Lesson 15: Life can be ugly: Stand up against Injustice

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I saw the posters in Colombia, and then I saw the signs again in Madagascar. Posters explaining child sexual exploitation is illegal and punishable by law. It was one of the most challenging aspects to deal with when you explore: Knowing that many people in the world travel to exploit children. It is indicative of the darkness of human nature.

However, exploitation is across the age spectrum. When I was in Phnom Penh, I saw older gentlemen with very young girls. The girls looked like they were in their late teens. They were probably young adults in, possibly, their 20s. However, it felt wrong. Rich older men are exploiting desperate young women. It might be consensual, but there is no doubt, the women were not there because they wanted to do this for a living. They had no choice. In most cases, poverty and lack of economic prospects have forced these women to sell themselves to the highest bidder.

As a man, during my travels, I had almost no issues with harassment. Peddlers were selling me trinkets. On some occasions, aggressive vendors spoke rudely to me. I never felt my life was in danger. It is quite different for women. Sexual harassment is pervasive for women travellers. Solo women travellers probably face some harassment in almost every location. Many pretended to be married or in a relationship to avoid an aggressive or unwanted show of interest. However, it is essential to emphasise that most solo women travellers are safe and travel without danger. But there are enough cases in the world where single women have had to deal with serious concerns related to their safety.

The Machismo culture in South America permeates across the region. It is no different from the male-dominated culture seen in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Sections of Western society have had problems with male-dominated aggressive behaviours and subsequent violence. There have been enough cases in France, UK, USA and Australia, to name a few. In one such incident, a young woman in France was slapped by a man for not responding to his advances.

In Peru, I was at a bar with a few from my hostel. There were many young girls from the hostel who were enjoying their time. There were quite a few local men too. As the night progressed and the drinks flowed, the women started to get tipsy, and the men began to get aggressive. They refused to take no for an answer. I jumped in to defend a young woman and got punched by the aggressor. Later I found out that the young man I had an altercation with, was the local drug dealer. He was not used to taking no as a response to anything. My bruised face aside, I still felt that I did the right thing. We make mistakes all the time. I too have made mistakes in my life. I am no saint. I would sheepishly avoid confrontation or shy away from standing up for what is right in the past. But it is only appropriate that you learn from your mistakes with time and defend what is right. In this case, defending a young woman from being sexually harassed was the right thing to do.

Sexual harassment and rape are serious issues in our society. On a grassroots level, we need to defend what is right. I have had a moral conflict in the past about defending women against unnecessary attention and advances. Was I not letting the women be independent? Am I propagating the patriarchal culture that a woman cannot care for herself and always needs a man? The role of gender has changed dramatically in the last century. Today, it is crucial to be mindful about many gender issues including ‘taking care of the woman’ However, after a lot of back and forth, I felt that defending a woman when she can’t do so, is the right act. The punch was worth it.

When I was in Cambodia, in late 2019, there was a young Danish girl in my hostel. At about the same time, there was a heinous case in India of a young Indian girl who was brutally raped and burnt. She was horrified by the act of violence. She mentioned how a Danish woman was raped in India a few years back and that her parents had warned her about India. I felt deeply shameful. Sexual violence is a big problem in India. Every day, many women, including toddlers, pre-pubescent girls, young teenagers, working professionals, retired and older women, are raped somewhere in India. Sexual Violence and rape are not exclusively an Indian problem. It happens everywhere. But when it happens in India, it becomes personal.

India is a beautiful country with a rich history and culture. However, the problem of sexual violence needs a resolution. The hospitality industry needs to take ownership of the solution to the problem. If tourists avoid India in large numbers, then the authorities will take more decisive actions. At the same time, a lot of people depend on tourism for their livelihoods. It is a difficult problem to resolve.

On the one hand, the dignity and respect of women matter. On the other hand, the economic reality of innocent locals also matter. I feel that the hospitality industry should do more, even if it means losing business in the short term. Longer-term, a country should be safe for all citizens and all tourists. The hospitality industry and the tourists have a moral obligation to make safety a reality for all. This problem is not exclusive to India. Every country has issues of sexual harassment and gender violence. It is about those countries where the authorities shun taking more decisive actions. The travellers can fight for justice and a better society.

In many parts of the world, tourism involves going to a local school and buying gifts for the children. Tourists are strongly encouraged to help out. Many want to contribute, and many do generously. In Africa, the local children welcomed us. We brought gifts like pencils and writing pads. Unfortunately, the children begged for more than school supplies and seemed some villagers had trained them to do so. They knew how to frame their stories. They always approached the women in the group, sometimes in a pair. It felt like an act. It was heartbreaking to see five and six-year-olds do this. They did not want school supplies. They asked for money. They were persistent in their requests. They harassed the young women in our group with their constant begging. It was not a good sight to see.

Asking for donations is also a business. Many charities work with many children and adults around the world to help improve their lives. However, charities are also businesses. Many of them don’t have transparent governance and financial structures. The money just disappears, and hardly any cash reaches the ground where it is most needed. There are many cases in Africa where criminals set up fake orphanages to take money from donors in the West. Children were taken away from their parents with the promise of a better life in an orphanage.

In many cases, the conditions were appalling, and the orphanages’ owners kept most donations. It is a sad reality across the world. After my experience in Africa and learning about the various charity scams, I always asked for financial reports and governance reports before I donated any amount. Many people need help in the world. There are many willing to help out. We need to do it transparently and ethically.

While issues of sexual violence and charity exploitations are undoubtedly repulsive, cocaine use, on the other hand, isn’t seen as a problem, by many travellers. The drug trade is highly lucrative, and the Americas are a special place. I heard of foreigners coming to Colombia and Mexico to do cocaine as part of their travel experience. Television series such as Narcos and Breaking Bad glamorized the trade and made it cool.

But when you meet Colombians who have been directly affected by the war on drugs, then the use of cocaine is put into the right perspective. When you hear about dead bodies with heads cut off and mass murders during rival gang violence, then the appeal of cocaine is honestly quite insulting to the innocent people caught up in the middle.

I heard from a local of a low-level drug gang member who loved hooking up the foreigners. In one such story, a young backpacker got some cocaine from a low-level member. He went back to this member for days. After a few days, the gang member wanted him to buy more and threatened him with severe consequences if he did not comply. The member knew of the backpacker’s hostels, had friends in the vicinity and threatened to make his life miserable. Eventually, the backpacker paid up a large sum of money to drugs dealer.

This young backpacker got away with a bribe. Many who work in that industry to provide him with drugs end up dead and mutilated. It is a reality which we cannot ignore.

The same problem lies in the child sex trade. Many innocent children forced in the business, get traumatized and find it impossible to leave. They continue to be part of the industry grooming other children. It is a vicious cycle.

The reality is as such:

The Cocaine trade doesn’t stop.

Sex trade doesn’t stop.

Sexual Violence doesn’t stop.

The exploitation of Children for donations doesn’t stop.

Child Sex trade doesn’t stop.

As long as there is demand, there is supply. And vice versa.

Life can indeed be ugly. Most of us do not experience these issues when we explore new places. We are caught in the beauty of the sights and sounds and rightly so.

However, wherever and whenever we see something wrong, we must stand up against the issue. Many people fight against injustices. Newspapers, blogs, social media are full of these fantastic human beings. The same applies to tourists and explorers. It is only appropriate that travellers stand up for the right causes and against injustice. It could help save a life.

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