Saturday, July 7, 2012

Right Cause, Wrong Message:
Demi and Ashton speak out against sex slavery and trafficking

It's been well over a year since I've posted anything on this blog that wasn't related to fundraising, but thanks to a friend's Facebook post and the ensuing dialogue this topic sort of fell into my lap (it may also be a stall-tactic to avoid more daunting writing projects) so here we go!

I've had what you might call an earnest, if amateur, interest in human trafficking for the past few years. While working at the Harvard Kennedy School I helped plan a series of webinars which focused on combating the problem (click here for an early example), and currently I'm working on a novel that features two central characters who are, or were, prostitutes and victims of human trafficking: There's Eury, who is trafficked from Moldova, and Badra (just decided on that name last night) trafficked from a yet-to-be-determined Near or Middle Eastern country.

Last night, in the early stages of fleshing out the Badra character, my creative brain grew weary and so I began tooling around on the Web to brush up on the latest human trafficking data. Today, by coincidence, a Facebook post drew my attention to the Demi and Ashton (or DNA) Foundation and their "Real Men Don't Buy Women" campaign, the goal of which is to "create a cultural shift around the implicit societal acceptance of child prostitution, and thus, child sex slavery."

The crusade features photos of Ashton, Demi, and several of their celebrity friends, each holding up the sign emblazoned with the campaign message. The photo caption lauds the celebrity's support according to their gender, e.g. "Bradley Cooper is a real man," and "Jessica Biel prefers a real man." The associated Facebook page encourages users to "Like" the campaign and upload their own "Real Men…" video --- there are no suggestions guiding what the video should include besides a sign, and if there are correspondent celebrity videos to accompany the photos I can't find them.

In short, the campaign strikes me as simple, no-frills awareness-raising that leverages Ashton Kutcher's purported savvy for viral internet promotion. The formula (as I understand it): Identify a worthy cause,get famous friends on board,make it hip, Tweet and Facebook the hell out of it. The architecture for spreading this simple message seems to be working --- the DNA facebook page already has 110,000 followers --- and I imagine the campaign would do some serious good, if only it featured a message that was on target.

First, let me say I admire DNA's efforts. I will assume that Ashton and Demi are reasonably well-informed about human trafficking, are valuable spokespeople for the cause, and I concede they have already done more than I have or probably ever will in terms of activism around this issue.

And they could not have selected a cause that is more worthy and urgent. Statistics on human trafficking vary widely (this fact sheet nicely summarizes what info we do have) but the UN estimates that roughly 800,000 people are trafficked each year, many of whom are women and children who are subsequently indoctrinated into the sex trade. Most activist organizations claim that human trafficking is one of the largest, and possibly the fastest-growing, criminal industry in the world.

My criticism of the DNA campaign concerns the message, Real Men Don't Buy Girls, which seems intended to shame customers (aka "johns") and potential customers away from paying for sex. But the shaming is redundant. I don't have data to back this hypothesis, but my instincts compel me to believe that paying for sex is, at least for many men, an act of shameful desperation. They can't get sex, or sex with the kind of woman they want, legitimately, so they resort to paying for it, an act that is not only illegal but considered by many to be immoral and even pathetic. That's why it's done in secret.  I assume exceptions exist, but I personally don't know anyone who brags about sex they pay for.

An awareness campaign that targets men should instead aspire to raise awareness of the coercion, extortion, and brutality that often accompany prostitution, a reality to which many men may be completely oblivious (typical victim scenarios can be found here). Those who profit most from the sex trade, the traffickers and the pimps, typically remain behind the scenes, which allows the john to naively conclude that the prostitute has made her own life choices, independently and free of undue pressure, is not a victim, and that the laws prohibiting prostitution are implemented primarily to preserve a standard of sexual morality, rather than to protect girls from harm.

Granted, the truth will not be a deal-breaker for everyone, but one must wonder:  Would the average, first-time john be as likely to pay for sex if he knew the horrific road the girl had traveled to be inside that hotel room (or inside that curtained cubicle) with him?  Would he be as likely to enable such malevolent forces if he knew what the girl's life was like when she was not busy fulfilling his sexual needs? Or what her life would be like,in five or ten years, when her body is aged and her spirit is broken? I doubt he would.

I'll go further, and argue that male sexual insecurity is part of what creates demand in the first place, in which case the DNA shaming-message may be exacerbating the problem. Having beautiful celebrities doing the shaming just makes the campaign absurdly ironic on top of everything. Look at the photos. Who among them has ever been truly desperate for sex? I mean come on, Justin Timberlake??? Having Justin Timberlake say "Real men don't buy girls," is like Warren Buffett preaching "Good folks don't steal from the tip jar." If you insist on the shaming route, you might at least find some famously un-attractive people for your campaign (How about Michael Moore? Or Tom Petty?), people who, before they were famous, may have had to weather the occasional dry spell, but forewent paying for sex, deciding instead to heed their better angels and remain "real men."

So what's the right message, then? Awareness, I repeat, is not cure-all, but it's a vital component in any effort to reduce and prevent this atrocity. Moreover, awareness may be the "low-hanging fruit," so to speak, our opportunity to exert the most influence using the fewest resources (the virtue of the "Real Men" campaign is that it probably didn't cost a dime to implement). The consequences of paying for sex, in terms of its facilitating the victimization of women and children, should be as clear to potential johns as lung cancer and heart disease are to potential smokers.

In that spirit, I suggest the following alternative.

Attention MEN:
Prostitution is not a victimless crime.

It's not as pithy (eight words instead of five), but it accomplishes two things the current DNA message does not. (1) It corrects a popular and pernicious misconception. (2) It evokes an urgent question—why not?—for the under-educated recipient, a question that may inspire curiosity... enough curiosity to, say, click a link, peruse some facts about trafficking, read some victim stories, and so on. In other words, it asks the recipient to do some work, and to meet our well-intentioned informers (Demi and Ashton, et al) halfway.

Like most, I believe Justin Timberlake is a talented and infallible boy-god, so if I'm a john, I'm not especially moved when you hit me with bad news I already know: You're not a "real man" like JT over here.  Ha!  No shit.

If, on the other hand, you show me a photograph of Justin Timberlake brandishing new information, about people who are suffering, you can bet your ass I'm listening, and that I'll want to know more.

*Photos from

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Children of Arusha 2012 Fundraiser - School Sponsorship

Help send former street children in Arusha, Tanzania to private school!

Filex (left) and Heven in class
From now until February 12th I will be accepting donations, by mailed check or through PayPal, to continue sponsoring former street children in Arusha, Tanzania for private school.

Take advantage of this terrific opportunity to give directly to those who have so little, and to see the joy you bring to little faces on the other side of the world.

Depending on how much you donate, you may also be entered in a raffle to win beautiful African handicrafts.

Who Are These Boys? (back to top)

During the summer of 2010 I volunteered at The Children of the Street Welfare Association (CHISWEA) in Arusha, Tanzania.  For 16 years CHISWEA has been a source of food, shelter, responsibility and family for kids who wish to abandon their “life on the street”—i.e. not attending school, either having no family home or finding it better not to live there, surviving via the generosity of strangers, panhandling, petty scams and theft, and other unsavory means. Time that isn’t spent hustling is spent just hanging out, often drunk or high on pot and glue fumes.
Jim and his boys at CHISWEA
At CHISWEA, despite minimal resources, over 70 such children have discovered a more promising and fulfilling life.  On this blog you can read more about CHISWEA here and here, and my experiences working with these exceptional children.  You can also read about our previous fundraising success where, thanks to many of you and your generous donations last year, we were able to deliver new Tae Kwon Do equipment and also send twelve boys to Nairobi, Kenya to compete in the East Africa Taekwondo Junior National Championships.

And of course I invite you to read about my other Tanzanian adventures, including my first night, Operation: New Teeth in Arusha, and Operation: Eye Surgery in Moshi.

Why Private School? (back to top)

Every child in Tanzania, even those with no means to pay, are entitled to a public school education.  So why is sending these boys to private school so important?

Government schools pay their teachers very low wages, so low that teachers can't really earn a sustainable living. As a result, government school teachers do not show up for class (yes, you read that correctly).  Instead, they request that the children meet with them after school for private "tutoring" sessions, where the actual teaching happens.  The children who cannot pay for these tutoring sessions, or who simply choose not to show up, do not receive an education.

Also, at government schools, kids can leave whenever they want during the school day. Besides the minimal adult supervision (as a result of their teachers not showing up), the schools don't have a fence or a gate. Often, the kids will end up roaming the streets, doing the same things (scamming, drinking, sniffing glue) that street children who are not in school do.

And finally, while corporal punishment is often practiced to a limited degree in private schools, it is far more prevalent in government schools.  This usually takes the form of "the stick"--a thin stick carried by teacher and used for whipping.

What They Get (back to top)

Before I left the country, I registered ten boys for the Nakido School --- a private school within walking distance from the CHISWEA facility where they live --- and paid their fees for one school year.

Thanks to the help of their teacher, Matiko Benson, and my dear friends Georgina Tenga and Sonia Hanspaul, I have been able to get updates on their progress, including some wonderful photographs of the boys at school.
The crew (starting from top row, left): Frankie, Adam, Heven, Amani, Agostino, Musa (sponsored by my friend Hugo Macklin from France), Denis, Athumani, Bryan, Filex, and Kelvin (not pictured)

Standing (squatting?) guard over the school gate.

Now, with your help, I'd like to fund their next year of higher quality education.   My goal is to raise $5,000.  Incidentally, this figure is nearly half what it costs to send just one child to private school in the U.S.  So what does your money buy?

$240 pays tuition fees for one year of private school for one child.
(from left) Athumani, Agostino, and Amani

$110 pays for lunches for one year, one child.

$90 pays for a school uniform --- a requirement for school and a source of tremendous pride for students!  The uniform includes: 2 shirts, 2 sweaters, 2 trousers, 1 pair black shoes, 1 pair athletic shoes, and 3 pairs of socks.

$35 pays for school supplies for the year for one child. This includes: school bag, umbrella, exercise books and stationary, pencil kit and mathematical kit.

$25 pays for an annual school field trip, usually to one of the country's beautiful natural preserves, like the Serengeti, a national treasure which the children would otherwise never get to experience for themselves.

For just $500, one child gets a full year of quality, private schooling and all the food, clothing, and other resources they need.  It's amazing how far a dollar stretches in this country.

What YOU Get (back to top)

How the raffle works

For every $30 you donate, you earn 1 chance to win one of the prizes below (e.g. if you donate $60, you earn 2 chances).

Every $100 donated = 5 chances to win.

Every $250 donated = 12 chances to win.

I will select the raffle winners after the February 12th fundraising deadline.  I will announce, via e-mail in late February, the raffle winners along with the amount we have raised together.

Runner-up prize (3 winners):  Banana leaf collages

Three of you lucky donors will win one of these gorgeous 5"x7" banana leaf collages, crafted by the tribal Masai of east Africa.  The collages are made by layering banana leaf pieces of varying textures and shades to make an image.

Banana leaf collages made by tribal Masai

With the possible exception of African blackwood carvings, I personally found banana leaf prints like these to be my favorite of all the crafts I saw in Africa.  You'll love them!

Grand prize (1 winner): Beaded table placemat set

Six placemats (two rolled)
The grand prize winner of the raffle will receive this beautiful, hand-crafted set of table placemats, which includes six placemats, six napkin rings and one central table runner.

The matting material is made of “raffia," or bamboo and banana leaves. The mats are beaded by a local group of 40 women in Arusha who earn much needed income, and the funds generated through the sale of these mats help sponsor additional children in Arusha for private school.

Want to buy a placemat set?  If you are interested in purchasing one of these placemat sets, rather than taking your chances with my raffle, please e-mail Sonia Hanspaul to learn more.  The sets range from $50-70, plus shipping, which can be expensive, but remember it supports a good cause!  Over 100 style-and-color varieties are available.

Central runner and six napkin rings (included in set)

Interesting fact: Due to a shipping snafu, these particular placemats which I'm raffling off did not reach me the first time, and were returned to Tanzania before being reshipped.  That means it traveled across the African continent and the Atlantic Ocean not once, but three times to get here.  These are well-traveled placemats!

How to Donate (back to top)

There are two ways to donate.

Heven, Amani and Agostino with their teacher, Matiko Benson
1.  Mailed personal check.  Simply e-mail me, stating the amount you would like to donate, and I will reply with my mailing address where you can send the check. This method avoids the PayPal service fees and ensures your full donation goes toward the cause.

2.  PayPal.  You may also donate through PayPal which is fast and secure (please note that PayPal will deduct a 2.9 percent service fee from the amount you donate).  Just click on the "Donate" button and follow the instructions.

Please note that your charitable contribution is not tax-deductible, as I am not a registered 501(c)(3) organization.  The good news, however, is that since you are not donating through an organization, there are no administrative or overhead costs.  It's just me.  The full amount of your donation goes directly to funding these boys' private schooling!

Thank you in advance for your generosity, and for helping me bring joy and enrichment into the lives of these deserving children.

Monday, January 2, 2012

CHISWEA Fundraiser: Kids Clean Up at Tae Kwon Do Tournament

I'm a year late in reporting the second major success of our Tae Kwon Do fundraiser for the junior warriors of CHISWEA.

First, by way of review, some of you will hopefully recall the first success of this fundraiser -- the purchase of new sparring and training equipment and locking storage unit.  I invite you to enjoy (or enjoy again) this short movie I made where the warriors break in their new pads.

Well, on the weekend of December 18-19 of last year (2010), the TKD fundraiser scored another major victory.  Using the money raised, we were able to send 12 boys to Nairobi, Kenya for the East Africa Tae Kwon Do Junior Championships.

Granted, Tae Kwon Do is a fairly niche sport in Africa, but bear in mind we're talking about an entire continental region here.  For these twelve boys, this was not merely their first opportunity to compete in an official tournament, nor was it merely their first opportunity to compete with peers besides themselves.  For most or all of them, this was their first time out of their home country.  What an adventure!

Are you excited yet?  Well hold on to something, because it gets better.  We took home some medals.  That's right.  Three of our boys placed in their weight class -- two gold medals, and one bronze.

Did I mention these were the junior championships for all of East Africa?

Thanks to your generous donations, we were able to pay for passports, transport, lodging, meals, tournament fees and uniforms.  Two CHISWEA volunteers (Thomas and Malene from Denmark) and took some photos, and though some of those photos were unfortunately lost to the technical gods, I am thankful to Thomas and Malene for salvaging what they could from their camera.

Congratulations to all of our generous donors for giving these deserving boys such a wonderful opportunity!

Shaking hands before the match ("I must break you.")

Always bow before kicking someone's ass.

Start with a low kick...

Then wind up for a "I break nose with big toe" kick.

The junior warriors get some guidance from their teacher.

Chillin' like villains between matches.

The kick I wish I could have seen in person.

Back home, Athumani shows off the bling.