Questionable Freedom

Human Rights

Last September, with presidential approval ratings settling back into their pre-9/11 scores, Bush announced to the United Nations that the U.S. foreign policy agenda will prioritize efforts to end human trafficking. This came after his speech about the importance of the war on terrorism and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. Ironically, human trafficking is greatest in countries that, like Iraq, are in conflict or are recovering from conflict.

Bush ignored the fact that the U.N. has had a weapon since 1989 to fight human trafficking: the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy calls the CRC a "powerful legal instrument that not only recognizes but protects [children's] human rights." The United States is the only U.N. country, other than Somalia, that has not yet ratified the CRC.

Although Bush is clearly trying to garner right-wing support with his anti-trafficking agenda, it is a coalition of conservative Christian organizations that has blocked CRC ratification. The coalition includes the Christian Coalition, Concerned Women for America, Eagle Forum, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and the National Center for Home Education. The latter believes that, "the CRC is one of the most dangerous attacks on parental rights ever."

But Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times blames women's organizations for failing to address the issue of trafficking. He recently published a series of diary-style articles detailing his project to buy two young Cambodian women out of slavery. In his series, which is as carefully orchestrated as a reality TV show, he repeatedly refers to the attractiveness of his purchases, and sexualizes them with terms like "lovely," "giggly," and "wisp." And though he's outraged by their plight, Kristof has no scruples about re-victimizing them, subjecting both women to antagonistic grilling: "Why not try to escape at night? Couldn't you call out to the police for help? Do you really want to leave?" Readers may understand that he wants to pre-empt questions from his U.S. audience, but these young women might not be as savvy. These already frightened victims probably found Kristof's third-degree pretty traumatizing.

Despite Kristof's investigative bent, he still gets basic facts wrong. He gives credit to "conservative evangelical Christians" that have "successfully pushed Bush to embrace the issue." And he argues that "most mainstream women's groups have been shamefully lackadaisical." But the one Christian group to which Kristof indirectly refers, The National Association of Evangelicals, was part of a coalition that included both Jewish and women's groups. And after Kristof's articles appeared, Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority wrote to the NYT editor, "Equality Now, the Feminist Majority, and the National Organization for Women helped lead the drive to pass the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000." The TVP helps combat trafficking in persons, especially into the sex trade. In fact, while writing the series, Kristof accepted help from groups like -- surprise -- the Women's Human Rights Net and the International Women's Health Coalition. Most U.S. anti-trafficking groups, like the grassroots Polaris Project, have no religious affiliation.

Furthermore, unlike Kristof, the Polaris Project is "victim-centered." Their website states, "We seek to support victims and survivors of trafficking and to actively work to eliminate victim-blaming." By contrast, Kristof's arrogantly ascribes motivations to Srey Mon and Srey Neth, the women he helped free. For instance, when Srey Neth's homecoming is less emotional than Kristof had hoped (she was absent for only a month, and her family had no idea that she was a sex slave), he writes, "I could see how a girl with gumption like Srey Neth, unschooled and naive, could yearn to get away." Except Srey Neth never yearned to get away. She allowed herself to be sold into slavery in order to pay off her father's medical bills.

One passage in Kristof's series was particularly disturbing. When Srey Mon, who has been in slavery for four years, sobs at the thought of abandoning her cell phone, Kristof calls her "manipulative." She is leaving behind everything she owns. Her cell phone contains the numbers of the people she loves, and is their only way to reach her. Kristof is the one who comes off as manipulative, begrudging Srey Mon the $55 that would allow her to keep the phone. Kristof assumes she should be grateful for whatever he doles out. He owns her, doesn't he? He has the receipt. So he decides what is best for her. By negotiating her own needs, Srey Mon is challenging the proffered role of helpless victim.

Kristof's creepy tone and lack of adherence to the facts are part of the same problem. Our attitude toward victims dictates how, or if, we help them. The first comment in the NYT Reader's Forum on Kristof's series was: "I am completely confused as to what you were trying to accomplish by freeing two young girls, who weren't sure they wanted to be freed." Despite Srey Neths statement that "This is a hell," readers understandably caught the tone of Kristof, not the victims. In fact, his series was easily misread -- it had the unintended consequence of generating frantic e-mail from readers along the lines of: I'll wire you some money if you'll free one for me, too. Kristof found himself in the awkward position of explaining that his simplistic project did not constitute a solution.

That is what is worrisome about how we help victims in the third world. We hold the wallet, and we decide what solutions to impose. Evangelical Christians, by definition, take a culturally imperialistic approach that creates a view of victims that does not allow for self-determination. Some Christian groups have attempted to block the work of groups dedicated to sex worker rights, who want to legalize and regulate prostitution as part of the solution to end sex trafficking. Others have managed to reduce funding to groups that make abortions available to victims.

The arguments over methodology are important; but action even more so. The U.S. State Department, in conjunction with the War Against Trafficking Alliance, developed recommendations to fight trafficking that include asking victims how we can best help. What a revolutionary idea.

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