Sacred Mark

O let me wear secretly…the sacred mark impressed by Your own hand.

Rabindranath Tagore

Sacred Mark began in 2008, as a job creation program under MCC. Austin spent a lot of his time here in their early days, helping to design the packaging for the handmade soap they were making and setting up booths at local fairs. The initial women all came as graduates from Pobitra and held such a special place in our hearts. Leaving Sacred Mark was probably the most difficult part of leaving Bangladesh, when we moved home in 2010, so I was over the moon to be visiting again!

Sacred Mark is run by a dear friend, Deepa. We were welcomed into their workshop and sat down with her to hear how things are going. After a lovely snack of rice pudding and cha (Black tea with lots of milk and sugar), we toured the soap-making rooms and then up the stairs to where they have added Khanta production.

While there were an encouraging number of new faces, it was such a joy to see some of the original women still working there. They immediately started telling some of the newer women about the shenanigans a certain one of my sons used to get into. Good times! You can read more about Sacred Mark here, including the full poem the name comes from. If you are in the US, you can buy Sacred Mark soap here. You can also follow them on Facebook here.

Photography courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

Pobitra

About 120km North of Dhaka, is the smaller city of Mymensingh. Our family lived here for about six months and it holds a very special place in our hearts. I could hardly wait to share it with my friends. Entering the courtyard of Mennonite Central Committee was like entering another dimension of time and space. Gardens and flowers lined the walkways and a fish pond lay just beyond the bougainvilleas.

We were immediately greeted by some happy toddlers, whose mothers worked for Pobitra in the next room.

Pobitra, meaning clean and pure, was begun by MCC as a training program for women who have been trafficked. Some were sold by their husbands, in-laws, or even parents. Bangladeshi women who have been raped or pimped out are nearly always blamed for what happened to them. Even those who are not literally held captive, are socially held captive because they are seen as spoiled goods and have no other options for employment. Pobitra has welcomed more than 150 women since it started in 2008, giving them a safe place to come to during the day and to learn literacy, health care, basic skills such as sewing, and most importantly, they are given back their dignity. It was an honor to sit on the floor with these women and hear Sultana, the program director, speak in her gentle way about the transformation happening in these women. Pobitra enters into dialog with community leaders, and are pushing back on the old ways of thinking so that women who are stigmatized against, may stand a chance of being accepted back into the community. We couldn’t help but buy up stacks of the beautiful Kantha blankets they had stitched together, as well as Holiday Stockings, made complete with the name of the woman who made them stitched onto the border.

Check out this short video here, to get a glimpse of the hope that is so alive in this place.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

The House of Hope

Basha is one of my favorite places in the world! In short, Basha is a house of Hope, a place where both trafficked women and women at risk can come to find safety, dignity and a place to start over. You can read a more in depth post about Basha here.

Walking in, we are greeted by room after room full of happy, strong, brave and transformed women. Their joy is contagious, their smiles radiate from their hearts and the peace is palpable. We sit with them, watching swift hands quilt vibrant vintage saris into Kantha quilts. We stare, in awe, at deft fingers hammering and shaping copper, brass and silver into beautiful jewelry. Their children play happily in a nearby room while their moms stitch and hammer new chapters of their lives into being.

Face after face reveal to me the truth that healing is possible, even after the deepest tragedy. Life can be chosen after death. Pain does not have the last word. Sitting in that community of women makes me realize that anything is possible. Even my deepest pain and heartache can be walked through because there is more on the other side. Women together, building hope, are an unstoppable force.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

 

 

Basha: The House of Hope

Imagine living in a place wrapped in green all year, where warmth and color are alive, swirling from the rice paddies to the rickshaws to the ever growing stream of people. Imagine waking up to the smell of curry and the sound of the call to prayer. Imagine falling asleep to the rustle of palm branches and the banter of neighbors. Imagine a place where shopkeepers call out greetings as you walk by and no one is a stranger. Imagine that tea is a language of its own, poured out fluently on every corner, pausing time so friends can catch up and deals are sealed. Imagine a place where everyone is family and no one cares about your given name because you are sister, brother, uncle, auntie, grandmother, grandfather, someone who belongs.

Imagine being born daughter in this place where your physical beauty, the shade of your skin and the status of your family determine the course of your life for you. Where education comes at a cost your family most likely cannot afford. Imagine if your father, your uncles, your brothers decide who and when you will marry and how much they can pay to make that happen. While in many families, daughters are welcomed and protected, there are many more where the desperation of poverty and centuries of male dominance have led to these daughters growing up voiceless and vulnerable.

Imagine being daughter in a family that has lost its income and protection because it lost its father. When *Shanti’s father died, her mother had no choice but to take her out of school and send her to work as a maid in the home of a wealthier family. There Shanti was raped repeatedly until she became pregnant, and was thrown out onto the streets.

Imagine being forced into a marriage that you found repulsive, like *Rani, who protested against the arrangement and was beaten by her brother for objecting. Or *Jasmine, whose worst fears were realized when her new husband abused her and then abandoned her and her unborn child. Or *Lucky whose husband pimped her out to support his drug  habit.

For women like these, there is little hope. Their families rarely take them back and, more likely than not, they are blamed for their situation. In a land where employment for women is harder to find than cold water in the desert, and with their protector gone, women like these often turn to prostitution as the only way to survive. Filled with shame, their only bit of dignity left is their voice which they use to demand payment for what would otherwise be taken from them anyway.

Imagine all this. The beauty and warmth of this land of belonging and then the loss of that place of belonging. Where once you were celebrated, now you are treated like the mud that clings to the bottom of sandals in the monsoon. Where once you saw friends, now the women hate you and the men use you.

There’s little hope for prostituted women in Bangladesh. While it is quite rare for a Muslim country to legalize prostitution, most of the estimated 100,000 women carrying out the trade have not chosen it. Most of them would choose anything but prostitution, if only there was an “anything but”.

When Robin Seyfert moved to Bangladesh in 2006, she fell in love with the beauty and hospitality of the place. As she got to know some of these women and saw that there were so many who wanted an alternative, she knew she had found her new place of belonging by creating safe spaces of belonging and opportunity for these women. She says that:

“starting and running Basha, a social enterprise, was completely unexpected and has been the biggest challenge, terror and joy of my life”.

Basha, named after the Bengali word for hope, Asha, and the Bengali word for house, Basha, is a house of hope. It has grown from thirteen women in one small Dhaka apartment to more than 100 full-time production workers in five production centres throughout Bangladesh.

As you can imagine, the needs of exploited women go far beyond their need of a new source of income. Women coming to Basha begin with a training program that gives them time and space to heal. This six-month training provides basic literacy, basic English, life skills, values, conflict resolution, health and hygiene, and they are taught how to make the beautiful, one of a kind Basha products. The monthly allowance they receive allows them to completely cut ties with abusers and focus on their healing and discovering their true worth. As dignity is daily mirrored to them, their shame begins to fade and hope is born.

Not only is Basha a strong agent of change for so many women, it also works hard to give the children of these women a different life than their mothers had. It provides a daycare program which educates, tutors and and feeds the children. Basha has also opened up a hostel for young girls who used to fend for themselves on the streets. You can read some of their stories here.

I’ve gotten to rub shoulders with a few of these women and sit in hallowed spaces with them, where time stops as stories poured out mark the journey from shame to dignity. My eyes and heart overflow because I cannot hold it in, the sacred beauty of shame turned dignity. Isn’t that what we all want, our shame to be reshaped into dignity? Isn’t that what makes us brave and causes us to give ourselves away again and again, to also help the shame of others be turned into dignity?

This is where you and I can help; the building of Basha is far from over. You can read more about Basha in their journal and here are tangible ways for you to give and be involved in creating dignity for the women of Bangladesh. There are monthly and one time gift options, made easy by credit/debit card, as well as bank transfer. You can choose what you would like to support: the hostel, the training program, the nutritional program, daycare, or support for the foreign workers, like Robin, who are committed to being agents of change in Bangladesh. You can also purchase beautiful hand-crafted works of art made by Basha Boutique. Here is the list of stockists around the world who sell Basha products.

Imagine with me: Suffocating shame being transformed into breathtaking dignity.

Become a part of the Basha story.

 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the women.

 

 

Is There Finally a Sensible Prostitution Solution?

 

Pebble's Limited Edition Rag Doll

I heard a modern day abolitionist state that, “The effort to end modern day slavery and the fair trade movement, are not two separate things, they are Siamese twins.” I could not agree more. In Bangladesh women receiving a fair wage for their work will seldom resort to sex work.

I believe that there is only a fine line between prostitution and human trafficking. In many cases, that line has ceased to exist. The sex workers I have been privileged to know have been victims of horrific crimes. Not one of them woke up one morning and said, “Hmm! I could make a lot of money selling my body. This is what I want to do with my life.” No, it’s been a result of being victimized… of being so bloody beaten down, sometimes literally, that there is not much left for them to do or be. The whys behind prostitution are much deeper and complex than I can put into words but what I have seen in my experience makes me agree with something I read last night in an article entitled Sweden’s Prostitution Solution – in it Marie De Santis states that, “prostitution is a form of male violence against women.” In 1999, Sweden made it illegal to buy sex and, instead of punishing the one selling sex, now offer help and alternatives. Not only has this greatly diminished prostitution, it has had a huge effect on human trafficking. An estimated 200-400 women and girls are being trafficked into Sweden yearly, compared to the 15,000 – 17,000 being trafficked into Finland every year.

Dignity is priceless. That has become a mantra in my life. Something is twisted when a woman feels she has no options but to sell her body and is then criminalized for doing so. Her dignity was lost long before the arrest, long before she sold her body and yet, the one who bought the sex can walk away from her with his dignity more or less intact. This is seriously twisted! Words cannot do justice to how wrong this scenario is. If Sweden’s government can “get it” and make real, lasting changes, maybe there is hope for the the rest of us.

I’m enchanted by women’s stories and love uncovering the ways in which they connect. I’m a bit of a mystic, and see these stories as threads spinning the issues of fair trade and sex work together. Pebble addresses sex work by creating a compelling alternative and preventing it in the first place. Our goal as Kahiniwalla (which means “storyteller”) is to tell Pebble’s story and create a market for Pebble products creating even more opportunities for employment. We want to use the stories that we spin together and turn them into warm blankets to soothe the cold, desperate and hungry that have been wounded and left out in the cold.