Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

Of the Girl Child, the Goddesses, the Invisible Women…

..Oh, my beautiful little one
Oh, my little darling daughter
Oh, your neck is open, the button is open
Let the dotted frock always remain open

Let her not grow up
Let her not grow up to be mother, grandma
Let the sands of time lay still
Let the Time be fixed to the safety pin on her frock….
(Assamese song, lyrics – Naba Kanta Baruah)

To the contrary of the sincere desire of each parent, the beautiful little daughter grows up fast to be a lady.  The lyricist of this song wants his innocent, carefree, and pretty daughter to remain young and innocent forever.

During a trip to the northern Thailand, we visited an Akha village nestled in a picturesque hill not far from Chiang Rai.  While walking through the village, I came across a little girl who was playing in the courtyard.  As she saw me approaching, she ran to the protection of her father.  I smiled to the father and asked for his permission to take a photograph of the child.  The father returned my smile with a big grin.  I extended my right hand to the girl.  She glanced at her father.  He nodded.  The girl stretched her hand to mine with a beaming, confident smile.  As I returned, suddenly the song flashed through my mind.  I wished the little innocent girl wouldn’t grow up.  Let her remain forever young and innocent under the protective care of her vigilant father.

Not many will like to agree with me as I begin to talk with a note of pessimism and a sense of cynicism.  But I believe there is a valid and strong reason to make me think that way.  I don’t know what time has in its store for that little girl in the future when she will grow up.  I wonder about the future of a thousand young girls like her who may fall victim to the evils that are bi-products of economic growth, and consumerism.  Will they be able to escape the vicious net of greedy and unscrupulous human traffickers?

Human trafficking involves both males and females, adults and children.  While most male victims are engaged and exploited as forced and underpaid labourers in various sectors, such as industry, fishing, construction, agriculture, the female victims are more often trafficked as domestic helpers and forced prostitution.  Some of them are even sent to various destinations around the world.  The victims are often subjected to physical violence, threat, and coercion.

For Thailand, the most developed nation in the region, the problem is both internal and external.  The victims of trafficking in and traveling through Thailand are mostly ethnic minorities hailing from the border and more disadvantaged areas of the country on the one hand and people migrating from the less developed neighbouring countries fleeing from armed conflicts and poverty on the other.  The nation at the threshold of a new economic horizon seems to be standing at a crossroads to find the most suitable option to tackle the problem.

The situation in my native country India is not encouraging either.  In spite of constitutional provisions and stringent laws, the country is plagued with issues relating to violence against women.  In addition to the problem of trafficking of women and girls, the major area of concern are several customs, like dowry, which is prevalent amongst the Hindu population and affects both the rich and the poor.  The tradition provides the parents of the groom an opportunity to demand cash or payment in kind from the bride’s family and has been defined as illegal by law, but it has been so ingrained with the culture and society that it simply refuses to die.  To get a suitable groom for their daughter, the parents would not hesitate to offer money or property.  This in turn has led to foeticide and imbalance in male-female ratio in several states, particularly in Haryana, close to the national capital of New Delhi.  As a result, the males in the state of Haryana are often forced to marry women of other states and sometimes these women are subjected to domestic violence.  Sometimes the demands of the groom’s family do not end with the marriage, the greed continues, and the woman dies due to torture.  In India, women often are compared to Mother Earth and are depicted as goddesses put on a pedestal.  Yet the paradox is that many of them fall victim to violence and torture and women and girls of poor families are trafficked into prostitution.  Child marriage in some areas is another problem.  The Government has been working hard for the empowerment of women and to fight illiteracy and hunger with two-pronged policies – a 30% reservation for women of the total seats in the local government bodies in rural areas and free education with the provision of a mid day meal in primary schools up to the eighth grade.  But cultural prejudices and lack of administrative efficiency are major hurdles and it will take a long time to achieve the desired result.

George, my Kenyan friend, while talking about the status of women in his country, once remarked that women are viewed as invisible or non-entities.  If someone visits a house and finds no men in the house, it would be presumed that there is no one in the house even though some women or girls may be present at the time.  His point is that the presence or the existence of women is simply ignored.  There is no recognition for them as human beings.  The organization that he is associated with is working to save and rescue girls from taboos like female genital mutilation and other activities.

Another friend of mine, Sarah from Papua New Guinea, a human rights activist, has been fighting against violence against women.  A crusader throughout her life, she along with her friends and colleagues have taken the cudgel against sorcery in her country.

It is not only developing nations that are suffering from this problem.  The U N Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012 says trafficking for sexual exploitation is more common in Europe, Central Asia and the Americas.

Dr Chaiwat Satha- Anand, holds that the greatest contribution of the non-violence movement in the twentieth century is the ‘suffrage of the women’ in different countries. The women constitute half the population in the world; can we think of peace, progress and prosperity ignoring half of the population? Can we survive ignoring the population who hold ‘half the Sky’ as the Chinese proverb says? What about achieving the millennium development goals? Is there any ray of hope at the end of the tunnel for the majority of women living in the emerging nations?

“Our goal is clear: an end to these inexcusable crimes-whether it is the use of rape as a weapon war, domestic violence, sex trafficking, so called “honour” crimes, female genital mutilation/cutting. We must address the roots of this violence by eradicating discrimination and changing the mindsets that perpetuate it,” said Ban Ki-moon on the occasion of the International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women, on 25 th November last year. He made an appeal to all governments to end all forms of violence against women and girls in all parts of the world.

A large number of social workers, artists, human rights activists – the unknown ‘Gandhis’ of the present era non-violence movement are contributing yeoman service in different parts of the world by not only making people aware of the problems faced by the economically and socially underprivileged men and women, both rural and urban, but also providing ways and means for self-reliance in their own small way.  They are the ones who still keep hope alive for the men and women deprived of their rights.

Let me conclude with the prayer that the little girl on the hill would grow and transform in to a strong and independent woman with all her innocence!

Bibekananda Das, India
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2013 Session


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