TOJ: World Vision is certainly a model for people of faith in N. America for aiding those who are most vulnerable. What is World Vision doing in places like Uganda to intervene with children being made to be soldiers? And along those same lines, what challenges has World Vision seen in places like Uganda and the Sudan in its attempts to rescue child soldiers from a life of death and terror?
RS: In the broadest overview, World Vision’s mission is to work with the poor and the oppressed, to promote human transformation. Said in plain English, we try to help the helpless, tackle the causes of poverty, help communities rise out of poverty, respond to urgent needs like tsunamis and other natural disasters — we’re focused on all those things. We work in a variety of contexts. In fact, I just talked about this today in a strategy meeting. On the one hand, we work in places like Ghana, Honduras and Guatemala where you’ve got a pretty stable government; you’ve got successful democratic transitions; you’ve got ideal conditions for development; the government is cooperative; there is no security risk; there is freedom of religion and open expression…there are all of the things would that would cause you to say, “Boy, if I were going to pick a place to address social issues like poverty, this would be an ideal place to work.”
But then on the other side of the coin, there is Darfur, Sudan, there’s Afghanistan, the Congo, these are very, very difficult places. One of those is northern Uganda. World Vision likes to stay in one location for 10 to 15 years, until those communities are progressing out of poverty, taking their future into their own hands. Well, in northern Uganda there are 1.6 million IDP’s, internally displaced people, living in camps — approximately 50 camps, crowded together. Social structures are broken down, and they can no longer farm their land because they have to live in the camps. There are now children whose grandparents started out in the camps, and they had children, and their children had children, so they’ve lost any sense of their roots and where they came from. They live in fear of the rebel armies attacking, kidnapping…and I described it when I went to Gulu in March as an NGO theme park. On every corner there is World Food Program, UNICEF, World Vision, CARE, Save The Children, Refugees International, Oxfam…
TOJ: Directly in the camps?
RS: All over the region. You just see their signs when you drive and you see their vehicles because it is a humanitarian crisis for 1.6 million people. So the aid and development community has descended to try to stop the bleeding, try to help the population. But anything we can do there is fairly temporary; we treat symptoms because, right now, the cause of all of this is Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). So, until he’s dealt with and security is restored, you can’t really begin to talk about dismantling the IDP camps, getting people back on their land, starting up agriculture again, and getting life back to normal. I guess you could say we’re all trying to make the best out of a very bad situation, humanitarian wise.
What World Vision is doing, and I can speak very clearly about this because I was just there, is operating a Children of War Rehabilitation Center. The estimates are that 25,000 to 30,000 young people have been kidnapped over 20 years to serve in the LRA, but the real question that arose early on was, “What do you do with these kids if they escape or they’re captured or somehow they’re able to get away from the rebels?” You are dealing with kids, maybe they are 16 years old, who have murdered, pillaged, maybe taken a wife while in the bush and may even have a child with that girl. They may have killed people from their own community because Kony forced them to do it. What do you do when they are no longer a part of the LRA? What we found was, often the communities didn’t want them back or they wanted to do harm to them because even though they were once one of us, they became murderers, they became traitors, they became killers. In some cases, the parents didn’t even want the children back because of what had happened to them; the girls had been raped, they’d given birth at age 13 or 14, and come home with those children. So what do you do with these broken, damaged children who – frankly – nobody wants back? You’re dealing with situations where you really can’t hold them accountable for what they did because they were forced at gunpoint to do it, they were brainwashed, they were treated like savages, and they were kept in captivity. You can’t really throw them in jail. What do you do with them?
World Vision opened a center, more than ten years ago now, called the Children of War Rehabilitation Center. Its goal is to receive these kids and try to heal their brokenness…help them deal with the psychological traumas, the physical traumas that they’ve experienced. The day I was there, two boys came in and one had a shriveled arm that he could move, but not in its full range of motion. Well, he probably had been shot when he was 11, and the arm never quite healed right. So there are physical issues, but in most cases the psychological wounds are much worse than the physical. So we provide counseling with a whole cadre of Christian counselors there, most of whom are Ugandan nationals. They care about this part of the world and, basically, try to get these kids to understand, from a Christian viewpoint, that despite the guilt and shame they feel about the crimes they have committed, they were forced to do the things that they did — that in God and Christ there is forgiveness, that it is possible to wipe the slate clean and be made whole again and to be reconciled. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Gospel shine brighter than in this very, very dark place. If you share the Gospel with somebody in America, you’re likely to get brushed off. But when you share the Gospel with a child soldier who has been forced to murder and has lived in some of the darkest conditions imaginable for the past five years, [the Gospel] breaks over them like the most incredibly wonderful news they’ve ever heard. “I can be forgiven? I can be made whole? I can put this behind me? That’s too good to be true!”
And in fact, when the kids come to the center, they’re very apprehensive. They’re usually in the custody of the Ugandan Army, who have either captured them or found them, or they are coming in from a hospital after being treated for their wounds, and they are fearful. They don’t know what is going to happen to them. They’ve been told in the bush that they may be killed when they are brought back, that if you are taken to the World Vision center that your food will be poisoned – they are told these kinds of things. So they come in very apprehensive and worried.
The day we were there, the gate opened, a vehicle drove in and there were two boys, about sixteen, and they were coming back from the bush. All the other children gathered around, there were about 45 people at the time, and they start singing. And they surround the vehicle with these songs of praise and joy and welcome and all of these traditional Ugandan spiritual songs, and the boys get out and they see laughing and smiling and singing and they can’t believe it. “We’re being welcomed!” And then the handshakes start and the hugs, and they start to see people they knew in the bush and that they are alive and well and all of a sudden they start to feel…you can literally see them come alive, smiles come across their faces and their eyes liven up. They went right into the chapel, which is a bit of corrugated roof with a cement floor, and they had a praise service in the chapel to welcome these boys back.
Two days later, I was asked to preach in the chapel and I chose the parable of the prodigal son, which, if you remember the father killing the fattened calf and throwing a big party to welcome his son back…which son?…the son who had sinned and done terrible things; he’d lived in debauchery and squandered his inheritance, and the father welcomes him back unconditionally. That’s what it was like.
I remember thinking to myself, “How would a secular counselor deal with this?” Where do you begin when you’re dealing with a child who has been forced to drink the blood of their victims, eat the flesh of their victims, maybe kill his or her own sister or brother with a machete, and maybe they’ve committed multiple murders after that? Where do you start in the counseling session? Our counselors are trained and they get at those issues over time but the whole faith and religious component that goes with it is what makes it work because, and I wonder how this kind of restoration can occur with medicines or conventional therapy alone? To my thinking, God is the only thing that can restore this kind of brokenness.
So we rehabilitate these kids. Then we do a couple of things. Usually they are with us for a couple of months at the rehabilitation center, going through the counseling, and getting vocational training. For girls, it is selling [petty trading] and baking. For boys it is motorcycle repair and mechanics; practical skills we hope they can use. But then we have to deal with the community because we reunite them with their parents, if we can find them. So we try to make that happen, do some counseling with the parents about what to expect. Then we go into the community and say, “Jacob is about to return to his community after five years. He’s been through some terrible things. The community needs to forgive him. He is seeking forgiveness and wants to be part of the community again.” So we have to deal with the community. Then there comes a day when he does move back and he tries to restart his life wherever he left off.
TOJ: Have you seen this picture of the community accepting people back in?
RS: One girl that we met, Angela, was kidnapped and lived in the bush for eight years; from the time she was 17 until 25 or 26. She was given as a wife to one of the commanders and lived a horrible life. She was a very bright girl and had been in a private Catholic school before she was kidnapped. Her mother was actually a World Vision counselor; now she lost her own daughter to the rebels that one night. Well, Angela finally was rescued after eight years, but now she is 26 years old. She is finishing high school in Kampala because it was awkward to finish in her northern Ugandan community because she is the oldest student. The sad thing is that she is HIV positive. She contracted AIDS in the bush from the many rapes. Angela is trying to put her life back together again and has been reunited with her mother. It is pretty amazing work and it is unlike almost anything else in the world that World Vision is doing. It is taking these cast-offs, these throw-a-ways, these broken young people and trying to give them back a life.
In addition to that, we’ve got two centers in Gulu, one for under 18 and another one for men who are over 18. Because the men that are 22 or 24, they’re a pretty hard bunch. We went over there and, you know, you’re staring out at an audience of mass murderers. The cook in that compound is a wonderful musician and he leads them in a choir with the drums and the stringed instruments that are traditional and you see this incredible music coming out of these mass murderers.
We are also working in the IDP camps with feeding programs. We’re even doing counseling there with young people that were not kidnapped but are still living in these IDP camps and they’ve got all kinds of social problems. There is a lot of alcoholism with their fathers, there is a lot of child abuse that goes on because of the terrible plight of these families. Our ultimate goal would be to help repatriate the people back into their communities.
Just last week, I was in Washington and was able to meet with Sen. Dick Durbin; Robert Zoellick, the Deputy Sec. of State; Mike Gerson, the president’s speech writer and advisor; and even [Senate Majority Leader] Bill Frist. We talked about northern Uganda and some other situations to see if there is anything more that our government can do. At this moment, Sen. Durbin said that they had been unable to get a senate hearing on this issue; we’ve got a Congressional hearing, but not the Senate. And Sen. Durbin said, “Well, I will call Sen. [Mel] Martinez, who chairs the committee to see if he’ll schedule this hearing.” Durbin called me the next day to tell me that Martinez had agreed to schedule a hearing. Now, it hasn’t happened yet but we’re working at both ends of the spectrum, the U.S. government here, the community level there…so we’re trying.
TOJ: I loved what you said and was thinking about how people become transformed and one of the stories you shared was of that moment when those two boys were surrounded and were offered community in a way that they have never experienced before and how that can really facilitate the transformation that is so needed.
RS: I think it creates the space that someone in that situation needs where they feel completely safe, completely loved and maybe in that space they can heal, they can deal with these issues. My wife and I interviewed some of these kids and they kind of look like this (downcast face) and they talk very low about what they’ve experienced… “Well, I was kidnapped and I had to kill my best friend,” and they wipe a tear. They couldn’t make eye contact with us. They were processing these horrible, horrible things that we can’t even imagine that they had to do. I’m sure the healing isn’t overnight, and probably for years they’ll have issues that they’ll have to deal with.
TOJ: As the president of WV since 1998, what happened in your life to bring you to a place of moving from the corporate setting, to the non-profit, human aid and relief work of WV?
RS: I became a Christian at the most unlikeliest of places, the Wharton School of Business. I was dating the woman who is now my wife, who was a believer and was in one of those “missionary dating” situations with me, which she does not recommend to our children. In 1974, I did a lot of reading. I read C.S. Lewis and John Stott and a number of others and became convinced that this Christianity thing was really true. For me, the questions was, “Is it true or is it the Easter Bunny, ’cause if it’s the Easter Bunny, I’d rather play golf on Sunday mornings than go through the motions.” I was very pragmatic. I majored in neurobiology in college so I had a very scientific type of orientation, “Can’t prove it, it’s not true.”
So through that reading, and through friends and my wife, I came to realize, “[Christianity] is really true,” and it was one of those shocking, “surprised by joy” moments. But I understood that this meant betting the farm. That this wasn’t just another activity in your life. I was not going to be a churchgoer that went to church on Sunday and then acted completely differently Monday through Saturday. I wasn’t going to be a hypocrite. If I was going to do this, I was going to bet the farm…I was going to push all my poker chips into the middle and bet it all. Whereas, I think a lot of people tend to say, “well, I’ll bet a couple of my chips but I want to keep a lot of chips over here on the side.” It’s too risky and we compartmentalize our lives sometimes. And maybe it’s because I came to Christianity from atheism, I said to myself, “It’s either true or it’s not and if it’s true, it is the most profound thing that any human being could possibly discover and it deserves every hour of your life for the rest of your life.” So that was how I became a Christian.
Then I graduated and went off and got my first job and I held a variety of jobs in the corporate world. I always tried to take my faith very seriously and tried to live with the slogan on my lips, “What would Jesus do?” and “How should I act in this situation?” My wife and I were faithful tithers of our income and very involved in our church and other ministries. And World Vision actually became our favorite charity because a friend of ours went to work for World Vision as a fundraiser.
Fast forward to 1998, a recruiting firm called and they were doing a search for the next president of World Vision. They had been searching for almost 6 months and spoken with approximately 200 people about the job and were continuing to network and talk to people and try to develop a short list of candidates. Ostensibly, the call was to find out if I knew anybody. All he knew about me was that I was a donor to World Vision. By the end of the call, I told the recruiter that I didn’t know of anyone.
Then he asked, “Well, what about you?” And I laughed and said, “I’m running a luxury goods company, Lennox China. I don’t know anything about fundraising, I have no theological training, and I don’t know anything about international affairs or international development…AND I’m not really interested. I love my job, I love where I live, my kids are in a great Christian school, and I’m not available. For all of those reasons I’m not a good candidate for this job.” And he said, “Well, I’ve talked with 200 people and I’ve never felt like I feel right now…the Holy Spirit is telling me something, I need to meet you.” And I’m thinking, “Does he say this to all the girls?” I told him, “I’m not going to meet you, it’s a waste of your time, this is not going to happen, believe me.” He continued and said, “Please have dinner with me. Let’s just talk a little bit more and we’ll see.” I said, “No.” Then he shifted gears and said, “Let me ask you a different question.” He’s a very smart guy. And he asked, “Are you willing to be open to God’s will for your life?” And I very thoughtfully said, “Well, of course I want to be open to God’s will for my life. How could you be a Christian and not be open to God’s will for you life? I’m pretty sure this is not it, though.” And he said, “Well, let’s find out. Have dinner with me.” I said, “Alright, alright, I’ll have dinner with you but I’m warning you, you’re wasting your time and you’re going to regret it.” About two weeks later, we met for dinner and we talked for about four hours. After the dinner, he said, “I think you see today, now, four hours later, why I believe you are a good candidate for this job and I want you to go through the process, become a candidate on my short list and let’s just see where it goes. If it’s meant to be, it’ll be and if it’s not meant to be, it won’t happen.” Reluctantly, I agreed but was very skeptical.
So I went though the interview process, essay questions and talking with organizational psychologists, and at the end of the day, the board offered me the job. They said, “You’re the one we have chosen.” There were quite a few little signs and fingerprints along the way that I haven’t mentioned but…of course, it left me with a huge decision. Am I going to quit my job that I’ve worked my whole life to acquire? And we had an idyllic life…so I was really torn. How can I chuck it all and come to World Vision? What if it doesn’t work out? What if I get out there and I’m a failure because what do I know about fundraising, development, relief, you know? I don’t know anything about this and I think the board has lost their mind to offer me this job. So, I finally did do it, but I did it really almost out of sheer obedience and I remember that commitment that, “I bet all the chips.” I didn’t keep any chips. I bet them all and this is pretty clearly coming from God and I’ve just got to trust God because if it were up to me and my better judgment, this is career suicide; this is nuts. And yet I take comfort in whom the Lord chose at different places in the Bible, fishermen, tax collectors, David, Moses…God chooses unlikely people with unlikely resumes. And that gave me some encouragement because I had a very unlikely resume; I was the president of a toy company before Lennox.
I’ll share one anecdote that kind of punctuates this. In 1974 when I got engaged to my wife, Renee, she said to me, “In anticipation of our wedding, we need to go register for our china, crystal and silver.” I said, “What are you talking about, ‘register’?” And she explained it and I got very indignant. I was 23 and very idealistic, so I said, “As long as there are children starving in the world, we’re not going to have china, crystal and silver!” I was really kind of the rebel. I’d grown up in the ’60s and the campuses were all on fire for different causes, and here I was a new Christian filled with altruism. So we didn’t register. Well, twenty years later, what are the odds that I am going to become the CEO of the largest china, crystal, and silver company in America, Lennox? But here I am. I didn’t look for it, I didn’t seek it, and I didn’t know anything about china, crystal, and silver. It was just a confluence of events that the Lord led me through and I ended up at Lennox and I rose through the ranks and became the CEO of Lennox. So then the phone rings and it’s World Vision calling, trying to recruit me. It was one of the ways that God talked to me, because what he was saying to me at that moment was, “Rich, do you remember the young man in 1974 who said ‘Over my dead body will I have china, crystal, and silver as long as there are children starving in the world’?” And then the Lord was saying, “Look at you now, take a good look in the mirror. What have you become? You are china, crystal, and silver. You’re the king of china, crystal, and silver. Are you happy with what you’ve become?” That was the message I was hearing. And then I heard him say, “If you still care about those kids that are dying of hunger and other things, I’ve got a job for you to do.”
TOJ: Bridging the realities of human rights atrocities in the third world to the minds and hearts of people in N. America are difficult. How do you translate psychosocial dynamics of intense poverty and the trauma of war to North Americans, and why do you think WV has been so successful in getting people of faith to be, and stay, interested in helping the most vulnerable?
RS: Well, that’s a mouthful! First of all, I think the reality is that most Americans live in an insulated bubble: a very secure and insulated existence where we don’t see, very often, the pain of the world. Most people couldn’t tell you where Darfur is. Most people couldn’t find a lot of these places on the map. And most people don’t really understand what poverty is really like in the developing world, let alone genocide or injustice. It’s so foreign to us living in a wealthy, materialistic country like America. People just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it; people don’t have a frame of reference that they can compare it to and say, “I think I know what that is like.” So, the job of communicating these issues to Americans is not easy because you’re dealing with an audience that is very uninformed and, in many ways, not really interested. Like most people in the world, we are wrapped up in our own lives and the lives of our kids and family. So, how do you penetrate that and get to people?
One of the things we have learned, and you used a lot of big words in your question, is that when you start to talk about “psychosocial” or “issues of justice” and you start to deal with words and phrases like that, eyes glaze over. Americans say, “What are you talkin’ about…I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.” At World Vision, for example, we talk about doing sustainable, holistic, transformational community-based development in a multi-sectoral approach using empowerment of the community. Well, none of that makes any sense to the layman. It’s technical speak about how we do what we do. So, if you are a prospective donor and I start talking about “sustainable, transformation, holistic principles, and community empowerment”…it’s not very compelling.
If I show you a picture of a little girl and say, “This little girl is 4 years old, she lives in Honduras, her father is dead, and her mother is poor. Would you be willing to sponsor her so that she can go to school; so that she has food to eat; so that we can bring clean water to her community; so that she can get a health checkup every year and get inoculated against diseases?” You’d say, “Hey, I could do that.” We put a face on poverty. We put a face on injustice. And the miracle of child sponsorship is that it takes these very complex, human deprivations that we see around the world and it boils it down to a very low common denominator, “what if this was your daughter?” Would you be willing to help her, just one child? You know, you can’t do the whole thing. You’re not going to capture Joseph Kony. You’re not going to eliminate all the injustice in the world. But you can help this little girl.
I think when Americans deal with poverty, it is so overwhelming, it seems like such a lost cause, it’s so daunting that they shy away from it. But then you talk about sponsorship and what they can achieve and that it is possible for me to actually change the life of that little girl. She is one of my sponsor children. In fact, I met her in Honduras. She is 10 years old now. So, our communication strategy is very simple — make these things human and real…put a face on them.
When we tackle the AIDS pandemic, some people did the research here and they said, “Not only can we not raise money for AIDS, but if we go out talking about AIDS, we’re going to start losing donors [in the evangelical American community] who don’t want to talk about AIDS. They think AIDS is a gay disease. They think people who have AIDS deserve what they got, and they’re not willing to help. Our research proves it.” What I heard is, “That dog won’t hunt.” Basically, I took the position of, “I’m not here to tell people what they want to hear. I’m here to change their minds about the facts. And if AIDS is the greatest humanitarian crisis stalking our globe today, and it is affecting children, it’s affecting communities, then World Vision has got to do something about it. And if our donors aren’t there yet, we’ve got to lead them.”
So I said, “Instead of saying that we shouldn’t do it, tell me how we can do it.” So we did more research and we found that what people responded to is widows and orphans in their distress. Don’t talk about AIDS, don’t talk about sexual behavior, don’t talk about promiscuity, don’t talk about a sexually transmitted disease — talk about 15 million children that have lost their parents to AIDS, and talk about who is going to care for them, who is going to be a safety net for those kids so that they can stay in school and have food to eat? Talk about the widows that were left behind when their husbands died, who were infected by their husbands and now they’re HIV positive and their only question is, “Who is going to take care of my kids when I die?” We found that people would respond to that, and that they could understand that AIDS was a lot more than sexual promiscuity or a gay lifestyle when they realized that innocent children are being affected; faithful women who contracted it from their husbands are affected. They started to change their attitudes about AIDS. And once we got in the tent, once we got under the radar, we could start talking about the young men that contracted AIDS maybe because of an extramarital relationship.
Sometimes I talk to people and say, “I’ve got children in their 20’s. Do I want them to be sexually active before marriage? NO. But if they are, do I want them to get the death penalty? NO. I think that the death penalty is a little severe for an indiscretion that somebody has when they are 22 years old. So, does anybody want their son or daughter to die because they made a mistake? NO. So why do we want other people’s sons and daughters to die because they made a mistake? We try to use the best techniques of communication and marketing in the world to help people understand and to break through attitudes and clutter and everything else. You know, I think we do a pretty good job compared to a lot of organizations. We’re a pretty sophisticated communications organization, but we have to be because this is not always a popular cause, to fight for the poor.
TOJ: So it sounds like part of it is just trying to reframe for people the realities of this world, to make it personable…
RS: …make it personal, help them to see it from a different angle and, as a Christian organization, help them understand through a biblical frame of reference. “Last time I read my Bible, Christ went out of his way to touch a leper who was unclean, who was considered sinful.” Christ was always associated with the poor. Are we to do any less as Christians? It really helps to be a Christian organization, because you can really appeal to those higher values that we know are there.
TOJ: And I’m also wondering about, in the same way that the guy from the recruiting firm was able to reframe for you the question, “Are you open and willing for God to use you?” I wonder if that is a part of this…asking someone, “Are you willing to be used by God because here is a way that you can be used?”
RS: Sure. One of our goals is to raise a lot of money to help kids. But we talk about donor transformation as well, because we think a very important part of our mission as an organization, is to take the donors on a “journey.” Here is a person that doesn’t know anything about poverty, doesn’t know anything about the developing world, and doesn’t really care much about AIDS and these issues. But, they sponsor a child. We convince them to sponsor a child. Well, we’re not satisfied with that. We want that donor, five years later, to be able to articulate more about poverty, about justice, about AIDS, about their biblical responsibility for the poor, so that they’re growing as Christians in the expression of their faith and their faith is becoming fuller and more whole. And hopefully, ideally, they become advocates themselves. Sometimes I’ll tell a group, “You know, I’m the ultimate poster child for donor transformation! I started as a child sponsor and a donor to World Vision, and now I’m its president!” Obviously, I was on a journey there that led me to have a greater and deeper understanding of poverty and my responsibilities as a Christian, culminating in the fact that I quit my job and came to World Vision to be a leader here. Now I don’t expect everyone to do that, but maybe you go from sponsoring one child to sponsoring several. Maybe you start exhorting your church to get more involved with the AIDS pandemic. Maybe you write a letter to your member of Congress because you read an article in World Vision magazine or you got an email asking you to contact your congressman about northern Uganda. So you start to become an activist. You become part of that social justice movement.
TOJ: This issue, we are looking at issues of gender and sexuality, and as you are familiar with issues of injustice when it comes to women and children, could you talk a bit about how WV’s fight against child sex tourism is shaping up, particularly its partnership with the US State Dept. and commitment to being a watchdog for international standards of prosecution?
RS: Well, that was another one, when we got involved, where the initial reaction of World Vision was, “What are we doing taking a G-rated ministry into an R-rated issue like pedophilia and sex tourism?” And again, we decided to tackle it because — even though it’s ugly, it’s not fun to talk about, and it’s revolting to a lot of people — it’s reality and it’s affecting children around the world, girls in particular but boys also. And a lot of the perpetrators are Americans, Europeans, Australians, and Japanese…so it’s the wealthy world going to the developing world to act out their fantasies where they think they’re not going to get caught. “I better not mess around right here in Seattle, because if I get caught, it’s going to be pretty serious; but if I make a trip to Cambodia, who’s going to know?”
Well, as you probably know, U.S. laws have been tightened up in the past few years so that it’s now possible to prosecute in the United States for committing a sex crime in Cambodia. And, because of where we work and the fact that we’re at the grass roots, we tend to see the reality of this. We work with street kids and we see the girls that are living in brothels or they’ve come out of brothels. We see the brothel owners offering children for sale. We see these perpetrators coming into rural communities and offering jobs in the city as housekeepers to the young girls under false pretense. And of course, when they get to the city they are kept as sex slaves and they are forced into sex work and their families never see them again. We are witnesses to the fact that this is real and is really happening around the world.
So we had an opportunity through some government grants to develop a program of awareness raising in the United States. We’ve done some billboards. We’ve done some adds on United Airlines and a couple of other airlines. We’ve been on CNN Airport Edition where basically we run these 30 to 60-second commercials that say, “Commit a crime in another country, go to jail in the US.” And we’ll show a little girl and the tagline is “I am not a tourist attraction.” We’re trying to raise awareness of this problem and put potential offenders on notice that they will go to jail, and that the United States government and international community are watching, and if you’re caught doing this, you’re going to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And that is starting to happen in the US; there have been some cases. So on the prevention side, we’re trying to raise awareness, and we’re trying to target international flights where we put the commercial on.
TOJ: While they are flying?
RS: While they are flying, they are seeing these commercials. And then when you leave the Phnom Penh airport, there is a big billboard that says, “You will be prosecuted” and shows a man behind bars. And we’ve got more billboards in Phnom Penh, and we’re doing this now in another four or five countries. You know, one of the things to understand is that some of the sex tourists are hardcore pedophiles and a TV commercial is not going to deter them. And actually, we believe that maybe a larger number of them are businessmen that aren’t going to Thailand with the idea of having sex with a minor. But when they get there, and in a business context, one of the vendors they work with says, “Hey do you want to have a good time tonight? “They might end up at a brothel with a 14-year-old girl. And we’re trying to say to them, “Don’t even think about it, because you’ll go to jail. This is a serious crime.” We’re hoping that someone like that will come to their senses and say, “Wow, I didn’t realize that.” Then when they are offered this opportunity, they might say, “Oh, I don’t think so tonight…I’m going to watch CSI back at the hotel.”
On the larger subject of gender, one of the things I’ve learned is that a significant causal element of poverty is the gender inequality issue — the fact that girls don’t go to school, the fact that women don’t have any rights. Sometimes when I talk to a group I’ll say, “What if you had a team and you had to go out on the field and compete but you left half your team on the bench. The other teams have their whole team on the field. Do you think you’d win?” Well, you’re not going to win with half your team on the bench. Many countries are leaving half their teams on the bench when they don’t allow their women to fulfill their potential, to participate fully in society, to be educated, and to have rights. There have been all kinds of studies done by people in more technical backgrounds that show direct linkages between defeating poverty and educating women. If you educate women and give them a voice in society, there is a direct correlation with poverty alleviation and eradication. There is a correlation with the number of children a family has. Educated woman will have fewer children than uneducated women. So, when you talk about population explosion and too many children to support in the family, ironically, education of women will result in smaller family sizes as they have more confidence, as they learn that they can make some decisions about their sexuality, and as they learn about birth control and some things that they can do to manage that.
There is also the notion that when you teach women things about health care, it is passed down from generation to generation because women are very social and they will teach their daughters and granddaughters what they’ve learned about health and about nutrition; whereas men are less likely to do so. In all of our micro-loan programs, the women always repay at a higher rate than men. They’re more responsible than men. Some men are more likely to take a loan and go get drunk. Women are more likely to invest it in a way that helps the whole family. So you get into all of this and you realize, the real problem with the world is the men. I hate to say that, but if you go to a lot of communities, most of the men are drunk, they’re abusing women and girls, they’re not working as hard as they should be, they’re irresponsible with money…I’m stereotyping, obviously all men aren’t like that.
Somehow when women start to have rights and women start to become equal, they make men better men. They now have the power to make their men better men and make their society stronger. So, we really work on gender issues in all of our programming. When we go into a community and say, “We want to talk with your leaders,” and there are no women there, we say, “Well, this doesn’t work for us. We need to work with men and women in the village.” We try to respect certain cultural taboos, but we let the men know that there has got to be leaders among the women. There may not be women in leadership over men, but there has got to be women who are leaders of women in the community and we want to talk with them because they are involved with the children and education and other things. So we try to model and get them to model different behavior with gender rights. We teach teenagers, so we’ll teach young girls that they have the right to control their own bodies and to make decisions and they don’t have to have sex with an older man just because he demands it — and that there are things they can do, there are things they can say, there are ways for them to avoid that. They don’t have to get married when they’re 12 and there are ways to avoid that and we teach them life skills negotiation, we equip them to navigate through these situations.
At the same time, we are teaching the boys that girls are equal, they are to be respected, and that you should never force yourself on a girl. We teach these things to the young people so that at least the next generation is playing with a different set of rules. And yet, you have to be culturally sensitive in many countries. So, gender is critical.