There’s something about summer holidays that make us reassess our goals and priorities. That was Petra Bagust’s experience last year. She took some time out with her family, read some inspiring books and decided she wanted to be useful. She met with Tearfund and within just a couple of weeks found herself on her way to Nepal to talk to women about the horrors of human trafficking. Here’s what she learned.
1. Everybody has a story of value
We’ve been talking a lot about stories this year as a family. Each person has a story that is a sacred part of them. Our story is what we do and the choices we make, but our story is also affected by other people in our lives – they write on our stories too. During my time in Nepal I interviewed 21 women. I was very much aware of the responsibility that involved and wanted to be able to come back and tell their stories in a way that would benefit them and their community. Of course any experience like this is two-way, they had a big impact on me, and in essence became part of my story.
2. Take the moment and create a moment
At first glance the offer to visit Nepal seemed a case of a great idea at the wrong time. It was too soon, with too many obstacles in the way. There were our children to organise and I had a work commitment with a corporate client to honour and a speaking engagment in Christchurch. This however felt really right and worth pursuing, so I started making calls and things started to fall into place. It turned out that Hamish could be home for the children, and my client was okay to release me and the Christchurch event was happy to postpone saying this was a story they wanted to hear about when we could make a date work. It did work out.
3. The power of community
For us in New Zealand, it is sometimes easier to bypass our community. We’ll drive to the dairy to buy more sugar because we don’t want to bother our neighbour by asking to borrow some. But when things go wrong, it’s your community that you rely on. Christchurch knows this.
Nepal is a country largely made up of subsistence farming communities. People live in close quarters and your neighbours are likely to be your relatives. But it is a patriarchal society and life for women is certainly not easy. What Tearfund’s Share and Care programme is doing is recognising that by supporting a community, and empowering the women within it with education and business skills, they are giving them a way to help themselves and each other. So often I heard women say to me, “I can read and write now” or, “I am earning money so my children can go to school”.
The by-product of this is that the women are spending more time together and becoming friends. They are talking and sharing stories and information. The woman who used to be beaten by her husband, feels able to tell her friends about it and is supported. While his behaviour may not be directly challenged by the community, having the knowledge out in the open changes the dynamic. It’s like shining a light into a community.
4. Touch breaks down barriers
The Nepalese are not an overly affectionate kissing-hugging kind of people, but sometimes when I was talking to people via an interpreter, a pat on my knee or a touch on the shoulder as we spoke let me know there was a bond that could transcend the barriers of language and culture.
5. I’m an abolitionist
Every 40 minutes a girl from Nepal is trafficked to India. At a conservative estimate, that’s about 13,000 a year. I will never forget the people I met and the conversations I had with the women who had escaped – and the families of those who have never been heard of again. I came home ready to publicly declare myself ‘a staunch abolitionist’. It’s a title I wear with immense pride.
6. Take a piece of advice – it may change your life
One of the women I met with was named Setimaya. Her story is as heartbreaking a one as you will ever hear. She was betrayed by someone she trusted and sold from brothel to brothel, where she was beaten if her earnings for the night weren’t considered enough by her pimp. Setimaya was eventually able to escape because someone offered her a simple piece of advice. Because of a medical condition, she had to visit a doctor frequently. Another girl advised Setimaya to always be cooperative and one day she might be allowed to go to the doctor unaccompanied that could be her chance for escape. The advice was the key to her escape from sexual slavery, and taking it started a chain of events that gave her the confidence and means to take a step that changed her life.
7. Flowers say so much
Whenever we arrived at a village we were given locally picked flowers. We were in a very hot country and travelling for many hours each day, so there was no way these beautiful flowers could last till we got back to our rooms each night. What struck me was ‘keeping’ the beauty wasn’t the point of the gift. It was a gesture that was purely in the moment, it was part of our welcome, and a moment of beauty and ritual that went beyond words.
8. Fear breeds suspicion
Unfortunately, not all the girls who make it back home receive a rapturous welcome. A lack of information breeds fear and suspicion. People are afraid the girls will bring disease back from the city, and the loss of their reputation reflects on their whole family. But I met women who had been rescued from prostitution and then had to win over their neighbourhood. They showed great tenacity, they had made it back, been back to school and rebuilt their reputations. They were on a journey of healing and freedom.
9. There is hope
It would be easy to get distressed and feel overwhelmed by the pressures and vulnerability of these women and girls, but the ones I spoke to were inspirational. I spoke to women who were fighting to get their daughters back and others who had rebuilt their shattered lives. There is hope because there are things that we can do to help and when our small action gets added to other people’s actions, things start to happen.
10. Our children can make the difference
I think we need to be aware of the dangers of letting our children grow up insulated and protected from what is going on in the world. Yes, human beings have the potential for great evil. But rather than feeling crushed by the idea of evil, I want my children to feel resourced and resilient, and to know they can make the world a better place to live in.
No matter how much you insulate them, they will come across insecurity and hatred. The world is both a beautiful and dangerous place, and life is about holding the tension between those two. When we are brave enough not to look away from suffering, when we take action, we produce change and equip the next generation to go further!