Even in the newness, the hope, and the opportunity each day brings, the past remains.
They’d like to forget it, wish the past out of existence. But it’s there in the faint black and blue shadow that appears one day around Halma’s eye.
It’s there in the desperate looks and the faraway stares that creep up on Shira when she thinks no one is looking.
It’s there in Joni’s fatalistic attitude and lack of self-confidence.
It’s there in the bruises and the poverty, the memories, the struggles, the addictions, and, perhaps above all, the shame.
Salman Rushdie, in his novel Shame, writes:
“Shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture.”
The shame of the past and the present, the shame heaped on by culture and society has relentlessly broken down these children of God from rock to gravel to dust until they start believing the lies.
“You are worthless.” “You are a bad woman.” “You will never be truly loved.”
And then the dust turns to mud and they harden.
Their souls, their hearts, their bodies, their wits, and their tempers harden until slowly, slowly they turn to stone, and the shame and the past hold them fast and they accept their lot in life as deserved and immutable.
We begin every morning with song, prayer, and stories.
One morning this week, Max tells the story of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz. Some of the women sit at the edge of their seats, drawn completely into the tales. They soak in every word.
“Have any of you ever felt like Ruth?” Max asks.
“I felt like Ruth once,” says Joni. “My husband died and I decided to stay with my mother-in-law to take care of her.”
“That’s good!” says Max. “You are like Ruth! From now on I’m calling you Ruth.”
“No,” says Joni. “Ruth did good things. I am a bad woman. I am not like Ruth.”
That kind of self-loathing is unfortunately all too common among women who have come out of lives in the sex trade.
They have been crushed down to the point where they believe the lies.
They do not identify with the protagonist, because Ruth is a hero. They are the bad women who do not merit mention. They are the forgotten.
Joni wears her sense of self-worthlessness on her sleeve loudest of all. When a lesson seems overwhelming, even for a moment, she is the first to give up.
“My head is just no good,” says Joni during English class, staring at the table covered in kitchen items set to practice vocabulary. “I will forget everything by tomorrow. You don’t speak good Bangla. And I can’t learn good English. We will never be able to do this.”
The other women kind of glance around nervously, unsure how to respond.
The fact is, they are getting it. Most of them have little to no education, and can’t read or write, but their oral recall is incredible and they have soaked up an enormous amount of information in a remarkably short period of time.
“Joni-di (big sister Joni),” I say, looking over the table at her. “Slowly, slowly, we will learn together. You can learn. I know you can.”
Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading Development as Freedom by Nobel Prize-winning Economist Amartya Sen.
In the book, Sen advocates a “capability approach” of evaluating poverty and social justice that looks beyond simple income-based metrics and focuses on people’s “freedom to achieve… and the freedom to lead lives that they have reason to value.”
So the metrics by which poverty and social justice are measured not only include income and wealth, but also rights, liberties, opportunities, and the social bases of self-respect.
“In this perspective,” Sen writes, “poverty must be seen as the deprivation of basic capabilities rather than merely as lowness of incomes, which is the standard criterion of identification with poverty.”
“[The] freedom-centered understanding of economics and of the process of development is very much an agent-oriented view.
With adequate social opportunities, individuals can effectively shape their own destiny and help each other. They need not be seen primarily as passive recipients of the benefits of cunning development programs.”
The seven women who bless us with their trust on a daily basis are victims of social injustice and poverty not primarily in terms of lack of income (though that is often what forced them into the trade in the first place), but rather through an impoverishment of liberties, opportunities, and self-respect.
Shame and circumstance have deprived them of some fairly basic capabilities and freedoms.
Those are the very things we hope to restore, and in so doing bring about an all-encompassing freedom: economic freedom, emotional freedom, and spiritual freedom.
Given the opportunity, these women can overcome.
But it’s not an easy road or a quick fix. It never has been.
And though books by prize-winning economist make the solutions seem simple and formulaic, broken souls are difficult to condense and explain in charts set in ink on a page.
“Haam honge kamiyab eika din,” they sing. “We will overcome one day.”
We sing Hindi songs about victory and discuss how together we will overcome the challenges of training.
On Friday, mixing bowls and flour, eggs and whisks, spoons and graters are set out on the table. Another day for Joni’s nemesis: English vocabulary.
“Joni-di,” I say, gesturing at an item. “What is this?”
“Wheat flour,” says Joni. “I know that one. We can do this.”
“Yes,” I smile. “We can do this.”
Freedom Business Fridays is a blog series focused on a new business that Serge staff are starting to help free people in forced labor or sex trade situations around the world. We are highlighting Serge’s first “Freedom Bakery” in South Asia. These women have a chance to leave the Red Light District Behind. This is their story. Told weekly, every Friday.