Sharing the Shame

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By Francesca Debora Nuzzolese

I am in a van with five teen girls and a house mom from the New Life Center (NLC) in Chang Rai, Thailand. We are going to a small rural village bordering Myanmar to visit the family of Mauy, age 14. Bringing rice, clothes, and gardening tools, we hope to negotiate with Mauy's father so that he'll allow her to stay another six months at the center.

At the NLC, Hilltribe girls rescued from sex trafficking have the opportunity to resume their childhood in a loving environment that offers them education and vocational training. Mauy has been at the center for a year, but every so often her father sends for her. An opium addict with six other children to feed, he wants his daughter to fulfill the customary role of supporting the family.

It is because of this sociocultural expectation that Mauy was handed over to the sex industry at the age of 8. Within a couple of years, Mauy was moved to bigger brothels, lost connection with her family, and experienced enough brutality and violation to make her think that she would soon die or, worse, never again be welcomed back to her village. Though she has done nothing of her own volition, the scars of abuse make her feel unwanted and ashamed. What keeps her alive now is the longing to be back in her simple village with her parents and little sisters, although she dreads the thought that they will end up in similar "jobs."

Though she has done nothing of her own volition, the scars of abuse make her feel unwanted and ashamed. What keeps her alive now is the longing to be back in her simple village with her parents and little sisters.

The story of Mauy is common to almost all of the 98 girls living at the New Life Center. They are all of Hilltribe origins—an undocumented, destitute, tribal people living in pre-civilized conditions along the Thai border. Targeted by the local sex industry, they were all sold or amicably transactioned by their families at a very young age in exchange for some sort of commodity. The violation these girls experience in the brothels, where they are expected to service multiple men a day, impacts all levels of their being.

While Mauy carries deep shame for what has been done to her with her family's consent, she secretly longs for her parents. But at 14 she is still viewed as a potential source of income for the family and is still dependent on them to decide her life's course. So she periodically returns home to beg for permission to stay in school. If the staff is not successful in re-persuading Mauy's father that the professional training they provide will grant better income in the long run, she will have to return to her original "occupation" in the brothels.

Girls like Mauy spend their youth suspended between innocence and brutality, trapped in a life they have neither the power nor the right to refuse or escape. They were born in a place where young girls are expected to provide for families that not only abdicate their duty to protect them but in fact deliver them into dangerous and humiliating contexts.

How can we know about such violence and fail to partake in the shame these girls feel and the shame the perpetrators do not feel? Paradoxically the shame we feel as witnesses can serve in the process of restoration. Being traumatized by the stories of girls like Mauy is an authentic, legitimate, and necessary response. A radical identification with the oppressed and a willingness to take on their pain would prevent us from ever disconnecting from their suffering. As philosopher Raimond Gaita writes:

If one saw others as another perspective on the world, as one is oneself, … one could not bear to tolerate the brutality to which they are subjected. That means that we must be open to the distinctive voice of others, which in turn means that we must encourage the conditions in which those voices can be formed and heard. When people's souls have been lacerated by the wrongs done to them, individually or collectively, openness to their voices requires humbled attentiveness.

The other's perspective becomes our own, and our love for them brings them into a new form of being. Attentiveness to the other is a pathway towards their rehumanization—and our own. But taking on the trauma cannot be an end in itself. Bearing the suffering of the other should ultimately inspire us to find the grace to transform it, a task that is more powerful and effective when done in community.

We must face the brutality and ugliness of child sex exploitation. We must face the terrifying realization that on some level we are as vulnerable to that brutality and ugliness as the girls are and as capable of the same brutality as their parents and perpetrators are. Confronting the shame of sex slaves entails exposing our collective shame and requires taking responsibility for the acts of our fellow humans.

Confronting the shame of sex slaves entails exposing our collective shame and requires taking responsibility for the acts of our fellow humans.

The acknowledgment of shame does not mean self-indulgence in a virtuous morality nor another opportunity to get stuck in passive remorse. It is, rather, the stepping stone to a new possibility of being—for us as active witnesses and for the victims of trafficking, who, once freed from invisibility, can be healed within communities responsive to the injustice they have been dealt. By owning up to our dose of shame we can imagine a world in which we may one day share an uncommon humanity with the oppressed, in a life beyond shame.

For Mauy it looks something like this: Every so often, she can return to her village, where everyone knows what was done to her in the big city, and, accompanied by her house mom, she can bear to negotiate with her dad for another six months of schooling and training at the New Life Center. In doing this, she herself bears witness to another way of life, models courage and a new possibility of dignified self-sustaining work out in the world, and ultimately interrupts the chain of inevitable surrender to cultural violence. What a powerful cycle-breaking model for the whole community and for us!

Francesca Debora Nuzzolese is associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Methodist Theological School in Ohio and the spiritual director for ESA's Oriented to Love dialogue program. This article originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of ESA's PRISM magazine.

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