A recent encounter with two birds became a real-life parable for my family. We live in India and have been burdened about the fact that no less than two hundred Indian women and girls are believed to enter the sex trade every day.1 Most cases are coercive—the girl enters prostitution against her will—and the majority of the girls are well under eighteen years of age. The trauma, abuse, and torture being borne by these girls are beyond comprehension.
The scale of such tragedy can have an immobilizing effect. Yet as each of my family members took part in a feathery drama just outside our back window one day not long ago, we found ourselves demonstrating ways to respond to sex trafficking.
Identifying the Problem
“There’s a dead pigeon hanging from a tree!” My oldest son’s frantic screams from our New Delhi terrace interrupted our preparations for a lazy morning’s breakfast. Everyone else in the family rushed outside to the horrific sight.
Suspended in the air, almost at eye-level to our second-floor balcony, the pigeon’s limp body swayed slightly, an unnatural twist to its neck. Closer inspection revealed that it had gotten caught in near-invisible string from the wreckage of a kite that could have been left behind last summer by any of a number of children from the apartments which ring the park.
Suddenly, one of us noticed yet another pigeon higher in the air, tangled upside down in the string. This one was still alive, flailing in vain against the line which was wrapped around a foot and one wing. “I can’t bear to watch!” cried my 7-year-old daughter. “It’s too horrible to see that poor bird suffering!”
“Look,” said my younger son, pointing skyward. “There’s a third pigeon circling around. It seems concerned for its friend.” Indeed, one bird was swooping in an oblong orbit, a free but agitated streak of grey feathers. It seemed to be trying to lead the ensnared bird to some imaginary escape up and away, not comprehending that its companion simply could not break free of the string.
Identifying How to Deal with the Problem
“We have to do something,” my wife said, her eyes earnest and determined. But the struggling pigeon was too far up in the air for a ladder to reach, and too far away from our balcony for me to grab the string. My daughter ran inside to her room and shut the door behind her; the four of us continued to watch, feeling helpless. It seemed nothing could be done to save the bird. “Let’s call the guards,” I finally suggested, feeling resigned. “Perhaps they can help.” I phoned the front gate and explained in halting Hindi what was wrong.
“I’ll send a gardener,” the watchmen promised. Minutes later, a young man called to us from down on the ground. We leaned over the balcony rail and pointed at the victims. “Can you assist the bird?” I asked. The gardener stood there, thinking for a moment. His upward gaze somehow attracted the attention of another man, who was soon joined by a third in a track suit—one of our neighbors who was out jogging.
They conferred with one another, and then the gardener ran to a far corner of the park. He walked back with a long bamboo pole—part of the frame of a wedding tent which had been left behind. He carefully worked the pole up far above the pigeon’s head and snapped the kite line. The pigeon half fell, half flew to the ground with an awkward flutter, then skittered across the park in terror, fleeing into a bush. The gardener calmly followed and retrieved the traumatized bird with a firm, but gentle hand.
“Bring some turmeric powder,” he hollered up to us. We had been watching, mesmerized, but now rushed to the kitchen to carry out his orders. My children hastily put their shoes on to follow me downstairs with the yellow spice. Reaching the park, we approached the bird, which was being cradled in the gardener’s hands as another man untangled the twine that had pinned the wing.
The gardener took the turmeric and gently worked the powder into an ugly, red gash where the string had cut into the bird. “It’s a natural antiseptic,” the neighbor wearing sweat pants explained to us. By now the pigeon had calmed down and somehow seemed to understand that these strange hands were helping, not hurting her.
First aid completed, the gardener kept a strong grip around the bird so that she would not struggle free, then walked through the trees toward the edge of the park. He slowly raised the bird level with his face and pointed her head up toward a cubbyhole above one of the apartment windows high in the building. Once he was sure she was looking in the right direction, he released her. She flew straight up and away from the trees and nestled onto her new roost, safe from both cats and kite strings.
Although it was sad to see the gardener cut down the dead pigeon, we returned to our home with a feeling of satisfaction. “At least we were able to save one pigeon,” I said.
A Lesson for the Church?
Almost immediately afterward, my wife and I realized we had all enacted something deeper and more significant. Might it be that the way we had responded to the two pigeons in our colony was symbolic of how people can respond to the girls in our city who are enslaved in brothels?
- We had simply discovered the two pigeons hanging outside our balcony that morning. All it takes are eyes to see what is happening at our own back door.
- We experienced a range of emotions: shock, horror, helplessness. Only my daughter—the youngest in our home—ran and hid. The other four family members discussed what to do and took action. Facing the reality that girls as young as eight are being trafficked for sex is emotionally difficult, yet it need not immobilize us.
- Rather than turning our backs on the plight of the trapped pigeon, we did what we could. Ordinary people need to—and can!—act.
- We called the guard, who sent the gardener, who upon arrival attracted the attention of passersby. Our action stimulated further response by the community. Although one person couldn’t solve the problem alone, the group was able to figure out what to do.
- Although, being expatriates, we didn’t have an immediate sense of how to help the bird, the gardener and neighbors knew to fetch the leftover bamboo pole and turmeric. Effective, local solutions were available once we involved the right people.
- After the bird was doctored, the gardener did what he could to prevent the pigeon from being re-entangled in the kite string by aiming the bird toward a safe place to heal. We don’t just need timely intervention—we also need the “big picture” sense to prevent further trauma and to enable long-term healing.
As we reflected on the experience, we were struck by the goodwill and compassion shown by so many neighbors. A total of eight people (including our children) stopped their morning routine to attend to one traumatized pigeon. No one who helped was an “expert,” yet each did what he or she knew.
We all shared a sense of purpose: this little bird must be saved. Although it was too late to help the dead pigeon, we intervened before the trapped pigeon could be attacked by a bird of prey or die of bleeding or shock.
Could we not see this same goodwill and compassion be shown by our communities on behalf of our sisters and daughters who have been caught in harm’s way? The problem of sex trafficking is certainly not unique to India. These days it is found anywhere and everywhere. It is probably occurring far closer to your back door than you think.
True, the web of organized crime, greed, poverty, and demand for younger girls by predatory men is a much more complex and intimidating threat than a tangle of kite string accidentally left in a tree. Specialists are needed for certain tasks, such as conducting undercover investigations and collaborating with police to raid brothels and prosecute perpetrators. Experienced trauma counselors have a vital role in helping girls work through the emotional scars of daily abuse.
Yet systems of human trafficking are the outgrowth of multiple forces in society. Looking at the broader picture, we find that many common people contribute to the problem. Who are the men who buy sex in a brothel or on the Internet? Who are the people who perpetuate unfair (and inaccurate) stereotypes of “prostitutes” such that some among us believe that a red light district is filled with women who want to be there? Who is the housewife, the government official, the athlete, the average “Joe” or “Josephine” who turns the other way rather than look at the harsh facts of others’ suffering?
Can’t ordinary people like us part of a solution? We might think we can do nothing, yet as we step forward to act as well as involve others around us, practical solutions will emerge.
Like the dead pigeon, for some girls it is already too late—or it will soon be. However, for others, there is still a small hope, a chance that if we act now, they can be freed like the pigeon whose line was cut and can find a safe place of healing. It may seriously interrupt our everyday routines, but the value of lives saved, rather than lost, will prove well worth it.
1. Dixit, Neha. 2008. “The Nowhere Children.” Tehelka Magazine, 1 November.