My Fulbright colleague, Diya, is working on an almost identical topic about rehabilitation centers and their roles in creating empowerment. Last week, we (along with my visiting friend, Jika) went to the town Rajshahi to visit a community development center that has a few interesting programs on women's empowerment. The picture to the side is the three of us crammed in a rickshaw. We are still looking into the projects and I cannot divulge an analysis now (you'll have to wait for the published paper!)
But something that keeps coming up in our endless, circled conversations is how grey the solutions are. Our ceaselessly critical minds are never fully satisfied with any program we encounter. We've come--or are beginning--to understand that while there is no perfect answer, the best solutions are individual based, not system-based.
Organizations that are devoting their programs previously practiced method of empowerment don't leave room for the individuality of women's lives, decisions and cases. For example, often organization's play off the "typical" story of a trafficking victim (which, there is endless debate over using the word victim or survivor--an entry on constructed identity will come). The typical story being she was sold to a man who brought her to a brothel and was raped for 3 years until she escaped. Though that story does happen, there are millions of other stories that you don't hear.
At the center we visited, we heard a story of girl who was caught at border and man with her, presumed to be trafficker, was detained. The community center discovered after one year of working with the girl, the man was her adopted father. They begged together on the street and he took care of her. She wanted to cross the border to find a better job. When she was crossing, this man followed her to make sure she made it through okay. The man is legally blind and has no other family, just wanting to protect the only daughter he felt he had. "It's tragic," Diya said.
This is one case; one fish in an ocean. But that's the reality of trafficking: there is so much grey and individuality of cases that there can't be one solution. In all truth, there is not one 'evil man' and one 'victim,' instead various levels of informed consent exist. The man may not know the girl was trafficked or she might have chosen to migrate. But, the law doesn't work like this: there is moral and immoral, right and wrong, legal and illegal. If the law acknowledges that she consented to at least part of her 'trafficking,'* then she should be en-prisoned for illegally crossing the border, even though she was informed that the trafficker would cheat her. If you don't acknowledge her active consent, you see her as only a victim of unfortunate circumstance, not a woman trying to find a better life.
There is a line: where us as social beings are cornered by our cultural positions and responsibilities--and where we are active agents. Empowerment, as well as the path leading to it including justice systems, should be acknowledging and coaching our individual agency. This means looking at problems not in right or wrong verdicts, but for best options.
This woman to the right is a member of a women's empowerment group in a indigenous village outside of Rajshahi. Hearing the women shares stories about how they have changed their village from creating private ladies toilets, to having their sons and daughters attend school, to banning bootleg alcohol vendors, they were beaming and speaking with confidence and pride. Together, they worked on what they felt needed to be fixed in the village--and did it! Their empowered action worked for them and their tribe.
What they did might not work for everyone. Their needs were different from a neighboring village. But the confidence and power they gained is universal and everlasting--and with these skills they can continue to adapt to new problems and create new solutions. That's empowerment: never perfect, only ideal, by having ability to produce new ideas.
*Some women and men ask/want/need to migrate for jobs and need someone to help them cross the border. Depending, again, on the case, this can constitute trafficking or not; but it's not always clear because the victim may not be informed fully of their awaiting job or contract. So is it trafficking if he/she agreed to migrate but didn't know to where? Those questions and ambiguous answers create the grey.