Issue: Dowry Deaths and Bride Burning

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Asha is 28, university educated and unmarried. For a Nepali girl she’s deviated far from the accepted path. Asha finished university with a degree in sociology and speaks fluent English. In discord with her parents, she refuses marriage proposals on a regular basis.

Asha works 12-14 hour days in the family business. Her brothers refuse to pay her. When they’re not looking, she takes her wages from the cash drawer. Every month she deposits the accumulated income in a secret savings account. It’s taken her 4 years to save US$1000.

I sit in a wicker chair, wrapped in a blanket with a cup of masala tea. Asha sits in the chair next to me. It’s late and most Nepalis are in for the night. Two boys play with sticks in the street, but Pokhara is quiet. One of the boys trips and tumbles into a bush. I laugh but I realize I’m the only one. I turn to Asha who looks overwhelmed with worry.

“Hey, ash, are you okay?”

She sighs deeply. “I don’t want this life,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

Latent panic enters her voice, “I don’t want my life to turn out like the rest of the girls here.”

I reassure her, “Don’t worry. It won’t.”

“Have I told you about my sister?”

“You have a sister?” I’ve been in Pokhara for a month. I’ve met all her family members and no one had mentioned a sister.

“Yeah, she died.” Her eyes swell with tears. “Svara. She was 3 years younger than me.”

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Organization Profile: Nepali Yoga Women’s Trust

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 There’s nothing I love more than finding a successful women’s organization with a vibrant, local female running the show.

Three years ago Devika Gurung founded the Nepali Yoga Women Project with Emma Despres, a woman from the UK. Devika grew up in Nepal and is fully aware of the harsh realities women face in the country. At the age of 15 she dropped out of school to help her family earn money. Her first job involved lugging heavy rocks around an airport construction site. Later jobs included working in an orchard, making carpets, and cleaning houses.

When you meet Devika it’s hard to imagine her childhood consisting of manual labor (even though it’s common for Nepali girls). Devika is beautifully poised and radiates positive energy. Her adult life hasn’t been free of challenges either, but along the way she learned English and began practicing yoga. Eventually, she opened her own yoga studio in Pokhara.

At this studio she connected with Emma. The two women decided to start a project to develop the unsuspected, inner skills of Nepali women and allow them to reassert themselves in society. They wanted to create a positive environment where Nepali women could learn how to heal and support themselves. Continue reading

Organization Profile: AFESIP Cambodia

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‘Human trafficking’ is “the illegal trade in human beings for purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor.” My friend Katy calls it a “dinner party term.” She says “It reveals nothing about imprisonment, abuse, physical pain, slavery, withdrawal of basic human rights like freedom, destruction of trust and of a person’s identity.” I couldn’t agree more.

Katy modeling clothing for trafficking awareness.

I first heard about AFESIP while reading Somaly Mam’s The Road of Lost Innocence. Somaly’s memoir documents of her sexual enslavement and escape. I was so moved by her story and already interested in anti-sex trafficking efforts that I contacted AFESIP while planning my trip to Cambodia. This ultimately led me to Katy’s blog and her volunteer work.

In Cambodia, the sex industry thrives. It’s an issue you witness in the streets. A brothel is never more than a 5-minute walk away. And while it may look like the girls “consent,” the truth is most feel like they have no other option and no way out. The rescued girls who come to AFESIP suffer from abuses difficult to imagine. Many experience torture and addiction to drugs  such as methamphetamines and heroine. (For more information on the sex industry in Cambodia visit my previous posts: The Issues, The Sex Industry of Cambodia, and Cambodia: Masculine Mentality, Sex Culture, and Gender Based Violence).

A photo taken by Katy demonstrating the self harm (cutting) many girls resort to, relieving the mental and physical pain of their daily lives.

So the question becomes: how do you combat an issue so broad and destructive? How do you access girls held hostage in this lifestyle? And if you can reach them and remove them from imprisonment, how do you attempt the recovery process? How do you rehabilitate a girl who’s grown up in an environment where she’s routinely raped, violently beaten, and force-fed drugs? Continue reading

Indonesia: Boys will be boys, but where are all the girls?

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I recently volunteered as an English teacher with a program called 4th World Love for a week in Sembalun, Indonesia. Sembalun is a remote village on the island of Lombok. To give you an idea of the poverty here, I lived with the wealthiest family and still used a squat toilet and didn’t have a shower.

This post was difficult for me to write. I left the village with conflicting memories. On one hand, the hospitality of the locals was unexpected and exactly what I needed during a period of homesickness. Many of my students made an effort to show me their beautiful country and way of life – and this is something I will never forget. Yet, my time here was tainted by my personal experience as a woman in the village. And while it
gave me insight into the lives and struggles women face in Indonesia, I’m sad to say I felt uncomfortable the majority of my stay and I left unimpressed with the education program provided by 4th World Love’s Cultural Development Center (CDC).

I was raised to approach every situation with a positive outlook and to search for beauty in the most trying situations. You’ll notice in my photos I’m smiling and happy, and I was! I had an eye-opening (although challenging) experience, and I’m so grateful my journey brought me to the people of Sembalun. However, due to the nature of my blog I won’t be discussing the amazing people I met and the fun things I did. Instead, I’ll focus on my experience as a female here and explain my dissatisfaction with the organization. So here’s how it starts… Continue reading

Cambodia: Masculine Mentality, Sex Culture, and Gender-Based Violence

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Gender plays an important role in Cambodian social life. In Phnom Penh, clusters of men sit in restaurants and litter the street corners. I rarely see a group of girlfriends chatting around a table for lunch.

At night this division becomes more apparent. Men meet at restaurants and karaoke bars to indulge in a night of drinking and bonding. For men, many nights in Phnom Penh end with the purchase of sex. In 2007, a study of men who frequent entertainment venues, karaoke and bars, revealed 53% had paid for sex in the last 12 months with an average of 8 partners. (The unfortunate outcome of this statistic is every time I meet a Cambodian male I question whether or not they fall into that 53%.)

Cambodian masculinity centers on group inclusion and confirmation. When a group decision is made to end a night at a brothel, one member rarely refuses because of the Cambodian tendency to avoid conflict and high levels of peer pressure. Many men admit they pay for sex because they don’t want to feel excluded from their social groups. Some report waiting outside brothels while their friends have sex, but more admit to following the pack.

In Cambodia, masculinity implies an inability to control sexual desires and actions. Many men consider sexual self-restraint biologically impossible.

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