Speech to the United Nations General Assembly

Your Excellencies and Distinguished Guests,

Good Morning. You know, I was just thinking: We’ve only seen one another in the movies. You’ve seen me in films, and I’ve only ever seen this room in them!

I am very delighted and honored to be here. I am feeling a little fear, healthy fear, which my grandmother has taught is my Higher Power’s way of shaking the truth out of me.

I am Ashley Judd and amongst other things, I am an actor. I have appeared in scores of films and on Broadway. I would understand if you might if might be wondering right now, How dare she imagine she has something to contribute to the urgent, charged debate about the scourge of modern slavery, of human trafficking?”

Actually, I believe wholeheartedly the real question is, “How dare I not?” How dare I not stand before you with all the earnestness at my command and witness to you what I have seen? In my capacity as a board member for Population Services International, and Global Ambassador YouthAIDs, our HIV/AIDS prevention programs and our child survival programs, Five and Alive, I have traveled to 12 developing countries and experienced viscerally the insidious enmeshment between poverty, illness, and gender inequality, and how that triad sets up the exquisite pain and degradation that is sex and labor slavery. I have seen the poor and the vulnerable, the disempowered and the exploited. And when orphans in Mumbai slums begged me to take them back home to America with me, when I sat in mediation with monks in Thailand surrounded by the cremated remains of HIV victims, remains which were rejected by their families due to stigma, when I, a rich, white woman of the Global North walked scott free out of brothels in Kenya, Madagascar, El Salvador, Guatemala, Cambodia, and the Dem Republic of Congo, when I have danced at youth drop in centers world wide with beautiful, vulnerable children, knowing the funding for these life saving yet simple facilities was inadequate, putting those children but a few precarious steps away from sex and labor slavery. I have made one keening vow: I will never forget you, and I will tell your stories. I will tell your stories. I will tell your stories.

To quote the effervescent light that is Marianne Williamson, “My greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that I are powerful beyond measure.” Ms Williamson adds, “We are, all of us, not just some of us, children of God, and our playing small does not serve the world.” So I am here at the United Nations because when it comes to human dignity and rights, I refuse to play small and I am going to tell you those stories. How dare I not.

I believe with all my soul that the art of compassionate witnessing is at the core of global change and peace building. When we listen attentively and caringly, our simple empathy is extended and transformed into a fiery, responsible compassion which demands that we respond urgently to the plight of others. Therefore, the narratives of the unloved, the disposed, the hidden, the silenced, are keys to peace. The more we hear them, the more motivated we are to heal them and the social systems that victimized them in the first place.

When I go to see P.S.I.’s health work in a slum, a brothel, a ruined public hospital or an overburdened, inadequately supplied rural health clinic, I long to connect with individuals. I seek out the personal, the private. I am always humbled and awed at the trust these magnificent strangers have in me, their utter willingness to share their most intimate stories and pain with me. As I listen, I hear the truth of woundedness. I listen to life stories in which the blood of history does not dry. And I know this organic process of being heard helps them. I know my keen listening helps me. Today my ardent hope and prayer is that my bringing you into this sacred circle of sharing helps you help them.

Your help should be manifested, as you in your own words say, as Prevention, Protection, and Prosecution, and the three “P’s” must become the norm in national legislations and policies world wide. They can only be achieved with a balanced, holistic approach: a willing and thorough collaboration between governments, institutions, foundations, non governmental organizations, faith based organizations, and very importantly, grassroots organizations, which have such intimacy and effectiveness in the field. Political will must accelerate. Funding for proven programs must increase. And “normal” citizens must be sensitized to care and to act.

What does this help, prevention, protection, and prosecution look like on the ground, in Kigali or Laos or Managua? It is nothing short of the legal, economic, educational, and social equality of girls and women. Gender equality must absolutely be made a driving priority at all levels, for it is the contaminated root of human trafficking and all social ills will be vastly ameliorated with gender equality. If we were we not sexually objectified, the demand side of trafficking would reduce, and there would be no money it. Had we education and employment, we would not out of lethal innocence be tricked and lured by pimps and traffickers. Were we not relentlessly, desperately poor, a poverty so often exacerbated by disease for which we have neither prevention nor treatment, such as malaria, TB, diarrheal disease, HIV, STI’s we would not succumb to transactional, cross generational sex, or full blown sex work, out of the primal urge to stay alive and feed our babies. If we could choose when we marry, who we marry, and regulate our fertility, space our birth, we could break the subversive cycle of staying punished and trapped for our merely being women. If we earned a fair wage for fair work, work we went to school to do, we would not be labor slaves. If we had land rights, we wouldn’t be turned out of our homes and left to starve when our husbands die. And if courts and societies gave a damn, our traffickers would be deterred by effective laws and sentencing.

I know a little girl in Cambodia. Her family, very poor, sold her to a nice enough seeming stranger who said he’d give the girl work in Phnom Pem and send the destitute parents home a share regularly. When the parents accidentally discovered their child was actually being sold for sex, and that her new “Uncle” was earning a lot more than he had said he would be, they sued him for a higher share of their baby girl’s earnings.

I know an HIV+ man in Svay Pak. I sat with him while he burrowed his crazily scared face in my lap and wept. He is a sex slave, and he got those scars when his first rapist raped him while having a dog maul his face.

I know a women whose friend told her she could procure her decent paying work at a garment factory. Instead, her equally desperate friend sold her to a man who kept her in a hotel room for a week and raped her twice daily. At the end of this unbearable ordeal, her rapist sold her to a brothel were she was ordered to have sex to repay what he had spent on her virginity. Then, the Madame detained her to earn back her expenses. If this economics doesn’t make any sense to you, it shouldn’t. It is indentured servitude and it is astonishingly common.

I know a woman in Pattaya, Thailand. We sat in a bar brothel with her co workers, holding hands, huddled close. My friend and protector Papa Jack filled the door, keeping men seeking prostituted sex out so we could talk. The Madame circled us nosily, snoopervising what the women shared with me. My Farm Friend, as I lovingly call her, had left her young son alone at home with 10 days worth of food. She came to this beach town, having heard she might find work as a cleaning lady in the tourist motels. She found none. Counting down, one harrowing day after another, her son’s meager supply of food, she ended up in this hellhole having paid sex to feed him and herself. After 10 days when she could no longer stand it, she went home to her son with a little bit of money in her pocket. But that money soon ran out, and this cycle repeated itself. The night I sat with her was her first night back in this brothel. When I let for of her hand momentarily, she held on to the seam of pants. She still smelled like grass and something clean. She wasn’t dead inside yet. Yet.

I know a woman in a brothel in Madagascar, who, when I asked her how she ended up here, like this, exhaustedly closed her eyes and dismissively waved her hand. “Same ole, same ole,” she said. Abandoned by her husband, considered used goods by society, illiterate, trying to feed 6 children. Same ole, same ole. When the pimp came, what other choice did she have, really?

I know a beautiful woman, literate and bright. She lives in a 3 room apartment with 8 other sex workers, some as young as 11. It’s not overcrowded, though, as they are rarely all home at the same time. There is so much work. They never know when their anonymous pimp will phone, sending them to the city’s posh hotels to service wealthy international clients. I choked. Have you been to the Taj I asked? Oh yes, she said, smiling, “I go to the Taj all the time.” Her only escape in life is teaching the young ones in the apartment to read. I was baffled that she doesn’t just walk to the police station, or manage to squirrel away a little of the money to buy a ticket to go far away. Her answers showed me the profound ignorance and bias of my western questions.

I know a woman in Kinshasa. I met her in a heartbreaking brothel with nothing I cannot even begin to describe. I do not know her name. She is deaf and mute.

I know a young teen named Nasreen. She lives in an indescribable, dark rabbit warren of a slum. I sat with her HIV+ mother and her in their hovel, admiring the housekeeping they had done to welcome me: they had lined their decrepit, rickety walls with newspaper. This tender, precious little girl sat, shyly snuggled into me. I could feel the yearning for nurturing, for health touch, in her undernourished frame. I told her: you are beautiful, you are smart, you are special, you are worthy, the world is a better place because you are in it. Your body is sacred and you have the right to be autonomous with the God of your understanding. I cried like a child myself when I left her, haunted not so much by her past, but by the prospect of her future. Nasreen is exactly the type of child who gets trafficked. Perhaps it will be a poor neighbor trying to raise a dowry for a marriageable daughter who snatches her to sell her to a trolling pimp. Perhaps it will be traffickers who stake out the rail stations who abduct her. In fact, when I worked with Anubhav in Dehli, they said they have never once in their history rescued a girl from the rail stations in India. They have only been able to help boys, as the traffickers beat them to the girls, every time. Perhaps a prostituted sex worker who has moved into a madame position will through the elaborate systems of contacts between buyers and sellers lure her into a brothel on Faulkand Road.

I know a Nepalese woman who had a few drinks one night with some intriguing new friends. When she woke up, she was Karza in India, a trapped, level one sex worker, kept in a small, squalid room behind a chained door for 3 years. Her only movement outside the room was to use the rudimentary latrine at the end of the hall.

I know children born in that brothel, whom I watched as they burrowed in inconceivably cramped places, hiding under beds where their mothers are subjected to the most degraded life. I saw them play on the dangerous rooftop of a building that in the U.S. would be a condemned site, briefly escaping the horror and sounds of brothel life. Some wrote their names on pieces of paper for me. I smiled widely, I hugged them each dearly, I played with them, marveling at, as always, children’s impossible resilience, and then I rushed to my hotel and one by one laid those piece of paper out on the floor, sobbing. Children are the collateral damage of human trafficking.

I know a man in Dharavi who came there from his distant rural village, looking for a life of improvement. Instead, he found Asia’s largest slum. He lives with 3 other men in a 20 by 20 room where they embroider fabric in a slave labor galley. Squatting, he showed me his work with great gentleness. In a survival adaption that was heartbreaking to me, he takes great pride in his work. “I like to think about sending something beautiful out into the world,” he said. A world he will never see. He showed me how they do their living in the small space, where they lie on the floor to sleep, where they cook with a kerosene fire, where they look in sliver of jagged mirror to shave with water they carry in from far away. In front of the mirror, my eye caught his. I was standing behind him. I put my hands on his shoulders and said, “You know what, Mohammad? When I see you, I see a precious child of God. “So do I,” he said.

And that, in fact, is what each of these people are, what each of us in this room is: beings of infinite value and worth. I do not wish at this stage to lose your interest or respect on the basis of religion, for that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about universal spiritual principles, applicable to all, whatever their personal creed. Because it is my experience that this work in human trafficking and poverty reduction cannot be sustained without a faith that works under all conditions, it is simply too painful. It is too shattering. So to stay engaged, to stay motivated, to maintain that compassionate urgency, we must believe with all our might that every human life is of inestimable worth and that when we save one of these, we save the whole world. If you don’t believe me, go read the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

Through but a miniscule sampling of personal stories, I have presented you a brief outline of the problem. And, I have been taught it is abusive to highlight a problem without also highlighting the solution. I have hinted at the spiritual solution and at the panels this morning and afternoon, you will hear from empowered experts about their experience, strength and hope in the field. I urge you from the bottom of my heart to listen and to listen well. Listen, for example, to the indomitable Ruchira Gupta. A woman who managed the exceedingly difficult undertaking of escaping a brothel found Ms Gupta and her anti trafficking ngo, Apne Aap: This woman needed help getting out her 9 year old daughter, born in the brothel and already put to work in sex. Ms Gupta pulled off a successful raid, with the unlikely assistance of local police, only to have a judge put the little girl in a truant home, deem the mother unfit due to her loose morals, and declare the pimp the girl’s father. Ms Gupta used all her smarts and resources to reverse this abomination. Thanks to Apne Aap’s dedication and brilliance, mother and child are reunited and safe, although somewhat sequestered due to their high risk of being re trafficked. Hear the success stories, study how they succeeded, and share best practices, and measurably reverse human trafficking of all types until at last, finally, this obscenity ends. How dare you not.

Thank you so very much for providing me this extraordinary opportunity to continue to manifest my ongoing sacred promise to the people I have met via Population Services International: I will never forget you, and I will tell your story. I will reach out people of influence, people who really can help change the world. For reasons I cannot begin to fathom, my brothers and sisters in developing countries were disproportionately given no voice, although they are many, yet I was given a large one, although I am but one. Today I use my voice to bring you their muted ones with the urgency of a life or death errand; and may we ache always for the poor who have never had a visitor such as I, who suffer and die in loneliness, unheard, unloved by a world otherwise teeming with abundance and excess.

May we use our abundance for the good of all beings everywhere. You are the United Nations….How dare you not.

Thank you for the honor of being here. May there be peace.