In the field of humanitarian service, advocates have the intentions of speaking on behalf of those they represent. Many activists and organizations seek to ‘give back’ to those in need of food, shelter and social services. But, does ‘giving back’ really help? This essay explores the politics and hierarchies of humanitarian aid to discover if independence and agency for aid recipients can be achieved. On the path to independence, what are the obstacles that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and activists create for the underprivileged? Are there effective frameworks and methods for advocate organizations to approach the underprivileged?
Authors such as Columbia University professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak questions whether any agency can be achieved while Bengali activists such as Samarajit Jana, Nandinnee Bandyapadhyay, Mrinal Kanti Dutta and Amitrajit Saha argue that agency is attainable by providing tools for the underprivileged to empower themselves. Using my own observations from working at All Bengal Women's Union in Kolkata, India, I review and analyze the attempts of this organization to empower women and girls to determine whether the underprivileged can speak.
My work in the All Bengal Women’s Union in Kolkata in Spring 2008 allowed me to spend personal time with young women who were sexually exploited. The women I met left such an indelible impression on me that I brought their voices and causes back with me. Every day I saw the pain of these girls, struggling to overcome their violent past. And every day, I saw their endless ability to continue to dance, to smile, and to love. Our sisterhood pushed me to promote awareness of sex trafficking and to identify the best methods of rehabilitation that value their voice.
After reviewing previous literature and theory discussing if the underprivileged have a voice, I began my participant observation and field research at All Bengal Women Union during the months of January to April in 2008. Using my ethnographic data, I examine the programs and initiatives put forth by All Bengal Women’s Union as well as reviewing material published by the NGO. The approach of analyzing the organization’s efforts is significant; the concern is not the intentions and mission of the organization, but the process and outcomes it has on the women. Instead of looking at the organization as a whole, my approach is to view it’s effectiveness from the perspective of the female clients.
This essay concludes there are good and bad approaches towards the path of victim empowerment, but ability of voice and agency can only be determined by the underprivileged. While a structure like All Bengal Women’s Union posses the ability to oppress its constituents, critically analyzing approaches and methods in dialogues with its privileged and underprivileged members can lead to more effective strategies. In order for women and girls after trafficking to have a voice in society, critical and opposition structures like All Bengal Women’s Union must exist to serve a space to achieve agency, a space where they can demand their choice.
It is best to be critical of one's intentions of 'helping' the subaltern, and to listen more often – perhaps the subaltern are speaking but we are not listening.
Ferrandino, Amanda N., "The Politics of 'Giving Back' and its Effects on the Autonomy of Women after Sex Trafficking" (2009). Honors College Theses. Paper 83.