Half the Sky


In the Introduction to their book, Half the Sky, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, recount the story of a Cambodian teenager named, Srey Rath.

When Rath was 15, she decided to go to Thailand to find work.  Her parents worried but Rath and her four friends were all promised jobs in the same restaurant so it seemed safe.

However the job agent took the girls into Thailand and there handed them over to gangsters who took them to Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia, to work in a brothel.

At first Rath refused to have sex with customers, so she was beaten and raped by the boss of the brothel and his men.  A subdued Rath stopped fighting but instead she sobbed and had to be drugged by the brothel owners so that she wouldn’t repel the customers.

Rath and the other girls were forced to work fifteen hours a day, seven days a week in the brothel.  They were forced to act as though they were happy to see the customers, kept naked and barely fed – “…because the customers didn’t like fat girls.”

The girls were never allowed out or paid for their work and were housed in a locked tenth floor apartment to which they were bused under guard.

One night, one of the girls prised a long, five inch board from a drying rack.  Rath and three other girls balanced the board between their balcony and the balcony on the next building twelve feet away and then sitting on the board inched across.  The board wobbled and shook and they knew they’d be killed if they fell ten stories but they figured their lives were over anyway so it was worth a chance.

All four girls made it across and the surprised tenant of the opposite apartment let them out through his apartment.  The girls took the elevator to the street and found a police station.  The police tried to get rid of them and when they refused to leave, imprisoned them. Rath spent a year in a Malaysian prison because she was an illegal immigrant. At the end of that year, the policeman who was supposed to be repatriating her, sold her to a trafficker who sold her on to a Thai brothel.

Bad as it was, the owners of the Thai brothel didn’t beat Rath or lock her up.  Two months later she escaped and went home to Cambodia.  With the help of a social worker and an aid agency loan, Rath became a street pedaller and soon began to earn enough to keep her parents and sisters.  In 2008, she upgraded her cart to a stall and her business expanded.  Now she is married, has a son and a thriving business and is a cheerful, outgoing girl determined to make her way in the world.

While there is no denying that this is a story of injustice and suffering and corruption it is equally a story of resilience, perseverance and hope.

But the story of Rath is not just a story of seediness and the sex industry, it is – as Kristoff and Wudunn point out – the story of modern slavery.

If this slavery is to become a thing of the past, like other forms of slavery, we all need to become abolitionists.

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God couldn’t be everywhere…


Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Madres de Plaza ...

God couldn’t be everywhere, so He created mothers – or so the Jewish proverb goes.

Mothers like, Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo – The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo – the Mothers of the Disappeared – a famous, emblematic group of women in white headscarves.

Butterfly Effects For Change – Part 9:

God’s Assistants

They came in their hundreds, marching around the main square of Buenos Aires, demanding that the military government of the time – 1976-83 –  tell them the fate of their children – Argentina’s estimate 30,000 Desparecidos.

In desperation, these women had searched for information  – knocking on doors, going from government office to government office, begging and pleading with the authorities to tell them where their sons and daughters had been taken. To no avail.

These sad, desperate visits were fruitless insofar as the authorities never helped the women to find their missing sons and daughters. However, they did bear a very different – and powerful  –  fruit. As the women trailed wearily in search of their children, they may have met with silence and opposition from the government but they also met each other.

On April 30th, 1977, fourteen mothers went to the Plaza de Mayo, across from Government House to publicize their predicament.   This demonstration took great courage as many of their children had disappeared for lesser ‘crimes’.  These women went to the Plaza to publicize the issue of the thousands of missing Argentinians. Everybody else – including the media – was afraid to speak up.

And I’m sure these women were afraid – but they spoke up anyway.

They collected in the Plaza around the Pirámide de Mayo – the oldest national monument in Buenos Aires and a symbol of liberty. However, as the military government had forbidden groups of more than three people to stand in one place, the mothers were told they couldn’t stand there, which is why they began their silent – and evocative – processions around the Plaza.

Soon these 14 mothers were joined by others, until every Thursday between 3.30 and 4.00pm, hundreds of people – men as well as women – walked silently around this square in Buenos Aires protesting the disappearance of their children. To identify themselves, the mothers wore white headscarves emblazoned with the names of their missing children and carried placards with their photographs.

This moving and non-violent protest captured imaginations across Argentina – and even outside –  as similar ‘mothers’ groups took to the streets, inspired by the actions of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

Eventually the military regime was replaced, but in Argentina – and indeed throughout the world – the memory of heartbroken mothers with placards bearing the photographs of their disappeared children, endures.

It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.  (Aung San Suu Kyi, 1990) 

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http://www.madres.org/navegar/nav.php

Image by willposh via Flickr

The Women of Rosenstrasse


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russian writer and Nob...

We have become so result oriented that we have moved away from doing what we believe is right towards doing only what we believe will succeed.

This move has defined us by our successes and failures rather than our actions. Hence a moral action that doesn’t result in a ‘successful’ outcome is seen as a waste of time. Meanwhile, an amoral – or even immoral – action that brings about a desired result is seen as not only more practical but also better in every way.

This approach has very serious consequences, because the choice between good and evil is ours.  Individually.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. (1)

Butterfly Effect Actions for Change – Part 7:
The Women of Rosenstrasse 
On February 27, 1943, the ‘Final Roundup’, took place in Berlin. This operation involved arresting the Jewish husbands of Aryan German women and their Mischling (mixed ancestry) children.  Within hours of the arrests, 150 women had gathered on Rosenstrasse where the Jewish prisoners were being held.
By the second day, 600 women were gathered outside, holding hands, singing and chanting, ‘Let our husbands go.’
On day three, the SS were ordered to fire warning shots into the crowd – which they did several times.  Every time the soldiers fired the women scattered and hid in the surrounding alleyways and then regrouped.

“The SS trained machine guns on us: ‘If you don’t go now, we’ll shoot.’ But by now we couldn’t care less. We screamed ‘you murderers!’ and everything else. We bellowed. We thought that now, at last, we would be shot. Behind the machine guns a man shouted something – maybe he gave a command. I didn’t hear it, it was drowned out. But then they cleared out and the only sound was silence. That was the day it was so cold that the tears froze on my face.” (2)
The soldiers couldn’t be seen to mow down the flower of Aryan womanhood so the firing stopped.
Now the women were joined by others – men and women unrelated to the prisoners – and the crowd swelled to over a thousand.
On March 7th, Goebbels let the prisoners go – even 35 men who had been sent to Auschwitz were brought back to Berlin.

The women of Rosenstrasse got their husbands and children back but their courage actually achieved more than that –

…the Rosenstrasse women had forced the Nazis to make a choice: They could accede to a limited demand and pay a finite cost – 1,700 prisoners set free, if all the intermarried Jewish men were released. Or they could open a Pandora’s box of heightened protest… For the Nazis, maintaining social control was more important than making sure every last Jew made it to the gas chambers…

The protest confronted Nazis officials with an unresolved question: what to do with other intermarried Jews….On May 21 Himmler’s deputy released them all, everywhere, from the camps. (3) 

I’m sure the women of Rosenstrasse didn’t think they’d succeed when they took to the streets demanding that their husbands be released.  I’m even more sure they didn’t think other women’s husbands would be released.

But they still acted – with great courage – and did what they believed was the right thing to do, with no regard to the outcome.

Even if they had failed in their objective, their actions would still be brave and praiseworthy.

If they had stopped to consider their chances of success – they probably wouldn’t have even tried.

Makes you think… 


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Photograph – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – on a train in Vladivostock as he returned to Russia in 1994 for the first time in twenty years.

(1) —  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956

(2) – Nathan StoltzfusResistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany. Rutgers University Press, 2001

(3) http://www.aforcemorepowerful.org/book/excerpts/denmark.php

(4) In 1995, a memorial created by Ingeborg Hunzinger, an East German sculptor, was erected in the nearby park (which was ironically the site of a former synagogue). The memorial, named “Block der Frauen (Block of Women)” reads The strength of civil disobedience, the vigor of love overcomes the violence of dictatorship; Give us our men back; Women were standing here, defeating death; Jewish men were free.