On International Women's Day
In 2002, a year after the September 11th attacks, I had the opportunity to intern for the Office of Public Liaison at the White House. Organizing briefings for various constituency groups, I learned about several issues impacting the country, including the economy, healthcare, and various bills up for a vote. But the area that really grabbed me was International Women’s and Children’s Issues.
I remember well a briefing we organized for the President to greet about twenty women the administration had brought in from Afghanistan to complete a funded computer training course. The intent and hope was that it would better equip them to obtain a good job when they returned back to their home country. President Bush did not want media present in the room, so there were no cameras or the energy of media activity.
The room was quiet with hushed whispers and when the President came out on stage, to his surprise, every one of the women stood to their feet to applaud him, and then just as quickly fell to the floor on their knees before him, tears streaming down their cheeks in demonstration of their gratitude for what they felt he had given them. He was clearly taken aback, and uncomfortably tried to urge them to stand back to their feet, eye to eye with him.
I will never forget that image. I remember the impression of the appreciation on their faces, faces that revealed this was likely the first time they had felt so respected, and perhaps the first time they had experienced this from a male figure. It was powerful. It was redemptive. It made me want to be part of something that could inspire that kind of expression on the face of another who had been victimized, exploited, underprivileged, or silenced.
But I had no idea how deep, how horrific the problem of human slavery had become around the world. I felt a responsibility and a call to participate, as well as a recognition of the privilege and gift it was to be able to do so. I explored different avenues of opportunity and landed at Wellspring International and the opportunity to help create a meaningful way for individuals to respond to some of the urgent and tragic needs of humanity around the world.
Wellspring has taken me into some of the darkest corners of the world: inside the small room of a brothel, through the hidden streets of red light districts. I have been able to speak to women working in prostitution and those who have been trafficked into sex slavery, to listen to their stories and recognize an inherent problem in our black and white distinctions of who is there by force and who is there “by choice.” I have had conversations with brothel madams, I have seen the hard stares of pimps, and I have waved weakly to a 6-year-old girl saying hello to me from behind the bars of a brothel room where her mother recently died. It has opened my eyes. It has changed my perspective. It has helped me see a world outside of my own. It has left me ever changed.
To anyone interested in getting involved in the fight against human trafficking, I would first affirm they are stepping into a dark world that very much needs voices and advocacy. I also believe one of the most important first steps in activism is to be educated, to learn the realities of the world we are confronting. Human trafficking is such an extreme example of a world that draws us in because we desperately want to fix something horrifically broken, and yet it is a world far bigger than anything we can “fix.” It is a world that calls us to be real, to recognize that we must change our definitions of success. We like to measure success in percentages. We have been conditioned to talk in terms of a “return on our investment” and to find a number that reflects the reasonableness of that investment.
But this work is different. This struggle is about human beings and abuse, trauma, power, and brokenness. You don’t see numbers in the 90th percentile for those who hang onto freedom. And yet, the work is one of the most worthy investments of our time, our finances, and our being that we can make in this lifetime. It is the opportunity to be an advocate for another, to tirelessly work to help them emerge from a painful reality so that they may know a kind of freedom in this life.
It is a privilege to embark on this journey toward healing with others, and it is a picture that requires so many areas of participation. Some will work in advocacy to raise awareness of the need, some will live in such a way that they advocate to change the cultural messages perpetuating the exploitation of women, the commodification of sexuality, the pervasiveness of pornography. Some will work to provide the financial resources that help to fund rescue and rehabilitation operations, some will be on the ground doing the visible recovery and legal work, and still others will work in the critically important after-care process for victims and survivors.
The point is: everyone can be involved. And for every single life it prevents from the trap of slavery and exploitation or rescues from the traumatic reality of this life, it is invaluable and worth every single bit of that charge. This isn’t “his” problem or “her” problem. This is our problem, collectively. And so, sometimes you get to be part of the powerful moment of transformation and freedom you long to see. Other times you trust that we are part of a much larger story and you realize, it is all worth it: for the one, for the one to come. I have also learned to look for and be intentional in recognizing and appreciating the beauty that is around me–in the small things that aren’t actually so small.
I find hope in the beauty of nature, in an act of kindness, in a demonstration of strength through the everyday yet heroic choice someone makes to be more, in the opportunity to read some of the great and gifted writers from today and long ago, in the gift of friendship, in experiencing the first gust of wind or carousel ride through the eyes of my children. I find hope in remembering that there is beauty in this life—and it is encountered not just in spite of the darkness, but often through it.
Naomi Zacharias is director of Wellspring International, the humanitarian arm of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia. To read more about Wellspring International and its efforts toward the flourishing of women around the world click here.