I am in the middle of evaluating a Human Trafficking project in a large Asian country. The well-known international organization I am evaluating has made some great improvements in combatting this awful problem. But I have faced a massive dilemma in evaluating the victim ‘protection’ projects I was taken to see because of what I think are horrible human rights abuses. That is why I am putting this out here – for some suggestions from you all on how to perhaps not address these issues that are completely out of my control, but rather how to live with them. Or maybe just a reminder that I am being an idiot who should keep her mouth shut.
Last week I met some amazing young women. Their stories come straight out of our worst nightmares. V was forced to drop out of school in grade 2 when her mom died and her father remarried. The step mom hated her for no apparent reason other than she was not her own daughter. V was pulled out of school to save the pennies it would have cost to keep her there and beaten regularly. Her dad just ignored it all. V showed me her deformed hand and leg as proof and explained that she was not taken to a hospital for medical care to straighten the breaks.
“That’s why they are so ugly”, she stated matter-of-factly.
The horrors only begin here.
V was then sold into slavery at puberty – to what she was told was a job at a restaurant in a city some 400 miles away. The restaurant did employ her initially as a cleaner but the real money-maker was the brothel upstairs. After several months working in the restaurant, V’s virginity was auctioned off to the highest bidder and her days were now spent up-stairs servicing as many men as her owner could bring in. This went on for approximately 3 years. V was not sure exactly. When I met her, she was 15 and in a Social Services Shelter following her ‘rescue’ a month ago.
I heard many more stories like this one. Many of the stories these other young girls at this shelter told me continue with pregnancies (they don’t know where the baby is), STIs, and HIV too. Almost all these children were HIV positive now. The shelter director, a very soft spoken, kind-looking man explained to me after the girls were asked to go do their chores, that none of the girls know of their HIV status. He will not tell them because, he said, “they have suffered enough. We don’t want to make things worse.”
As bad as their trafficked experiences were, their treatment in the shelters, to me at least, was only marginally better. The problem that really got to me, especially since my meetings all occurred just before Christmas, was that the shelter focuses on rehabilitation for these girls.
“Rehabilitation like what?” I asked the director.
“You know. Rehabilitation. They are uneducated, so we teach them to read Arabic (not the language spoken in this Southeast Asian country). They have no faith, so we spend their short time here teaching them to read the koran and to have faith in god. We teach them about morality so they do not return to sex work. Then we send them home with tools to start a new trade like sewing or salon work.”
OK, I had a really hard time restraining myself. I know full well the general hypocrisy that passes as religion and especially morality here. But hey, these are children. They cannot go ‘home’ to people that sold them in the first place. No god protected them from being beaten, sold, raped, abused, and I don’t want to think what else they have been through. So what god is going to protect them now? Referring to these children as immoral also was a shock. As always, let’s blame the victim. Immoral is the parent that sold them, the slime that trafficked them, the monster that bought and prostituted them, the pigs that want sex with children, the ‘officials’ that are paid to ignore trafficking, and the social services that brand child victims as immoral and unsuited for society.
Then there was the issue of why these children were placed in an adult shelter and not a child’s shelter.
“Oh, they cannot mix with other children. They are no longer “pure”, so they will be a bad influence on real children. They have acted as adults so this is where we place them,” said the director that I increasingly wished to punch in the face.
As a project evaluator I am professional and always diplomatic. I maintained a polite and calm demeanor despite the internal turmoil. In my report I commented on the issue of gross human rights violations in the ‘protection’ aspect of the project but was asked by the donor to remove those paragraphs. It is not acceptable to criticize the national government’s efforts in tackling their trafficking issues. I did remove these sections from the report but they have been permanently seared into my memory ever since. It is not my role to criticize the government of this country. Nor can I fight a sense of holier than thou morality that goes against everything a human rights based approach teaches us. This country’s anti-trafficking law includes a requirement of demonstrated force, fraud, or coercion to prove a child sex trafficking crime, which is not just inconsistent with international law but pretty much means none of the traffickers of these amazing young women will ever be prosecuted. Most are probably still out there recruiting.
I am angry; I am hurt; I am torn by my not wanting to impose my white privilege, I-know-better-than-you views over local cultural norms; and I am haunted by this experience that I can do nothing to change.
How do you, as project evaluators, deal with such unsettling issues?