the boys to go to college, but not her, since she would just end up getting married.  That couldn’t have been more than 20 or so years ago. She managed to put herself through, though, with pluck and determination.  It helps explain a bit her passion on issues pertaining to women and girls.

IMG_0885We visited the Gandhi museum — on the site of the compound where he periodically stayed and spent his last months — and got to wander around on our own for an hour. You could actually retrace the steps he took in his final moments.  I was most struck by the simplicity of the room in which Gandhi lived, and a display case on the wall with the half-dozen worldly possessions he left behind — some cutlery, his walking stick, eyeglasses, a small scythe.  Actually, he had two spoons and two forks, so I guess he had more than he needed!  Also, a strong theme of the displays, which recount his last 24 hours, is how often he talked of a foreboding of death just before he was actually murdered.  In this respect similar to Martin Luther King (“I may not get there with you…”) and, for that matter, Jesus.

There was a panel discussion, led by Gloria Steinem, right after, with four women in the Gandhian tradition.  One big takeaway is that there is a kind of Gandhian economics, having to do with local production, etc., that seems to have fallen away in his legacy, which is mainly identified with nonviolence.  Again, quite similar to the homogenization of King (who died supporting the Memphis janitors, and was increasingly an outspoken opponent of the VietNam war) and, for that matter, Jesus.

Next day starts with a presentation on the legal aspects of trafficking, which under the UN definition of a few years back does not require actual movement for trafficking and defines coercion as involving vulnerabity and abuse of power, not just force as traditionally regarded.  So it in effect bars most of what we think of as prostitution, hence the slippery slope issue.  The US doesn’t accept this part of the definition, though.

There is a view that trafficking is the process and prostitution is the outcome, inseparable, as Catherine McKinnon has written.  Some dispute over the Swedish model, which goes after customers but not “victims.” But Pamela says Sweden has gone from one in 8 men using, to one in 40, in 15 years or so, with a 50% reduction in prostitution.   Criticism of Netherlands model, which is legalization, for sanctioning abuse of women, not curbing trafficking, etc.

Presentation in late afternoon by Apne Aap, the anti-trafficking group which has arranged most of our week here, about Sonagachi, the red light district we visited in the evening.  Much discussion of public health groups here, funded by some large Western foundations, employing pimps as “peer leaders.”  Seems unbelievably reckless in legitimizing a sordid state of affairs.

The red light district itself was quite a trip.  I had been wondering if poverty here would be different than in, say, Haiti or the Roma slums of Bulgaria or the townships of South Africa.  So far, not so much.  There was a squalor about Sonagachi, but also a liveliness — poor people going about their lives and businesses. (Skinny, torpid dogs lying all about.)

And all around, women and girls — some as young as 13, say? — made up and dressed nicely, not beckoning, but waiting to be bought.  I wish I could say I found it as shocking — both the poverty and the girls — as the others, but I did not.  There was a strange normalization — life going on amidst crime — that is probably similar to an open air drug market in Baltimore. The girls seemed neither happy or particular desperate, or even deadened.  Which is not to say what is happening to them is not a crime and a tragedy.   Oddly, or maybe not, I was most affected by a probably three-year old boy sitting on a crate surrounded by working women, one of whom may have been his mother.  He didn’t seem particularly distressed, he seemed like any other kid, but I couldn’t help but think of Sam.  Indeed, the most troubling aspect of all this, going back to the disconnect in my opening lines, is, as I think Sarah Jones put it, the ovarian lottery.  These girls were in a sense born to this — born into brothels, in Zana Briski’s phrase — just as, say, my daughters Una and Zoe were born into a certain kind of life.  The randomness of that — that I should spend the early morning doing the backstroke in a pool under palm trees in a luxury hotel while a few blocks away someone scrounges in the garbage for food — that is what is most hard to live with. Or, maybe not.  We all have ways of suppressing that harsh reality, or otherwise we would find it hard to live at all.

The charge for what the girls do is 150-250 rupees (specifics not offered).  That’s three to five dollars.

Good Friday/First night of Passover, April 6

Yesterday started with a panel featuring two women who are survivors, in the favored term, of the sex trade.  Mumtaj, a dark-skinned ragpicker who lives under a bridge in Kolkata, was married to an abusive rickshaw puller.  She lives on less than a dollar a day.  Fatima, from a nomadic community called Nat, was forcibly married at nine into a home-based brothel far from her childhood home.  She has a maybe three-year old boy on her lap and is accompanied by her mother who we later learn, is a snake-charmer.

We then introduce ourselves, always somewhat revealing (about how people characterize themselves in
different settings; I tend to describe myself as a teacher these days, which is a lot more understandable to most people than “foundation executive”).  Sarah Jones tells the women, “you’re not so different from me” — which, I think, is a solidarity of brown skin, much like Obama’s declaration that “Trayvon could be my son.”  Gloria Steinem, always a font of memorable pithy wisdom, says that “stories are our very best textbooks.”

Mumtaj’s path of activism and self-empowerment started with access to schooling for her kids, went on to IMG_0891resisting her husband’s beatings, enlisting the help of other women, and apparently changing his behavior –they’re still together, and he supports her work organizing in the red-light district — and now is focused on fighting the city’s plan to raze her informal settlement to put up apartments, or office buildings, or whatever.  Lately, she and others in her settlement stood — successfully, at least for now — in front of a bulldozer.

There’s also some issue with the connection between identity cards — most of the women don’t have them — and access to alternative housing.  They’ve taken the position of access for all or none.

Fatima, a pretty 26-year old — she’s had five or six children since her marriage at 9 — started out by talking about having been married when she should have been “out playing.”  Somehow she escaped from the brothel and helped five other women run away.

She equates acceptance for a brother or husband who has visited the red light district with treating your daughter’s rapist with respect — something you shouldn’t do or countenance.

We asked if they had questions for us.  Mumtaj wanted help with the eviction issue.  Fatima, simply:  “stand by me.”

Fatima and Mumtaj followed by panel of various kinds of “experts” with differing views on trafficking, though these don’t really emerge until late in the panel.  Anchita Ghatak, who represents domestic workers, says there are not needs particular to “sex workers” — like domestic workers, they need recognition, education, health care.

Someone mentions drug and ganja addiction problems of both abusive men and of women in sex work — first time anyone has mentioned what would seem to be an obvious issue.

When Pamela Shifman, moderating, finally gets people to focus on their differences, it turns out that it is Anchita, quite eloquently and respectively, articulates the arguments for treating sex work as work.  It is always unorganized, she says, and unorganized work by women is never a haven of fairness, and more heterogeneous than the debate would indicate.  For instance, some women are only part time, and have other jobs and priorities.  She talks about it in the context of society’s attitudes toward sex,and to what extent sex is different.  There is always violence and injustice in women’s work, and women should organize and speak for themselves.  A right to leave some kinds of work implies a right also to stay.

A few other comments from panelists, and then Fatima speaks, setting off a gripping exchange with Anchita.  If buyers get arrested, she says, then women become more strengthened, because we see the law is on our side.

Anchita:  There are no quick solutions.  Some sex workers may overemphasize their reluctance to be in the profession when speaking to privileged people like us.  Why are we comfortable with the selling of all services except sex — is it automatically exploitative?  It is not just about the law, but about what we do after it.  What have we gained by legal advances alone on dowry, rape, domestic violence?

Fatima:  To sell your dreams, to suffocate your life, how can this be called a business?  If a woman is saying it is work, I will accept that, but we have to understand the context in which she is saying that — she has no house, food or work.  She is doing it for survival, with no other options in front of her.

Gloria at some point repeats a point she’d made the night before.  She stopped using the term “sex work”  — she makes the point about contested language, and coming up with more appropriate terms — when she learned that places like Nevada and Germany, accepting it as work, then expected women to apply for available sex work jobs before granting public assistance.  Sex work, she says is “survival sex.  But she is not necessarily for overcriminalizing purchase — a penalty of some kind, but not prison.

Srabani says sex work is not like a job in an office  — is it something you can tell your son or daughter about?

Archita:  this is not a binary issue.  The point of the panel is to listen to one another. No knee-jerk response on any issue is the right response.

After lunch we repair to Victoria Park and are divided into small groups to sit with circles of ten women, representing the heart of Apne Aap’s organizing and support strategy.  An Apne Aap staff person, Sahana, leads the discussion.  The women have all been in the sex trade, and all still live in Sonagachi.  A few are youngish, maybe in their thirties, it seems, but most seem older, in late fifties or sixties. (Gloria Steinem, who is my only partner in this exercise since Peter Buffett stayed back, not feeling well, jokes that she and I have been age-segregated.)  But eventually it dawns on us that the women are not older, they just look older — poor teeth and skin, gray hair. One woman who I took to be sixty has an 11-year old daughter.

The evening event, at the home of one of Ruchira’s board members, has been billed as a dinner with “stakeholders.”  I didn’t look forward to something as dreary-sounding as that, but it turns out to be in a gorgeous modern house filled with art and amazing foor (we later learn it is their recently-built “party house,”just for entertaining — they live across the garden in one of the other three buildings in the compound.)  The guests are political people, artists, corporate types — a glittery evening such as you might have in a Tribeca loft.  We all had fun.

Holy Saturday, April 7

Up very early for flight to Bihar, the state where Ruchi’s family lives and there is a big Apne Aap operation in Forbesganj.   But there is a lot of rain this morning, and we are told that our planes — the same private jets we took from Delhi to Kolkata — are going to be delayed at least 45 minutes.  When it clears, we take a short jet ride, landing in some kind of military airfield about 90 minutes from Forbesganj — at least that’s how long it takes, allowing for rickshaws, buses and various livestock on the road.  Apne Aap’s office is on a compound in the center of town, across from the railroad station — at one time, since some in our group are not fond of flying, apparently we considered coming here by rail, a twelve-hour trip — that also contains, or rather, primarily contains, Ruchi’s family’s ancestral home, where many of us are staying.  By local standards, they are wealthy, and while simply furnished, the house is spacious.

When a bit later we spend much of the afternoon at the primary school/community center — also Apne Aap branded — I begin to wonder about its visibility, and perhaps vulnerability.  On the one hand, they are a local employer and, likely, economic force of some significance in a place where not much else is going on economically.  Kind of like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.  On the other, they are a threat to the established order, taking away girls with high economic value to their impoverished families –or so it is seen — and while I haven’t yet heard of this, it seems evident that the girls and the organizations would be the target of violence and intimidation.

After a nice hot lunch — all vegetarian here — we spend the rest of the afternoon, in pairs, assigned to one girl who is thought to be at risk for prostitution and who is attending the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidaley, a government-funded girls hostel.  Pamela Shifman and I are with Kavita, a thirteen-year old girl who, like the others, is a member of the Nat community, an extremely low caste whose apparent line of work, for the most part, is pimping and prostitution.

It’s worth a minute on how that came to be.  Under the British, the sex trade is all the Nat were allowed to do.  So it’s hardly a matter of destiny or preference.  Rather a matter of politics, of structural disadvantage.

Our Apne Aap facilitator walked us through Kavita’s bio (which was also in a little booklet we got on the IMG_0907plane here).  Her father was an alcoholic who beat her mother, and her mother poisoned him and went to prison for two years.  (In the written materials, it says she went to prison for a petty crime, but perhaps they thought it better not to put the poisoning part in writing.)  Kavita, who has two older brothers and two younger ones, then goes to live with her uncle and aunt.  Who she apparently likes.  Though then it emerges, in the facilitator’s telling, that the uncle is also a pimp, the aunt has been pimped out by him, and Kavita, who is a beautiful girl, is at risk of being forced into the sex trade by him.  Which is why she is at Kasturba, though she has dropped out, for various family reasons, half a dozen times.

We go to the community center to meet her through some kind of game where the girls follow a ribbon to our name tags.  Then we sit on a straw mat and talk with her for an hour or so.  We’ve been given some suggested questions (and so has she, since the Apne Aap staff has prepped them), and we use some of them, not others:  what makes her happiest, what makes her saddest, what is her favorite school subject, etc.

She wants to be a singer when she grows up.  Loves Bollywood.  Or a lawyer — she is excited to hear Pamela is one. Why?  “Lawyers suck the blood out of poor people.”  This comes from her family’s experience in trying to find a lawyer to represent her mother, and all demanded fees well beyond their reach.  So she wants to be a different kind of lawyer, who helps the poor.

The girls have done an exercise — we have some photos of the charts they did — about what they most like and dislike about their community.  For Kavita, the list of dislikes is all about men abusing women, calling them names, being separated from her mother (who, now out of prison, is married to another abusive man in another town), and so on.  It’s heartbreaking.  Here is a child — and despite her wisdom and determination, and how much she has seen and had to deal with (unlike some of the other girls, she has not yet been sexually exploited), she is in many ways a very girlish, giggly 13, as well she should be –whose list of dislikes ought to be filled with things like broccoli and gym class, but instead is a list of harms and dangers that no child should have to face.

Who does she admire most, in her life or who she has heard about, who she would like to be like when she grows up?  Nehru.

She bonds with Pamela, and in time begins to stroke her hand, and clasps it when we walk around the village.  Pamela is also moved, and attributes this to transference — longing for a mother figure — but I think it’s also a bit more than that.  She is sweet to me, though I think she thinks I am quite old — which, in this community, I am; her mother is probably in her early 30s.  But also, why would she warm up to me in the course of an hour?  Every model she has of men in her life is wretched — either violent or idle.  (That makes me think, not for the first time, that while I am fully for a strong focus on the empowerment of girls and women, there has got to be some concomitant strategy for boys, because it is hard to envision a just world in which the girls are taken care of and the boys have no future. It’s the powerlessness of these men and boys, in the larger world outside the home, that turns their anger and rage toward the women around them.)

The village is a mix of homes and businesses.  All rudimentary.  Pigs and goats roaming everywhere.  Dirty, barefoot, feral children — one boy making a kind of kite from two plastic grocery sacks knotted together.  She takes us to her house, or rather where she lived with her father and mother when they were all together.  I have seen many poor homes, but this is as wretched as any.  Her aunt is squatting by an open fire frying naan made from a mound of dough covered by flies.  Every bit of clothing and cloth in the house is filthy.  (When, earlier, we asked her to describe her typical day at home, Kavita mentioned, twice, “dusting,” but I can’t begin to imagine what that means in this context.)  Inside, her brothers and some other boys are standing around a table on which there is a small television set showing a Tom and Jerry cartoon, which transfixes them.

I forgot to mention that Kavita, like all the other girls, is beautifully turned out  in a sari, which various jewelry — earrings, bracelets and the like.  She’s immaculately clean, with sparkling teeth.  And yet she lived in a place like this — and when she goes home, that’s what she finds?  It’s hard to compute.  And when I ask Ruchi later, she says the girls were particularly well turned out for this important visit, and if she lived at home she would be more like that.  It reminds me, though, of how struck I have been in desperately poor places, from the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago to Port au Prince, by how starched and pressed and clean is the dress of school children — how someone, against all odds, cares for them.

The village, which is obviously important to her, even a barren patch of land she calls a park, is a depressing experience.  Piles of garbage everywhere, men looking suspicious of the white Western visitors, a tea stall that is the hangout of pimps who would be harassing Kavita if she walked by alone, not with us.  All the while, while outwardly her cheerful, hopeful, sweet self, Kavita clasps Pamela’s hand more tightly, and says to her, Pamela tells me later, a few things in her limited but good English — I am sorry to be so poor, I am sorry the men in my village are so terrible.

Later, at Ruchi’s house, after much confusion about who is staying where and where the bags are, I talk with her a bit.   Despite my being moved by this day, and the reality of the options — or lack of them — for these desperately poor girls, I still have some concerns about the balance between rescue and empowerment.  I think they would like stronger powers to take girls from their families, and while my usual strong feelings are that generally bad things happen for black and brown people when the state intervenes in families, this poses the hardest case. A father’s “rights” to his adolescent daughter can destroy her life.

Some guests at the house invited last night by Ruchi’s father. One, a self-described leftist politician in a white tunic (have to get the name of the word for that garment), asks what’s up with Obama.  We were happy to get rid of Bush, he says, but US policies are the same.  And from his point of view, looking at, say, Afghanistan, why wouldn’t he think that? We made no particular defense of Obama, and noted the permanent government, particularly the national security state, we talked about how crazy and awful the Republicans would be (if you thought Bush was bad…), and he gets that.   But he seemed bemused by how little has changed.

Later on Saturday

On the plane returning from Bihar to Delhi.  Woke up early, around 5:30, to the sound of chanting — Muslim prayers — which apparently never let up during the night.   Took a cold shower (the only option), got dressed, and left the room about 6:30 to pass by Ai-Jen Poo sitting in her room working, which is just what I intended to do, before others in the house were up. She suggested we find a place to work together, so we went downstairs on the patio.  In a little while Ruchi’s mother and father appeared, and we were served tea.  Ruchi’s mother offered to give us a tour of the garden, as the sun was coming out (it had stormed during the night), and we took a lovely walk as she pointed out the 30 different varieties of fruit tree.  In a while others came down from their rooms, or arrived from the local hotel where they were staying, and all kinds of enticing fruit came out on platters — tiny pungent mulberries and small bananas (all from the garden) that actually tasted like bananas.

Our first stop of the day was a women’s rally, at Jain Hall.  Apne Aap-organized, we were told it was IMG_0928happening anyway, and we would drop in, though Gloria, as an international feminist celebrity (I had not fully appreciated until this trip just how global her reputation is) would say a few words.  I think the rally, which was attended by a few hundred women and girls, was called to demand education, jobs and the like.  When we got there, all of us in the Novo group were ushered up to a table at the front, seated and given pink fezzes that looked, on the women anyway, like the hat that might be worn by a Pan Am flight attendant.  I was not happy to be so conspicuous, as if the rally were being put on for our benefit — maybe it was — but it seems our presence was seen as an honor by them, and it was important to act the part.  Sarah, either by accident or conviction, sat in the audience, but she was fairly conspicous, particularly with the pink fez, a head taller than anyone around her.

Drove from there to the hostel where the Kasturba girls live, where a stage had been set up and the girls IMG_0963were going to perform for us — singing, dancing, and karate.  We found Kavita, very happy to see us, when we arrived, but she disappeared during the performances.  We later learned she was in a group of girls interviewing Jennifer Buffett and Gloria, and Pamela and I saw her again when we were leaving.  She led us by the hand around the place and showed us her room.  It’s pretty basic, but light years nicer than her family home.

IMG_0955Sarah also performed one of her characters for the girls.  They appreciated it, but probably much was lost in the translation.  The shows were charming, and I was struck by the presence on the fringes of the gathering by groups of boys — from the neighborhood, I’d think, though we were out in the country by then — gravely but quite attentively watching the festivities.

Had a talk with Puja in the garden, sitting in the sun this morning, about the tensions among feminists on this issue.  She asked me which of the feminists I respected felt differently from, say, the Novo view, and I rattled off three or four.  The missing piece for me in all of this is the voices of those “sex workers” — I keep hearing about them, but haven’t met any — who view decriminalization as their empowerment.

Before we flew just now — from an airforce base that is the only place within three hours of Forbesganj that could land a jet like the ones we are in, and which apparently took some wrangling — we were told the commandant wanted to serve us tea, and were all ushered into his office, and then outside for a group photograph.  It turns out he got wind that Warren Buffett’s son was passing through his airport, and it may have made his day, or month or year.

This is a funny way to see India.  I’ve missed Mumbai and the south, and even in Delhi and Kolkata, seen virtually no monuments, markets, temples, museums, historical sites.  What I have seen are red-light districts and, in the space of 24 hours, the most medieval hovel and a “party house” that is a lavish as anything in Beverly Hills or Soho.