Arise Trustee, Sr Lynda Dearlove RSM MBE, gave a presentation at the Holy See side-event at the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women on 13th March. Her speech, entitled Getting Better at Supporting Anti-Trafficking Frontline Work can be watched, and read, below.
No single group bears the burden of modern slavery. But it is true that rural populations suffer disproportionately – especially those in the poorest countries. Against this background CSW62’s organisers should be congratulated in returning again to focus of this year’s theme.
According to an Oxford University’s Multidimensional Poverty Index, 85% of those in back-breaking poverty are in rural communities. Many of these are living in destitute conditions, with almost no access to government services. These communities are easy prey for traffickers. Often it is their hope for a better life for their children that is preyed upon. The belief that their child will be earning a better living in the city, or that a parent’s labour will allow their child to enter school.
This is an urgent issue. As I speak, millions are being treated as less than human; exploited in unspeakable ways. As a global community we need to use all means necessary to find ways to help. And, in a particular way, to help rural communities who are particularly vulnerable. This cannot be done by simply pouring more funding into the large NGO institutions, or flying more experts and external workers into remote regions.
There are already, in countless rural areas worldwide, men and women working to combat the horrific impact of traffickers in their community. They are individuals such as Sr Annie, who is working tirelessly in rural Chhattisgarh to save those who would be exploited, and to assist where the unthinkable has already happened. Helping parents file missing persons reports of their children. Searching for those who were promised a better life but find themselves enslaved, and so many other interventions.
These individuals have a unique attribute that the international aid juggernaut often lacks. They have long- term enduring relationships with those living in rural areas. They are trusted voices speaking into communities, often people of those communities, walking alongside them in their daily battle for survival – offering an alternative narrative to that of the traffickers.
I put it to those present at this years Commission on the Status of Women, that it is individuals like these who hold the key to ‘empowering’ rural women and girls, and therefore ending these heinous crimes.
And this draws me to my central point. We simply aren’t very good at supporting this kind of work. The language and institutions of the international development community reflect the priorities and culture of the West. Everyone here knows what I’m talking about. ‘Impact’. ‘Theories of change’. ‘Logframes’. Of course, these can be useful tools. But we should be honest: this is not a language that began at grassroots level. It is a language that funders and institutions at all levels from the United Nations down have imposed upon the developing world. A fast moving language with fashions and protagonists. Fluency in this language is required to win support or recognition. And I would argue that the ability of an institution to speak this language is directly proportional to their size. In other words: the whole funding system favours big, western based NGOs.
Is it any wonder that smaller frontline organisations so often miss out and so often complain that no support ever reaches them? They rarely have the infrastructure needed even to keep up with the day to day running of their organisations. To them, the world of international development can feel remote and highly specialised. In a word: inaccessible.
Is it any wonder that the money which does get through has to be mediated by organisations which are effectively just another layer of bureaucracy between those giving and those actually doing the work?
This is my experience as the founder of a frontline service for prostituted women in London: women@thewell. Recently, even Pope Francis put his weight behind it when he said, as Sr. Annie quoted: “Certainly, arresting the traffickers is a duty of justice. But the true solution is the conversion of hearts, cutting off the demand and drying up the market.” We agree. This is our work.
But in order to continue, we have had to devote precious resources to ensuring we stand the best possible chance of securing sustainable financial support.
We should face up to this. Even our conferences reflect this rationale. Too often frontline voices are only brought to the table when they satisfy our criteria in both what they say, and, too often, in how they look. We only seek them out when their narrative fits into our predesigned picture. We are not listening to what these individuals are saying, despite the fact that many have devoted their entire lives to work in these communities. They are doing life changing work where it matters most, even if their work struggles to fit into the Western paradigm of impact. We should listen to them.
If we were to listen, we would hear two things loud and clear.
First, we would hear that they feel excluded from the world of NGOs and funding institutions for the reasons I’ve already outlined.
Second, we would hear, over and over again, frustration that prevention work struggles to get funded. With its relentless focus on impact, it is easy to see why the funding community neglects the intangible and altogether more complex world of prevention. These are the issues that the Arise Foundation exists to address, and I extend a warm invitation to you all to join us.
My hope for CSW62 is that we will resolve to listen to these messages. To find a way to adjust our system so that it better appreciates the work of smaller civil society-led groups. To find a way of hearing their voices, taking what they have to say seriously. Being willing to change and follow, rather than insisting on leading. Without this, it is very hard to see how our efforts in rural areas are going to be sustainable.