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Sacrifice of the Innocents

Sacrifice of the Innocents

Screencap of "The Children We Sacrifice (2000)"

New York: October 18, 2000


Speakers:
Grace Poore
Writer, Producer, Director
The Children We Sacrifice, 2000

Ellen Bruno
Writer, Producer, Director
Sacrifice: The Story of Child Prostitutes from Burma, 1998

Grace Poore

I think one of the things that struck me after seeing Ellen’s film was the concept of betrayal and how the children are betrayed by their families at two different levels. I think that comes across very clearly from beginning to end with the victims and the survivors in both films. The other thing that struck me, not only after seeing Ellen’s film but also after watching Ruchira Gupta’s film [Selling of Innocents, 1997], was that these children are taken one at a time, so they feel that this is only happening to them. They feel they have somehow been selected because of something that was wrong with them, that they invited it. And so I was struck by that juxtaposition in the situation. But later on in your film, what really hit me was what the young woman who has the baby, says, “I did not want my daughter to grow up and live like me.” That really hit me because with incestuous sexual abuse you also get a similar reaction, the sense of shame that the victim feels even when she is grown up. I found that overlap in the films: the erosion of self--even if at some level you know it is not your fault--is just devastating.

Ellen Bruno

And also it occurred to me that there is a value these girls perceive--a value greater than their personal safety. Their lives really comes down to that quite often with the girls doing sex work because the infection rate is so incredibly high among these young girls in Thailand. In Thailand, the infection rate is eighty percent right now for girls coming from outside of Thailand. Part of that is that there is no access to safe sex material that there is for many of the Thai sex workers and part of this is that their initial sexual encounters are so violent that there is often damage done and of course if they are being sold for such high prices as virgins then the clients will never be encouraged to use condoms. So the infection rate is very high for these girls. But in the situation of these girls coming from Burma, some of them are consciously going into sex work and many of them are tricked. If they are consciously going into sex work, they have made this choice to basically sacrifice themselves for the good of the family. Its not much different from the kind of sacrifice that the silence is--in the sense that it is saying that the honor of the family and the integrity of the family, the functioning of the family, is more important then this one child’s life.

Question from the Audience

Could you say a little bit about what their response to you was as a filmmaker? How did they treat you? Why were you even accepted to do this?

Ellen Bruno

Well, one of the really important factors was that I spent a lot of time in Thailand so it’s familiar to me in many ways. Most importantly, my assistant director is a young woman from Burma who speaks several other minority languages from there. So, basically, what we did is we spent a lot of time in border towns just walking the streets at night and sometimes the girls would call to us from windows or behind the bars or behind the gates. It was interesting for them to see a foreign woman. They were just curious and we would start chatting and eventually develop some friendships with these girls, would tell them what our project was and they were very interested in helping us. What we would have to do is to try to arrange for them to basically sneak out of the brothel. Many of these brothels are closed brothels.

Some of them were trusted girls, allowed to go the market to get noodles every once in a while. They would get out to go to the market, come around to our guesthouse and we would do interviews with them. It was only the second interview I did, with this young woman, her face powered and with lipstick on her lips, who had a little boy with her. We were talking to her for ten minutes, asking her about her situation back in Burma, trying to find out about where she was coming from and she stopped and said: “ Well, should I take of my clothes now?” and we said: “Well, no.” We said: “We are not really interested in your taking off clothes. We really just want to hear about your life.” It was a very touching moment for us because clearly that was the only value she thought she had for anybody and it was a very profound experience for them to be able to talk to somebody about simple things in their lives or very profound things in their lives that nobody had ever asked them about. I think it was quite a moving experience for both the girls and certainly for us--the two of us working on the project.

Since then, as a footnote, I sort of feel in my heart right now how difficult it was to make this film to the point where I actually almost stopped making it. I was sort of overcome with a sense of despair, there was no positive force driving me in the editing room which there often is. There is always some sense of hope. If you make this film it will help things out. I was just in a sort of dark cloud of despair. It was very difficult for me to persevere and it was only when I found out that the young woman that had the baby had died herself a couple of months after the interview; I realized, she went through these long interviews with us like all of these girls. Like these twenty-five girls, she bared her soul to us. It was very courageous of them. I did this with the hope that their younger sisters would not have to have the same fate and that was sort of the motivation that pushed us to finish the film.

Question from the Audience

I observed a similarity in both films. Recently, I was listening to the Foreign Relations Committee in Congress taking testimony on slavery. Interestingly enough, they had only male slaves, who had escaped, testifying, but what they said was typified and demonstrated by the girls in both films. It is a commonality and they both assumed that they were the least valuable human being in both the family and in the brothel work. I am very concerned about the increasingly politicized trend to deify family and both sets of girls assumed that they had the least value, which is why they were quiet for the sake of the family. I would like you to comment on that.

Grace Poore

I am trying to think whether the women felt when they were children if they had he least value, particularly the girl child. I think we need to make this caveat that it is not pan-South Asian, across all families, that in families that do value boy children more than the girl children, those children felt that way. But more than anything, at least in “The Children We Sacrifice”, what they felt was not as girl children but as children. They felt that they were the least valued as children and not valued in the sense that they were not lovable but that they had no power, no power to assert themselves and their feelings were never taken into consideration. They were really non-people. They were extensions of their parents. They were extensions of the family therefore they had no voice. I think where they had no value comes from the fact that in an adult world governed by adult rules and regulations and all of that as children they did not feel that they had any way of speaking out or even indicating they did not want to go near a particular perpetrator. Several of these survivors had indicated that they did not have anything to do with this perpetrator but were never listened to. Frequently, the thought is that children can’t speak and I don’t believe that’s true. I think children speak all the time; we don’t listen to them. They don’t speak like us. They are not articulate like us. They don’t form sentences and say: “This is what is happening to me.” They constantly tell us that something is going on and it does not feel right but we don’t know how to listen to children.

Ellen Bruno

Oddly enough in many cases, especially from these minority families in Burma, they have to face enormous political and economic pressure right from the central government and it’s virtually impossible for many of these families to make a viable living in Burma. The villages are being burnt and they are being forced out into refugee camps in Thailand. Some of these girls are the only commodity left in the family. The family no longer has land to farm, they have sold everything of value and oftentimes you have a situation where there are five or six children in the family. Within the family, there is an older girl child, she sees other girls and other men in the village going down to Thailand. It is the only hope. It is the only possibility. It is a very natural, sort of a human need to have the possibility for a better future. Even if it is conjured out of scanty evidence, Thailand is the place for these minority families. It is the only place of hope. Of course, the parents say: “If you go down to Thailand, you go down over my dead body.”

The girls observe how desperate the situation in the family is and they know a lot of girls in the village that go down there and come back wearing jewelry and acting sassy. When the girls come back they don’t talk about doing sex work in these brothels because they are trying to save face. In all of the villages the other girls crowd around the girl who comes back and they look at her jewelry and her tee-shirt. They observe that she has got a camera and here they are in their tattered clothing with no hope of any better existence and they will long to go to Thailand. They are going to long for the land of plenty that Thailand represents and they are not going to listen to their mothers say the horrible things that could happen to you. They don’t even know what sex is. One girl said to me: “Sex. I thought it was like having dinner with a man.” That’s the extent of their knowledge. They are very vulnerable. They do go with the intention of working in a hotel or washing dishes but most of the times they are trapped. In a way, many of these girls are the only hope. They are the only thing left to cash in on. Whether they do that voluntarily with this idea that they will be doing good work or some are sold by their parents, which also happens, because they are the last thing left to sell. Very desperate situation.

Question from the Audience

Were you able to save any of these girls who were doing this prostitution or what is being done to save them?

Ellen Bruno

Unfortunately, not much and it’s a political problem on a very broad scale. It’s primarily a political problem in Burma and until something is done, international pressure is asserted on the governments in Burma, these minority people are going to continue to be in a very desperate situation and the families are going to be forced to find a way to survive. This is one of the ways that they can survive. Now, once the girls are caught in the sex trade they are incredibly vulnerable. Nobody is watching out for their interests. In Thailand, they are illegal immigrants and if they are caught they are sent to prison. They are more afraid of the Thai police than the men in the brothel. They say that all the time. They are scared to death of getting arrested. What will happen is that these girls will be arrested as illegal immigrants, thrown into an immigration detention center where they are left to rot for six months or a year and constantly abused by the guards and all of the police staff there. You know their best hope is to maintain silence and hope that eventually they will find the way or every once in a while they are taken up by few of the Christian groups that are there. In Northern Thailand, they have several safe houses. One of these girls, the girl in the gray tee-shirt, was actually adopted by a Baptist family in Northern Thailand. She was going to high school but many of them are, like I said, HIV-positive. She seems to be healthy. But their immune systems are very compromised for a long time. There are none of the wonder drugs we have in the West. So, if they actually contract HIV they die pretty quickly. It is actually six months or a year. And they do that in relative isolation in Burma.

There is a lot of misinformation and that leads to a lot of fear. They come back, they are sick and the villagers think just with casual contact they will contract HIV. So the girls are pushed off in the field in the bamboo huts. These huts are for the girls in the field. They just keep them there and bring them food and they think the sicker the girl gets the more infectious she is. She is more isolated when she gets sicker. Nobody wants to touch the bodies because they feel that is also contagious so they hire these bands of young thugs and their job, basically, is to take the bodies, put them on these piers of old discarded tires because the rubber from the tires seems to kill the virus. So in the countryside in Burma you will see plumes of big rubber smoke. It’s a daily thing. You hear the firecrackers and look into the horizon, you can see the big black smoke and smell the burning flesh. It’s a daily occurrence.

Question from the Audience

I had a question for Ellen. Do the people--the men who use the children--are they Thai men? Are they foreigners?

Ellen Bruno

That’s a really good question. I thought I knew the answer to that when I started this. I think it’s a very common misconception that many of these girls are in place to service the sex tourist, these international sex tourists. Only ten percent of them are seeing foreign men. That leaves ninety percent of them. This is a massive industry in Thailand. Unfortunately, it is very much part of the culture in Thailand. I don’t know how to say this without stepping on any toes but it’s a major problem. Seventy-five percent of the young women in Thailand lose their virginity as sex workers. It’s what you do when you are having a business meeting, a bunch of guys sitting around talking business. If you don’t offer your colleagues to a club or to a sex club it's considered kind of cheap. It’s what you do at the end of the night of drinking and talking business and, of course, you know many men are visiting sex workers and then coming back and bringing HIV into the family. That’s really rearing its head right now in Thailand. The past five years there has been a lot of infection at all levels of society. From the highest government and military people all the way down.

Question from the Audience

I have two questions, one for Grace and one for Ellen. Grace, I'll ask you a question first. You had a very interesting statistic in your documentary but I am not sure to whom this statistic applies, whether it applies just to Indians and Sri Lankans, in India and in Sri Lanka or to the Diaspora in the United States, and that is that the vast majority of child sexual abuse takes place in nuclear families as opposed to joint families. I was wondering if you could talk about that a bit and clarify to whom it applies.

My question to Ellen is that at the beginning of the documentary you showed some information about the ethnic conflict in Burma. I was wondering two things: one is whether the people, who you spoke to, all the young girls you spoke to, were they all from minority communities. If so, what do you think the impact of the conflict is on them? I mean quite apart from what is obvious, which is their economic and political marginalization. Do you think there are other reasons why they seem to constitute the majority of people who are taken to Thailand for prostitution? Thank you.

Grace Poore

The study was based on a RAHI study, it is an organization based in Delhi and they did this study in five cities. Delhi, Bombay, Goa, Calcutta and Bangalore, I think, or maybe Madras. I had to figure out whether I wanted to use the statistics because the study was among urban, English-educated, college-educated women and given that sampling population, they would invariably have come from nuclear families but talking with several people, I was surprised. I assumed that it would be higher in extended families. The reason I assumed that was because I thought children would come more into contact with adults in extended families. There would be more opportunity for them to be abused, but talking with people both in Sri Lanka and India, I found that that is not necessarily true. If anything, the statistics may be the same but to assume that children are safer in nuclear families is a myth because just as there might be more opportunity for them to be abused in an extended family, there are also more opportunities for scrutiny and some kind of intervention even if the intervention is not the way we imagine intervention to be. There might be quiet ways of intervening. I might be someone making sure that the child is not around at certain times, making sure that the sleeping arrangements are changed. It is things like that to intervene in extended families, which does not occur in nuclear families.

Ellen Bruno

The vast majority of girls we met were from the minority groups in Burma. Although several of our closest friends were Burmese girls on the border. For some reason, the Burmese girls along the border have a lot more freedom. I think they were a lot more savvy because a lot of them are from Rangoon and are city smart and so they had more freedom in the brothels in the sense that that could sort of, almost, choose, they could choose where they wanted to work. What happens is the agents go deep into the very remote villages to recruit and they found, for example, this ethnic group called the Aka and three of these girls were Aka. They are really tribal people and many of them had not seen an automobile before. Had no electricity in their villages and were pre-literate even in the Aka language. They are also very fair and they are very small and they are very easy to manipulate. They are not street-smart, so that makes them really attractive targets for the agents. They are easy to trick and they are easy to control and so we will be going to brothels where there would probably be fifty to sixty Aka girls, more between twelve and fifteen years old.

Part of the reason why there is greater demand for younger looking girls is because people are very conscious of HIV-AIDS. But rather than the sexual behavior really changing in the Thai population, what is happening is that there is a demand for younger girls. They are considered to be free of HIV. What they are doing now is they spend much shorter times in brothels and then circulating them to different places in Thailand so they are fresh faces. Unfortunately, the supply and the demand problem has not shifted. They have just made a quicker turnover of girls. I don’t know if that answers your question.

Question from the Audience

I had a quick question. Stated, I think, in one of the statistics was that 58 percent of the girls had confronted one of the parents. Did you interview any other parents of these victims and, if so, were the responses of the parents different based on their religion or the area that they are from? Whether they were from Sri Lanka, India or other areas?

Grace Poore

Five people whom I knew were relatives. They may not have been parents. One was a grandmother, one was a brother and one was an aunt of the survivors. Not necessarily just those you saw in the video. They did not want to appear in the video. That is my personal frustration with the documentary. I felt it would have been more powerful to have family members talk about what they would have done if they had known then. What hindsight they could offer, what do they know now, what they would have done differently. Why did they not intervene? It would have been very powerful to have their voices as well, particularly because I want this video to be used as a way to get people to act and to get those women who are survivors to see themselves as interventionists and not as victims--potential future interventionists. Rather than having the survivors indicate that we need intervention, it would have been powerful for parents to speak--one parent speaking to another person. But they would not speak even though their daughters were in the video. They were concerned. They had put the past behind them. They did not want to dig up the past. Some of them had formed very good relationships with the perpetrator and those related to the perpetrator--meaning, they had a great relationship with the perpetrator's wife. That’s a thing with incestuous sexual abuse, because you are talking about perpetrators who are related to you and you don’t want to implicate everybody, which is also the challenge for the survivor. Sometimes it seems you are punishing the family. Those people who did not do something to you and then some of the children of the perpetrators have grown up with those who were victimized and they see the parent as their sort of surrogate parent. So there are several reasons why they did not want to participate in the video, so that’s frustrating.

Question from the Audience

I work at ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes), which is an international NGO that works to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children. So I have seen a number of video tapes that were about traffic girls. It's extremely moving. It’s extremely sad. There are excellent films addressing this very bad problem. What I really want to know and what I really want to see from you is how come nobody does videotapes about men, mostly, who do this? I really want to see their faces and have them say why they do this. I think it will be just as empowering for victims to have that side revealed. You never see their faces. I think nobody has done that yet and when do you think you are going to do it?

Ellen Bruno

I don’t want to make that film. You know one of the difficulties of making this film was that we had to really keep in check our anger. I did not want to sleep with my husband for six weeks after working on this project. You start getting angry at all men. You know this greed, this lust. Of course, that is a very simplistic response to it but was very much part of the equation, the emotional equation of working on this and so I had trouble just being in Thailand, spending a lot of time in Thailand, because a couple of months ago I was in Bangkok and this film screened in Bangkok. It was strange to have this audience full of Thais and Thai men and thinking “Am I implicating all these men?” Oddly enough, there was a very strong reaction from the audience, almost as if they were understanding this and seeing this for the first time, which is very strange because this is so much part of peoples' lives. Anyway, I would have a real hard time making that film.

Grace Poore

When I first began taking the video around at the beginning of this year, I was asked this question many times and at first I said, vehemently, what Ellen said. I don’t want to make a video about perpetrators because I might hurt them, because of the stupid things they say and I have to be very calm and objective and all of that. But what I have done is that I have had male-only screenings. I try to have male-only screenings because I want to understand some things and I think it is important for men to be in men-only screenings where they talk to each other. What has come out of these male-only screenings with South Asian men are some very interesting observations and questions that they need answers for. When presented to women, the women erupt. For example, how do we tell when the line between abuse and affection is crossed? How do you really know? Now, whenever that is asked in a room full of people, they really erupt. Their response is: “What do you mean? We know.” There are men who don’t know. Unfortunately there are more men than less, I think. Over the last several months, I have found out that there are certain things about male sexuality and about the construction of masculinity that may actually be contributing to fact that, predominantly, it is men that actually abuse children. Predominantly, it is heterosexual men who periodically abuse both boys and girls. So, now I am open to it--oh, God--Open to the idea of actually making a documentary about perpetrators of this kind of an abuse. I did not want perpetrators in this video. I did not want to provide them with a forum. I felt everybody who spoke could, through their story and their analysis, clearly explain and put out the information as to what is to be done. This was a video that, more than anything else, was meant to empower survivors and I did not want perpetrators to have a say in the video.

Question from the Audience

One very brief question. Well, it’s a comment as well as a question to the woman who asked the previous one. It is clearly a crisis situation economically, socially and psychosexually, in every way possible. I also work within the South Asian community and I am just wondering, even in terms of the audience here, and in view of these very critical issues that are being raised, how many people, who are educated, in this room and who are South Asian, recognize the need to discuss the overall, not only this generation and the one following, the future, the fact that sexual repression in South Asian countries has a very, very long and complex legacy. It is not only about the immediate effect that causes these terrible, terrible things to happen, the causes are many. But is there a dialogue and discussion going on in the universities, the community centers, at the temples, discussing the fact that most South Asians cannot talk about sex even with their boyfriends and girlfriends? This is in America, because I work with them and I know some of the most educated, sophisticated South Asian men have a very difficult time discussing, much less approaching, defining, and talking about sex.

Audience response

I had a similar experience when I was very young with a neighbor and I knew something like that happened in our family. It never really left any scars on me really. I was about nineteen years old when I first saw it or actually remembered it as abuse and that was at a university in a class and a suddenly realized: “Oh my god, that was abuse.” It only happened once or maybe twice. Most of the South Asian friends I subsequently spoke to about this, either they had been abused themselves by a relative, or they were aware of some instance where that happened. I mean, as recently as a couple of weeks ago, one of my roommates told me about this instance of his knowledge of child abuse in his family. Nearly everybody that I have spoken to about this, they have openly spoken about these issues and come out with their own stories.

Grace Poore

I think part of her question was not simply about abuse but what I heard was, talking about healthy sex, normal sex, sexuality, bodies and all of that as a whole. That’s the way I heard the question, not just about sexual abuse. Somebody else could respond to that.

Audience response

The issue you brought up was about sexual oppression, not the issue but the label. I find that to be extremely, extremely simplistic and stereotypical. I have been with South Asian and non-South Asian boyfriends in the country and I can tell you although the non-South Asian boyfriends although we went and saw the movie were borderline pornographic and there was lot of activity going on. Whatever they said on the subject of sex was couched so much in terms of their definition of masculinity that it had no serious content, no identity, they were playing to an audience. These men, non-South Asian men would use terms like “rape” as saying, ““I am going to rape you.” That was supposed to be a good thing, that was supposed to be an expression of their knowledge of sex. Being a slut--this was supposed to be a good thing. It was supposed to be an expression of how, in ways, they could deal with sex. On the other hand, my South Asian friends never talked about sex, never talked about it in terms of “Let’s talk about it around the coffee table.” They never did that. True. However, they were able to integrate their sexual feelings, their sexual urges better with their identity, with their pleasure, with their joy, all of that. A great deal more, I felt, as a woman, the expression that I was able to achieve in the bedroom with the South Asian men despite their not talking on the subject than the other way around. It is quite interesting.

Grace Poore

The video is now available in Hindi, Bengali and Tamil. I just came back from India. It's already been dubbed and I had an interesting experience, quite frightening actually. The people who were doing the translation were men, older men. I sort of panicked about the script and made sure that women checked the translations after they were done so the way in which the dubbing was done was not going to be offensive. I don’t understand Bengali. Tamil was no problem. What was interesting is that there were certain words that were left in English like “genitals”. So I said:“Look, this is dubbed, you know.” Basically, I was told that we couldn’t do that because it would sound vulgar. Unlike English, where there are many words for sex, many words for incest, in our South Asian languages there is not, so it's going to be very clinical, but we cannot help that. What was very interesting was that these were men working in the media doing translation. They were very linguistic types.

So, when the script went to the women activists they had no problem with it. They came up with many words. There was a vocabulary. Clearly, some people have the vocabulary and some people don’t or some people are using vocabulary, which is the old vocabulary, that does not speak to certain kinds of experiences. I know for example in Sri Lanka as well as the Tamil language, the English translation, the singular translation for “rape” was “losovona” that means blackening her face, loss of honor or taking away honor. This did not, at any point, capture the violation on the person. That has now changed because of the work of feminists, because of activists doing this work. So I don’t know the experience you have with South Asians is because immigrants are stuck, they are from thirty years ago. Maybe the vocabulary they are using, the ways in which they talk comes from a different time. At least in South Asia I have also seen a shift. South Asians in South Asia are the first ones to say we need to start talking about sex in a way that is comfortable. Absolutely, they are saying that. It's not just in terms of the intimate relationship--you need to do it in school. I think it's a much more complex thing. The language is such a complex thing. It’s not linguistic language, it is also emotional language.

October 18, 2000
by admin