justice journey / being in the pink room

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On the 17th May 2012, I watched the Pink Room. It was a movie about Vietnamese women and children who had been trafficked and later rescued in Svay Pak, Cambodia. It was moving, but it was far away. Cambodia and Belfast are miles apart. But the movie upset me. It disturbed me in the deeper part of my heart, despite the distance. I cried as I watched it, not understanding how such exploitation could occur. The guy who made the movie was there to answer questions after the screening, and so I cleared my throat and raised my hand.

“Beyond sitting here and crying about it, what can I do in response to this movie? We can’t all go to Cambodia and rescue these girls, but surely there must be some individual and collective way to respond?”

I didn’t know at that stage that 9 months later, on the 25th February, I would be in that village in Cambodia. I would stand on the streets in Svay Pak, in the very building where the Pink Room was.

The Pink Room was where girls were forced to loose their virginity to paying customers. Young girls had their virginity stolen in the Pink Room.

It’s as if someone heard my question that night and that was the start of a journey, my justice journey. My response to the Pink Room is part of my justice journey. I did respond when I asked the question. I do respond everyday as I hold the issue in my head and heart. I will respond to the reality of human trafficking by being a voice and speaking up against this injustice at every opportunity.

To meet with the community in Svay Pak last week, to see the kids club, the sewing room, the medical centre, the sports field, the ‘Lord’s gym’ (extremely buff young men boxing in a ‘fragrant’ 40 degree heat in close confines). My visit to Svay Pak gave me so much hope of a community transformed from darkness to light.

The story of Svay Pak is incredible. In 2003 IJM advocated to do a large scale rescue operation with the local police in Svay Pak. Over 70 women and girls were rescued. This was just the beginning of the story. Aftercare is their journey. And Agape International Missions became part of the solution to long term prevention. They moved into the neighbourhood and built up education, health care, local businesses and church community to help completely transform Svay Pak for good.

The thing I love the most about what Agape did is that when they moved in, they choose to move in to the very building which was formerly the site where these women and girls had been exploited. They knocked down the walls and brought in the light to that once dark and depraved place. They called it Rahab’s House and today it is the hub of the local community of Svay Pak. How redemptive is that?

To change a culture you need to change the values of the people who live in that culture. How you change the values people hold is huge. In my opinion, it can invovle a combination of education, parenting, community development and religion.

My response to all this, well I just ordered the Pink Room screening pack in the hope that I will be able to host another viewing in Northern Ireland in the near future.

Thank you Agape International Missions for such a powerful and transforming resource to raise awareness of the reality of human trafficking in Svay Pak and the power of organisations committed to changing communities for the long term. Here’s their story.

justice journey / women are white cloth

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An old Khmer proverb states that in Cambodia, “Men are like gold and women are like white cloth”.
If you drop a gold coin in the muck, you can wipe it easily clean.
If you drop a white cloth in the muck, it is difficult to restore the former purity it once possessed.

The more time I spend thinking about trafficking and the commercial sex industry, the more concerned I am by the culture which compounds and commissions the existence of such exploitation of women (women are predominantly the group most affected by sexual exploitation, however there is an increasing awareness of the growing prevalence of male sexual exploitation).

Was it ever considered acceptable to objectify and exploit women purely for the pleasure of a man? No matter what country you come from, the language you speak, the colour of your skin, the religion you choose; my view is that exploitation is never ok. Gender based exploitation even more so.

I suppose it would be wrong of me to assume society saw it the same way. I am still naive enough to believe that people possess goodness and morality at their core (as well as alot of rubbish). When I consider how many people (watch the ridiculous music videos, see highly sexualised advertisements for everything from ice-cream to shampoo and view sex as just another thing that most people do with a whole bunch of other people throughout life, I can’t help but think that’s all part of the problem. In a way, we’re all to blame. How dare we be comfortable with the way things are, the way we view and treat the opposite sex.

About one of the only things I took from my gender and politics classes was the mantra, “Equal, but different” (In large part I didn’t really understand the majority of feminist theory… We didn’t get along so well). Essentially, men and women are equal in their humanity. Different in their sexuality and gender. I am ONLY concerned with this issue because of the practical implications. I don’t care much for the theoretical argument. I care alot for the impact this theory should have on the lives of all women and men across the world.

The value is a mutual respect for the “equal but different” other. If you respect my equality and difference, I respect yours. If you don’t, how can I ever respect you. It comes back to that proverb, rooted in the Cambodian culture, that views women as subservient to men. Men are gold. Women are white linen. Treated different, but not equal.

There’s another more colloquial thing Cambodians say, which I think we could apply to how men and women view each other. The phrase is “Same, same, but different”.
We’re all human, which mean we are the same. But we’re different, one to another.
A man, a woman, a child. We’re same, same, but different.

justice journey / she is blind

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Lady Justice is blind. She’s impartial. She starts with a neutral perspective on every case laid before her.

I wish I could be neutral. Impartial. Perhaps even blind. It would save me from the preconceptions and prejudice that often fills my mind when meeting new people or assessing new situations. Because Lady Justice is blind, she does not see the differences and therefore cannot discriminate. She places judgement based on hearing the facts of the case laid before her.

She is blind and she is equal. She uses the scale to measure the case.

So a few days ago I found myself in a rather unique situation. A member of the team had arranged for us to get a Cambodian massage at ‘Seeing Hands’. When we arrived at the location it was definitely a unique experience. Blindness affects over 1% of the population of Cambodia and so a collective had been set up to train blind people in massage, giving them skills and an enterprise to build confidence and engage with society. When I arrived at ‘Seeing Hands’ for my relaxing massage, so many thoughts rushed through my head as I dressed in blue scrubs (first time I’ve done that for a massage… but I’m cool with that) and was led to my massage table by a blind masseuse.

I needed to get over my judgement and preconceptions. It was new, unfamiliar and I felt uncomfortable. I used my eyes to assess the situation, but I didn’t really see the value of the lesson and massage I was about to receive.

I was wrong in my judgment, and I could see. My masseuse was blind, but she could see much clearer than me and gave the most relaxing massage I have ever had! She was able to tell me that I had a job where I sat at a desk alot, with frequent high pressure and deadlines. And that’s pretty much spot on.

She couldn’t see, yet she could see much better than me.

Lady Justice is blind. Impartial. Neutral.

William Penn once said that “Justice is justly represented blind, because she sees no difference in the parties concerned. She has but one scale and weight, for rich and poor, great and small.”

Because we can see, we can often make quick judgements.
But when we are blind, we use our other senses, to hear, to feel, to touch justice.

Lady Justice is blind. Impartial. Neutral.

perspective with high heels and a mirror

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As we journeyed through the red light district, our guide was highlighting areas of the city in lapu-lapu, mandaue and metro cebu where children and women are trafficked for sex work.

Two things which our guide told us about these women will stick with me, regarding their feelings about being trafficked and prostituted and how they respond. They are two things most women are familiar with.. high heels and the mirror. And these are two things that will now remind me of the women trafficked in the sex industry in South East Asia.

Whether 12 inches or 2, wearing high heels usually makes a woman feel good. She feels beautiful, elegant and powerful to those she passes by. They give the appearance of elongated calves and often a more sophisticated demeanour at their sound and sight. To the women who are trafficked into the sex industry, they feel the need to wear heels, not for power or elegance, but to lift them up from the lowly position they see themselves in. They have said that wearing high heels makes them feel less dirty, less down and out.

Another item nearly all women and (most) men are familiar with is the mirror. Waking up in the morning, it’s one of the first places where we rub our eyes and stare back at ourselves, preparing for the day ahead. Women working in bars as prostitutes, being made to sell their bodies and dance for customers also look in the mirror. But this is a different kind of wake-up call. Instead of looking prospective customers in the eyes, they choose to face the mirror, and look at themselves, turning their backs to customers. When asked why, they said, “When I look in the mirror, I am looking at my only friend in the room…. myself. Everyone else in the room, I see as my enemy.” Their own reflection is their only hope, their only friend.

High heels to elevate them from the lowly way in which they view themselves and the work they are forced to do. The mirror to remind them of the loneliness they often feel with such isolation in the situations they face.

Why do I wear high heels and look in the mirror each morning? I suppose it changes my perspective. I see things at a different height and I see myself as I really am.

This week I have seen things from a different height. Lifted from my daily routine and forced to look with a different perspective at the things I see around me, in Cebu and in Phnom Penh. I also see myself as I really am. It brings my heart and my values into sharp focus. I have had the chance to reflect on what is important, what I value and care for. To fight for what is right and fight against what is wrong. I have seen at a glimpse the absolutes of good and evil. Of rescue and restoration. Of abuse and exploitation.

So the high heels and the mirror bring a new perspective. A perspective I want to keep. A perspective to share with others.

justice journey / redemptive zumba

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As the sweat dripped off my nose in the midst of a Zumba class in a rather hot sports hall in Metro Cebu, for a moment I thought I was crazy. Then I looked around and amongst others, saw a Church of England priest with some incredible dance moves and an 8 month pregnant Filipino lady giving it stacks. Then I didn’t feel quite so crazy after all. In fact, I ultimately found the whole experience was rather liberating.

We had the privilege of joining in the International Justice Mission Reintegration Support Network ‘Fit & Fab’ Zumba Class. This is for the women and girls who have been rescued and are seeking to build confidence and purpose as they reintegrate into society, free from abuse and exploitation.

The Filippino’s have rhythm, they know how to dance. It seems to be a part of their culture…. in their very DNA.

Yet the sad thing is that the beauty and enjoyment of dancing has been taken away from girls who are forced to dance for customers. Night after night, men and women, staring at their vulnerable, beautiful bodies, violated before they are ever touched.

But what I loved was that the “Fit & Fab” Zumba Class was the most restorative way to redeem the dancing spirit in the ladies, in such a pure and fun way. It was my first Zumba class and I shall definitely do it again, and when I do, I will think of the incredible impact it can have, not only on bingo wings and jelly thighs, but on the hearts and lives of those who have been set free from slavery in the sex industry.

And here’s another cool thing…. those traffickers who forced the women to dance for money, to dance for men they didn’t know…. Now THEY are the ones made to dance. All in-mates at Cebu Detention and rehabilitation centre are part of the Youtube phenomenon of ‘Dancing Inmates’. They have been made to dance. Of course, the circumstances are quite different, but I find there is some form of subversive justice in this- those who forced others to dance for customers, are now being forced to do likewise whilst serving their sentences for trafficking in jail.

So dance can be a redemptive way towards justice, so Zumba on.

justice journey / in transit

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A car. A bus. A tube. A train. A plane. Another plane. Another taxi. And finally we arrive at Parklane Hotel in Cebu. The lessons we learn in transit, in the in between place.

Often the longest journeys are a challenge. You need to believe in the destination, in the place or the thing that you are journeying toward. But you also have to be in the journey. Embrace the place you presently are.

I faced a challenge getting to Heathrow at the start of my trip. When I hopped on the tube to get to Heathrow Airport, it was somewhat disheartening to hear that the tube wasn’t actually going to Heathrow that day. Instead I would need to get another tube and then another train to reach my final destination. And that was fine- I just embraced it and I made friends with a Muslim man with an orange beard (true story).

There is often both beauty and pain to be found in the journey. In the situations you face, the people you meet and the places you pass on the way.

I have seen justice in transit. In our two days in Cebu I have seen the hope of justice realised and the disturbing reality of persisting injustice. Justice is now and not yet. It comes swiftly and yet we await the fullness of justice and restoration to come at our final destination.

In the women I have met, who have been rescued from situations of being trafficked and exploited in sex work, I see hope. In the brothels, clubs, kareoke tv bars and massage parlours, I see persisting injustice. But I believe in the destination- justice and freedom for all. Whilst there are challenges on the journey, we must resolve to press on, to reach the final destination, and also believe that there is purpose in transit.

There will be challenges in transit to the full realisation of justice for victims of human trafficking, but having seen the work of the International Justice Mission in Cebu, I resolutely believe in the hope and freedom of the final destination and the purpose of the journey.

justice journey / listen. write. spend.

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I bought some things today to prepare me for a journey I am about to take. Some Philippine Pesos, some ‘earpods’ (headphones for apple users, obviously), a lovely new notebook and a pink pen. I’m delighted to use them on my journey.

A journey to listen, to write, to spend.

The journey I start tomorrow, is a journey I have been on for some time, so technically that means I’m not really starting. A journey towards justice. To understanding it. Desiring it. Seeking it. Finding it.

It’s a justice journey.

Tomorrow morning I will board a plane to Cebu, in the Philippines and I am going with an incredible organisation called the International Justice Mission (IJM) (www.ijmuk.org). I am going to hear stories of the work IJM are doing to rescue people from oppression and injustice, particularly those who have been trafficked and exploited in sex work. I will listen to the stories of the people I meet and be humbled by their testimonies of rescue and hope.

I write a lot of lists. In fact I write a lot of stuff. Mostly meaningless stuff, with the occasional  profound thought sneaking in, unnoticed. It’s easy to write stuff, but I want to learn to write meaningful stuff. The stuff that sticks to my heart. I want the things that I write about justice to be what’s actually written on my heart. The person I am. The attitude I display. So on my justice journey I will seek to write the stories of justice, and live them out as well. Suppose that’s partly why I started this blog in the first place.

And then to spend. It’s so easy to spend money. I know, because I do it frequently and I don’t even realise until I look at an online bank statement, utterly perplexed and amazed at my ability to spend (Yes- that is a worrying statement. I agree). But the principle of spending is interesting. You put something in. You give something up. You give something over, in the hope of exchange for something of value.

So to spend more than pesos, to actually spend myself, requires that I give myself fully, understanding there is something of value to be given back. For me, that value is to see people, all people, living lives of freedom. That’s why I’m on this justice journey. To spend myself, give myself, to see freedom come, for all people, everywhere.

The International Justice Mission are doing just that, so I’d love it if you were up for joining me on this justice journey. I expect this journey will go on forever, but I’ll at least try to blog about it while I’m away.

Here’s a summary of IJM’s justice journey for the past 15 years. It is hope-FULL viewing.

Tinkerbell can make you sparkle

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Long lost fairy sisters, brought up in different seasons, one day discover each other at the border of Pixie Hollow and the Winter Woods. There’s something special which happens when these two fairies get together. When they connect, their wings sparkle.

For those of you who don’t know, Tinkerbell, that tricksy tinkering fairy who is friends with Peter Pan, has launched her solo career, and is doing quite well from it. I had a special auntie/ sister trip the other day to see this sparkling story at the cinema. And yes- films for four year olds are sometimes the most profound (my little niece was discretely wiping the tears as they made their way down her sweet little cheeks).

So let me sprinkle a bit of their fairy-dust philosophy before your eyes;

We often learn stuff from those who don’t share our circumstances. Those from a different context. Tinkerbell and Periwinkle were from two different seasons, and a border divided the warmth of Pixie Hollow from the chilly Winter Woods. Once they discovered each other, these two fairies were curious to understand how the other lived. To see fish swim in melted ice and butterflies flutter through the skies. To slide on the frozen water and put sparkly frosting on everything. We can have our eyes and our hearts opened to new things when we cross into someone else’s circumstances. But we need to make the step across the border and that requires us to take the step.

And when we make that step, we get the chance to meet and engage in each others worlds. We can discover the most magical connections. Connections to open our hearts and minds. Connections which excite us, inspire us. Connections which heal us. Connections which make us sparkle, just like the fairy wings.

But it’s not easy to make the step, is it? Much easier for Tinkerbell to stay in Pixie Hollow where she would be safe. Sometimes it requires a risk to step into someone else’s context.  So much is unfamiliar, it can disturb our comfort. Different ways of doing things. Different leaders. Different priorities. But, despite the risk of stepping into another context, these fairies discovered they had a lot to learn from each other.

Tink and Periwinkle share their fairy-hood. And when we step into a different context, we share our humanity with the people we encounter in the places we risk stepping into. Wherever you go, whoever you meet, you share humanity. You share the fact that you have been created with purpose, for extraordinary things. Unique and beautiful plans for your individual lives. You share senses and feelings. You share body, mind and soul.

So remember that when you find yourself in a new context- there is much to learn from the magical connections you can make with humanity in different circumstances.

So why not take a step over the ‘border’? I suspect you’ll find connections in humanity which make you sparkle. 

 

Christmas is (a meaningful gift)

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Turkey consumed. Carols sung. Crackers snapped. Gifts given.

The twenty-fifth of December 2012. Almost done.

If I had one last thought to share on Christmas this year, it would be thus: A gift with (meaning) is of lasting worth.

You see I realised this Christmas that I seem to have established a bit of a tradition to cut logs with my dad as his present over the past few years. He utterly loves it and sometimes I don’t think I quite understand why. I think it’s because the gift has (meaning). Purpose. It meets a real and present need and it shows an understanding of who my dad is and what he likes.

Often we can spend a lot on gifts which don’t have much (meaning), simply because we feel obliged to give something. Yet I believe it is the gift with (meaning) that will last. A gift with thought. With plan. With purpose.

Baby Jesus received three gifts from the wise men. Gifts with (meaning).

A gold gift for the King.

A frankincense gift as He was worthy of worship.

A myrrh gift for his future calling to the grave and beyond.

And Jesus himself. He was the most (meaningful gift) of all. Given from God to the world. A (gift) we can all receive. Merry Christmas one and all. And to all a goodnight.

Christmas is (light)

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“I am full of (light). I am full of wonder……This (light) is contagious, go, go, tell your neighbours, reach out and pass it on. ” Emeli Sande, Wonder (2012) 

As I was driving home from a late night viewing of the snowman and his dog, I noticed all sorts of (lights). White (lights), blue lights, flashing multi coloured (lights).

But when I see the (lights) I’m reminded that we have been given (light) at Christmas. The (light) was born. The wise men followed the star to see the (light).

This (light) is contagious.