I cannot see the cigarette burns on Manju’s* arms. I cannot see Priya’s broken front tooth or Jyoti’s misshapen arm from a break that was never set. I am blind—not literally, but selectively. Literally, I see the scars that speak of the unspeakable atrocities these young women suffered from being trafficked in India’s multi-billion dollar sex trade. As I stand before these courageous survivors, my eyes focus on what I am here to see, which is who these young women are, right now, in this moment. And right now, they are just like any other 17 to 22-year-old women anywhere in the world facing something new—they fidget with their clothes and hair, tell jokes, and nervously glance in my direction, uncertain and tentative of who I am and what I am doing here in this women’s rescue organization half a world away from my home in Chicago.
Before they can think too much, I have them on their feet and making a fist. As their arms stretch toward the ceiling, I rush from girl to girl to check that each fist is tight and each thumb curls across the fronts of their bent fingers. Now they are punching to my count. At first they punch slowly, but then they punch more quickly and powerfully. They are rapt; their determination to learn obliterates their recent nervousness. Having been told all their short lives that only men have power, these ladies are getting a sense of the power that lies within them—a power no one can touch, a power that grows with every punch. Their eyes fix on my movements as I show them how to strike with a hammer fist, with a palm, and then a knee. We chant the weak parts of where to strike a male assailant, the strong parts of a woman, and map one to the other. By the end of class, there is an almost tangible energy, and the glow of an inner power lights each face. This is what I see.
I have had the privilege to similarly teach some 300 women and girls since 2010 with my non-profit Green Tara Project. That year, after reading about human trafficking in the book Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudun, I found myself compelled to do something. A short internet search yielded numerous anti-trafficking organizations I could help, but my training as a geologist left me lacking in sought-after volunteer skills. And even though I had a passion for the martial arts, one I had honed over for 17 years as an athlete, a coach, and a student, those skills were not being sought. Then a thought struck me, “Why aren’t they?”
I reflected on the self-defense I had been teaching to women here in the U. S.; many had been sexually assaulted through the same tactics that predators the world over use to entrap and traffic girls—drugs, emotional coercion, and physical abuse. Surely anti-trafficking organizations needed these skills for the at-risk and the rescued. Another internet search yielded a “yes” and a rescue organization in Bihar, one of the poorest states in India. After a few email exchanges and a couple of months, I was on my way. That first trip showed me the overwhelming need for getting these skills to those who need them most—the outcast, the marginalized, and the impoverished who fall prey to human traffickers. Thus, Green Tara Project was born.
Today, Green Tara Project has provided self-defense classes to five organizations in India, is starting work here in the U. S., and is returning to India in November. Named after the Buddhist goddess of enlightened activity, my nonprofit’s focus is on physical, psychological, and pre-assault aspects of self-defense. We not only impart skills to girls, but also confidence and self-esteem. With human trafficking relying on a ready supply of physically and psychologically vulnerable people, if a woman has the skill to defend herself, the self-confidence to speak up for herself, and the knowledge to identify predators before they strike, then she and her children may be less likely to be victimized and trafficked. From this, a small disruption in the trafficking cycle might occur. Green Tara Project is dedicated to providing the means to disrupt the cycle.