South East Asia Court of Women On HIV and Human Trafficking: From Vulnerability to Free and Safe Movement

Presentation and participation: “South East Asia Court of Women On HIV and Human Trafficking: From Vulnerability to Free and Safe Movement“ with Asian Women’s Human Rights Council, and UNDP Regional Center, Bali, Indonesia, August, 2009.

Jury Declaration Court of Women Bali

The Key Is to Be Part of an Organization: A Process of Empowerment

Sylvia Marcos

I have heard here the voices of women’s suffering , their testimonies about their pains,  their exploitation and the resulting destitution and desperation.  I have also heard about their courage and their strength in the face of extreme hardship, how they have actively resisted and, sometimes, escaped torture and sexual enslavement. I am witness of their self- reconstruction and of their courageous response to abuse, which is the search for a dignified life. In spite of all humiliations suffered, it is standing, that they proudly claim their rights.

Yet my inner ear has also “heard” their silences, the issues that they would prefer not to have to comment, their personal regrets and the paths they have had the courage to go – however difficult and painful – in order to be here  and give the Court of Women a public testimony of their experiences   A testimony that hopefully will enhance their power to master their lives and to be an inspiration for other women, subjected to the same or similar situations.

We know by statistics that the vast majority of people trafficked worldwide are women, girls, children. Societies construct women as helpless, vulnerable, easy to abuse, and besides, to be abused without public outrage. In many parts of the world, this impunity of the offenders is simply considered part of the package of “being a woman”.

Human trafficking, migration and violence , we now know, have increased exponentially in South East Asia as consequences of neo-liberal globalization policies. But why are women much more vulnerable than men? Two complementary questions are: Why in a given couple, the woman can find an overseas “job” mucho more easily than the man? Why is it that, in a majority of cases, the members of a family or extended family that are deemed to emigrate to earn a living are mostly the girls and the women?

Women are often left alone in the responsibility of sustaining economically their children. They carry the weight of their childrens’ future . In certain cases, they also have to care financially for their aging parents and, not infrequently, for ailing of young siblings, as many of their testimonies have made clear. Women will go to any extreme to ensure their children a better life than theirs.

But their larger than life “ethics of care” goes much beyond their own kin. We have witnessed the capacity, bravery and dedication of most of the women here. It has turned them into eminent activists for the rights of other women subjected to the same exploitation and deceit as they had to go through. Now they guide, support, inspire and enlighten women through associations and NGO’s that are present here, acting  as “expert witnesses”. They have become the heroines of their own destiny (fate). “The key”, acknowledged one of them, “is to be part of an organization”.

Values that underpin societies

It is important have to recognize that there is a social construction of vulnerability implicit in women’s role in patriarchal societies. This context of male dominant values, in every level of life constrains women and tends to reduce them, us,   to bodies without personal projects.  And these bodies, ours, are in their turn socially constructed as means for catering to men’s needs and whims. Accordingly, women can find work abroad mostly as bodies to be used and abused, enslaved or raped: masseuses, domestic workers, “private therapists”, sex workers, factory workers.

In a way or another, this bodily subjection is a characteristic of most of the testimonies we have heard here today.

Women are thought of as dependent, as passive, easily manipulated, as fearful, we are socially constructed as weak.

All the abuses of trafficking and migrations – rape, persecution, enslavement, torture, transfer and deportation – are inscribed on the bodies socially constructed under the aegis of the patriarchal.misogynist  basic assumptions shared by men and women. Girls are expendable. They have been created to be obedient to parents and men in the household and to be in charge of the wellbeing of men, elders, and children. Their recruitment at home and abroad builds on these assumptions. The extortions and deceits to which they are subjected rest of the same foundation. Unfortunately it is a male dominated system that includes women who represent it.

Destitution as a Context

Poverty encroaches on women’s destinies leading them to accept inhuman and intolerable conditions. Global economic policies incorporate them deriving profits from the abuses they suffer. The feminization of poverty is an actual fact. Poverty leads women to decisions whose consequences would be unbearable to men. It offers them no choice.

As we have heared with our own ears, extreme poverty and destitution increase desperation. It might look as if women had “chosen” to emigrate, and voluntarily “accepted” the conditions imposed upon them by  “employment agencies”. Believing this would however be an extremely superficial appreciation of the economic misery from which they intend to escape. For that, they often have no other choice than to “hire themselves”.  Besides, this superficial view does not take into account how difficult  – nearly impossible – it is often for them to do the paper work and collect the documents required by the emigration. This is where those “legal” employment agencies impose their own exploitative conditions and deceit. Often the women come from the countryside of the poorest countries of Asia and the Pacific region. They have been raised in extreme poverty and have lacked most of the education possibilities that are also scarcely accessible to men. This greatly increases their gender related vulnerability. This poverty line is enforced and maintained by an unjust economic system, its corporate values and policies of greed and unlimited ambitions.

We have listened to testimonies of women violently marginalized by the covert and overt collaboration and corruption of nation-states (via “legal” employment agencies) multinationals firms, and international legal conventions. But we must take into consideration that all of these abuses are also framed by a system of patriarchal values and male dominance. Through listening to many of the abuses of all orders suffered by these women, we can detect how they get built on the aforementioned patriarchal values of male dominance in conjunction with extreme poverty, marginalization and destitution.   We heared how, coerced by poverty and marginalization, these women are “legally” considered the perpetrators of the crimes to which they have been able to survive.

But, importantly, we must beware of reducing to the role of “victims” these true “heroines”, able not only to survive their own lot  but to act as liberators of others suffering like them.

The Courts of Women as a Process of achieving Justice and Dignity.

Listen and learn from the oppressed. “Escuchar y aprender” ( Listen , Learn)is the maxim of social justice movements today among them the Zapatista leader: Sub Commander Marcos. The educator Paulo Freire and Carlos Lenkesdorf a specialist in Mayan philosophy, emphasize this attitude also.

This is what we have been doing here. The Courts of Women are a space for listening and learning. Listen to learn, learn to listen. A multidimensional practice of listening, of contextualizing , of analyzing and responding which are effective in creating new modes of knowledge production. A knowledge that begins by listening to the juridically invisible women. From their subjective voices and their individual and personal testimony, a new way of knowing emerges and is brought into the public arena.

It is built on their use of symbols and their perceptions, creating other references, returning ethics to politics, and reclaiming their original voices. Thus it is a place for knowledges and wisdoms that have been excluded. By this particular process of the Courts of Women, we have been invited to listen in a new way. To hear also the silences…

The Courts of Women are a place and a state of being.

A place for uncovering and connecting patterns and intensities of violence against women that call for a radical reconceptualization of the hegemonic paradigm of “human rights”. A search for dignity rather than mechanical equality. A practice of a communitarian, restorative, and multidimensional concept of social justice. A non State  alternative to the exclusionary, retributive, and highly patriarchal justice paradigm rooted in the episteme and ethics of the security state. A justice aiming to heal not only individual but communities.

.  Open ended sacred spaces, where social categories are suspended, roles become fluid and interaction is privileged.

A Jury member could also serve as witness, participants are translators, an “expert witness” is a testifier, a testifier is a “judge” when she dares to expose the series of injustices covered up by the regional, national and international institutions. In the spece created by the Courts of Women one person becomes the other in a horizontal interrelation ..

A sacred symbolic space. A place for lyric, emotion, personal testimony, in which painting, singing, dancing, drumming are incorporated to enhance the atmosphere.  Enhancing the atmosphere of the Courts of Women expresses the fact that the space of this tribunal is not a merely conventional jurisprudential precinct. It is an expression of the Courts’ methodology that includes multiple ways of feeling, speaking, learning, relating.

The Courts are spaces for regaining dignity in spite of all the horrors and injustices suffered by the women testifiers. They are listened to with care and silence. They are never subjected to insult, recrimination or doubt over their testimonies. According to this methodology, they are listened to as probably never before in their lives. This careful and attentive listening provides them with personal healing insights.

“From their tears, another political landscape is drawn”

The Courts are places for collective consciousness. The repeated testimony that evidences the similarities in the situations of violence and abuse suffered by the women inevitably leads us, jury, participants, and public auditors, to go beyond particularities and to comprehend the contextual, political, economic, and patriarchal issues/values behind the abuses we have heard that they have suffered.

Every Court is a place for reason with compassion to discern new insights and create a “new imaginary”. A place where the intensification of violence against women in the contemporary world is seen as not merely incidental and singular but provoked by an economic system. It can be conceived beyond the limited meanings of professional languages of traffic and migration and jurisprudence. A place to expose the horrors of state terrorism , economic exploitation that trickles down to distress and destitute women.

A safe space that ensures that women whose stories create the basis of new knowledge and that choose to witness at the Court will be fully supported before, during and after they have given their testimonies, as pertains to  women belonging to a larger community.

A space, also, where their powerful testimonies gives them and us strength and courage. The space here has been a healing space for the women testifiers, for all those committed to help and support them, and also for us the Jury, and for the visionary who conceived these spaces, Corinne Kumar. It has also been a healing space for the collective voices of all those men and women that have been and seen how this Courts of Women can and are an alternative process for healing and a step forward in achieving another world, another path, an Other justice,

With all the struggles, difficulties, impediments that have to be solved with iron will and a deep commitment, the Bali Court of Women of August 6th of 2009 was the 37th reenactment of that noble idea to take place.



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