On International Volunteer Day, and the eleventh day of sixteen days of international activism on gender-based violence against womyn* and girls, I reflect on my time as a volunteer at STOP THE TRAFFIK. Written by karen kaur dhillon, STOP THE TRAFFIK volunteer and master’s student in Human Trafficking, Migration and Organised Crime at St Mary’s University.
Growing up in one of the top centres of human trafficking in United States, I remember my mumma giving my first “big girl” talk. And it wasn’t the period talk. She told me a man could grab me off the streets and sell me to someone if I was not careful. I understand her fears because she was born in Panjab, India, one of the least safe countries for womyn.
From a very early age, we train young girls to have high guards of security and safety. We are taught to never walk alone at night. If we are walking alone at night, every two seconds, to turn back around to make sure no one is following you. As soon as you get to your house, turn back around once more, to make sure you are safe to go without anyone following you.
So, you can imagine this isn’t the (American) dream my Panjabi immigrant parents had for me as the ideal career path. But my Sikhi, faith, has always taught me to never be silent in situations of injustice, to speak up and end all forms of violence. My Sikhi teaches me to dismantle human trafficking and all forms of gender-based violence. The work I do breaks my heart over and over again, scares my mumma a whole lot more, but it’s been a part of me since I was in her stomach. I am doing what I have always dream(ed) of doing – to dismantle systems of violence. My heart has always been rooted in gender-based violence organizing and advocating.
I knew while pursuing my master’s in Human Trafficking, Migration and Organised Crime at St Mary’s University I wanted to give back. After a few short weeks of quickly adjusting the move from California to London, I began searching for opportunities to uplift the most marginalised and vulnerable people around me. This is a value, ‘seva’, meaning selfless service, which my parents instilled in me since I began to walk. I constantly strive to uplift and improve the communities in which I find myself and somewhere along the search I found myself volunteering with STOP THE TRAFFIK.
Being surrounded by a team of people who strive to make sure we are constantly working to expand the global conversation around human trafficking is very meaningful to me. To say I find meaning and joy in my work is an understatement. The best part is I get to be in a room full of change-makers dismantling this violent system. As Audre Lorde said, “your silence will not protect you”. Backed by research and data, STOP THE TRAFFIK uses the power of technology to disrupt human trafficking. And when I say all survivors, it means (in no particular order) trans survivors, indigenous people, womyn of colour, it means, all survivors.
The values of inclusivity and intersectionality are important to me. As a survivor of sexual assault, I know first-hand the importance of real research and data to wholeheartedly support survivors and prevent trafficking. This is why one of the core values of STOP THE TRAFFIK means so much to me. Everything STOP THE TRAFFIK does is driven by data and research. The power of this is immeasurable.
But beyond my love for research and data, as a daughter of working-class parents, a young womyn of colour who wears a dastar (turban), and the many other identities that make me whole, art has been the first way for me to express how violent institutions oppress people. For the last five years, I have organised the Vagina Monologues, a global movement to end violence against all womyn and girls (hetero, transgender, and those who hold fluid identities that are subject to gender-based violence) in any new community space I have found myself in. So, I am extremely happy to bring back my artistic expression by supporting the digital design efforts at STOP THE TRAFFIK.
My heart will always be rooted in gender-based violence. Because I carry the pain of the many womyn in me, that came before and are to come after me who had no other choice but to suffer in silence. Because I carry the pain of my best friends. Because I want to uplift the people have been systematically silenced because of their race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, and religious identities.
Being thousands of miles away from my mumma for the first time, I always carry the words she recited to me every day, from Bulleh Shah, a Punjabi Islamic philosopher:
“Tear down the mosque, tear down the temple, break anything you see. But never break a person’s heart, that’s where God resides”.
* ‘Womyn’ is a non-standard spelling of ‘women’ adopted by some feminists, and has been in use since the 1970s. It has been used by the author in this context to be inclusive to trans, gender-fluid and non-binary people, who are at an increased risk of human trafficking.