My passion to see young girls rescued from sex-trafficking began before I ever met a girl who fit that description. It began when I was 18. It began in my imagination, triggered by a story. A story (a true one) that compelled me forward in a long and explosive arc away from the comfort of home, my brothers, and parents into a reality that only responded to the pain of others. It moved me beyond all rationality and changed my life forever. A good story can do that.
A long-time social worker in the heart of Calcutta, my birthplace, spent a few days with our family in Atlanta. He painted the picture:
A poverty-stricken family can not pay their daughter's dowry for a decent marriage. A villager offers to take their daughter to a big city to get a good job. Desperate,the parents agree, and the “friend” gives the equivalent of $100 to them and takes her to the city. Instead of a good job, she finds herself in a brothel. Initially raped by pimps, she is now forced to sleep with multiple men a night. The brothel keeper tells her she must pay back the price he paid for her, usually about $500. With an interest rate attached, the girl now believes she has a huge debt that could take the next 10 years of her life to repay. She will work, laboring under this false debt, until disease or old age makes her redundant.
As if my whole short life had been waiting to hear of that specific human atrocity, everything in me, my heart and soul, rose up and awakened, as if from a deep sleep. All dormant empathy and compassion poured out in a torrent of emotional response. The pain in my heart felt like a physical constriction. I felt wounded. I could not stem the flow of tears. A restlessness seized me, and I paced the house in grief.
I did not understand why I had reacted so passionately for over twenty-two years. At best I simply concluded that I had a God-given calling. At worst I wondered if my drive to help the girls was an effort to save my own soul and work my way to heaven. An inability to understand grace. A death wish? Insanity? A need to do penance? All sounded slightly implausible to me. But in the first 20 years, I didn't ask many questions. I just worked toward my goal with fanatical energy.
When I turned 40, my earth started shaking, as if a timed demolition was ignited. I suddenly had to know why I was in India with my four kids and husband doing this work of rehabilitating rescued girls. A work that was slowly but surely breaking my heart with each passing day.
After more months of anguish than I care to admit, I finally understood it. There was a number of years in my teens and early twenties when my own identity was annihilated, and a wrong self-image replaced the original beauty that God had created. That happens to a lot of us women, I think. We exchange the truth for a lie.
For a long time in college, I hated myself with a destructive fury. I could not accept God's love. We are taught these things from the culture of perfection around us, that we are never good enough, thin enough, pretty enough, smart enough. We are not taught to love ourselves, as made in the image of God.
So when I was eighteen and I heard about girls, my own age, being bought and sold and forced to do unspeakable things, forced to become an image that men wanted and that society hated, I was overwhelmed with sorrow. It was an image that would brand them for life, both physically and socially. Scorned and ridiculed by any self-respecting woman or man, they would be ineligible for marriage and for normal community life. Their children, born of the brothel, would likely suffer the same fate. Their future was destroyed. Given a lie, they believed it. Forced into a life, they had no choice but to live it.
Born in Calcutta, India, I grew up on a missionary ship that carried me to over 40 countries before I turned 10. Witnessing the poverty of developing countries etched unforgettable memories on my mind. Later, in my teens, my mother counseled and prayed for many abused women. I grew up with the world view of my parents and all the adults around me; “People are suffering, and we can do something about that.” I vowed I would help victims of sex-trafficking in India. Living out my vow has not been easy. Many times I wanted to give up and live a different life. Today I echo the voice of Lancelot Andrews in 1555 who breathed a prayer of thanks “for my calling, my recalling, my manifold renewed recalling…”