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Saving VAGINAS » Women's Courage


February 17th, 2011 by elise Leave a reply »

Saving Vaginas, Protecting Vaginas, Celebrating Vaginas!

I am still reeling, beaming, and laughing after seeing a phenomenal  performance of “The Vagina Monologues” on campus. It was my first exposure to the production, and I was moved beyond words. It definitely made it particularly special that I am close with the director and several actresses, but it was the spirit of the words and movements that glided across the stage, the engagement of men and women in the audience, and the love and warmth shared by all that really made my week. Watching the monologues got me thinking about our society’s general discomfort with using words such as “orgasm” and “vagina” in conversation, and in public. Or the guilt women often feel when privately reflecting on their pleasurable sexual experiences or fantasies. I consider myself very open, liberal, and extroverted when it comes to discussing sexuality, the female body, and sexual pleasure in general, and yet, it isn’t until recently that I’ve felt comfortable talking about MY vagina, for example. In the medical, education, and philanthropic fields, many of us “get” the importance of prioritizing women’s emotional and physical health, talking about FGM and obstetric fistulae and the injustices of sexual slavery and rape as a weapon of war, domination, and control. Yet, most American schools’ sex education programs are so limited, barely skimming the surface of a topic that is rich with (controversial?) layers of pleasure, mystery, and intimacy. It’s quite common to pick up an article of Cosmopolitan magazine and read “101 Tips to Make Your Guy Go Wild” or “Pampering Your Hoo-Ha,” yet discussing these techniques in a public forum is considered bold.

So, in honor of Eve Ensler and in the spirit of “V-Day” (a global activist movement that supports anti-violence organizations throughout the world, helping them to continue and expand their core work on the ground, while drawing public attention to the larger fight to stop worldwide violence (including rape, battery, incest, female genital mutilation (FGM), sex slavery) against women and girls), I will explore the issues associated with rescuing girls and women from the sex trade in Cambodia, and how to best offer therapeutic support to the girls (and their vaginas) and their families!

Rescuing Girls, Teaching Parents

I’ve really appreciated the comments and feedback I’ve received on my prior blog posts about Cambodian women and girls in the sex trade.

1. Vaughan raised the question, “Are we hurting these girls by raiding their brothels and taking away their livelihoods? Many have no education and came from nothing, many willingly sell their bodies and make much more money in this industry than they could in any other?”

2. Warner suggested, “Families should not have to make a ‘cost-benefit’ analysis of selling their own daughters.”

The Human Rights Task Force on Cambodia, an international NGO set up by five Asian and one American human rights organizations, believes that “the increased punishment for parents and guardians selling children” is ineffective and worrisome. Punishment does not address the root cause of what pushed a parent to sell their child in the first place: desperate poverty. Instead, HRTFC says, “a process of education and awareness-raising of parents” would be a much more positive part of a revised law on kidnapping, trafficking, and exploitation.

What are the problems with family?

  • Women may be sold into the sex trade by family members, but if they ever escape, they face immense discrimination, isolation, and stigmatization by relatives and friends.
  • A woman permanently bears the ‘mark’ of a sex slave, and may be completely abandoned by her former support network. Furthermore, her marriage prospects are significantly diminished, so starting a new life and finding employment and a romantic partner may seem and be impossible. This contributes to the heavy shame that women bear, both during their time in brothels, and once they leave.
  • A woman’s social status, physical, and psychological health are damaged, sometimes beyond repair. For girls and women who contract HIV/AIDS and other dangerous STIs, as well as those whose psychological distress escalates into severe depression or suicidal thinking, actually leaving the brothel doesn’t have any benefits. Physical “freedom” or distance from the brothel, pimps, and clients doesn’t equal immunity, protection, or an erasure of cumulative damage.

What can we do to help?

  • Offer multi-faceted support (sort of like family therapy) for girls and women who have escaped from the sex trade, or better yet, do it preventatively, in schools and community centers. Teach families that sex slaves are not to blame for the spread of HIV/AIDS, survivors of rape and sexual abuse are not unworthy or impure, having sex with virgins does not cure a man of AIDS, and all women deserve respect, dignity, and the protection of their human rights.
  • Make parents and siblings of survivors a big part of the support network post-rescue. Perhaps holding gatherings, much like “Family Members of Alcoholics” support groups, will help parents voice their concerns, support eachother, and learn to accept, respect, and love their daughters, celebrating their strength.
  • Change the way women are portrayed in the media. How can we make it clear that the female body is not an object, to be used, controlled, dominated, and hurt by men?

Unfortunately, many women and men who try to speak out against these unjust views of women and the deplorable condition of brothels, are persecuted and discouraged. As we saw with Somaly Mam and her co-workers, she has been personally threatened by men who are trying to stop her work (her 14-year-old daughter was kidnapped a few years ago, but luckily found in a far away Cambodian village, after having been drugged and gang raped). Mu Sochua is a Cambodian politician and women’s rights activist.

“She founded the first women’s organization in Cambodia, Khemar, and in 1998 became the first woman ever to be elected into Parliament and hold a seat in the Women’s Affairs Ministry. Mu Sochua has worked extensively to end sex slavery, including negotiating an agreement with Thailand allowing Cambodian women trafficked as sex workers to return to their home country instead of being jailed. She was nominated for a Nobel Prize for her work against sex trafficking of women in 2005. In the past year, after witnessing first hand the ongoing injustice against the people of her country, specifically the women, Mu Sochua filed a lawsuit against Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia who has ruled the country for over 30 years. As a result she faces persecution and prison.” (VDay.org).

Sochua says, “in many people’s eyes Cambodia is on the road to reconstruction. Unfortunately, this stage of reconstruction has faltered and in many ways Cambodia is fast regressing to soft dictatorship. Thirty years after the Khmer Rouge genocide, at least 1 million Cambodian children go to bed hungry every night while hundreds of thousands of Cambodian girls are ruined in brothels” ( VDay.org).

Sochua has personally experienced the damaging impact of Cambodia’s pervasive attitudes towards women as sexually deviant, if they attempt to use their strength to speak out or break free.  “Despite the fact that I have been assaulted – with clothes torn from my body in the attempt to prevent the improper use of government vehicles for campaigning in Cambodia – by a general nonetheless – I now find myself assaulted yet again – this time by the prime minister himself who recently compared me to a hustler or prostitute, his words of shame blasted through a media that is totally controlled by his own party and family” (VDay.org).


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