The real superheroes

Natalie Stackhouse

Inside us all is strong desire for justice. We can live unaware of this until injustice disrupts our plans and threatens our control. Someone blatantly cuts in the queue, our child is bullied at school, someone we love is wronged, innocent people are massacred in a shooting or terrorist attack. When things are not what they should be, when the innocent are hurt, we demand justice, we need to know that wrongs will be made right.

It’s what draws us to Hollywood superhero movies.

On a physiological level, if the injustice is felt personally, our bodies enter fight or flight mode. If we are powerless to do anything or have felt powerless from past trauma, we may flee the pain by shutting down. The opposite reaction is the fight mode which makes us feel angry and want to act. We can act swiftly and powerfully or with strategic calculation. Our indignation can turn to revenge that is counterproductive and creates a new injustice.

IJM’s mission is to protect the poor from violence. We seek justice for those who have been exploited and oppressed. Our work involves rescuing people from slavery and bringing their oppressors to justice.

But 99% of our work isn’t the heroic moment of rescue. It isn’t westerners coming in with capes or badges. It is local partnerships with local people. Or as one of my colleagues said, “it’s 10,000 cups of tea over 15 years” to build trust and allies in governments and justice systems which can change to protect the poor.

I was in Manila recently to learn about IJM’s work protecting children from cybersex trafficking (also known as OSEC – Online Sexual Exploitation of Children). More than 50% being rescued are under 12 years old, some as young as a few months old. They are forced, often by a relative or neighbour, to abuse each other and be abused in front of a camera for a paedophile (in Australia, the US, and other Western countries) who pays for this live-streaming “show”.

It is horrific what investigators must sift through to find these children. There is a lioness in me that rises in anger to fight for these children.

During the week I was in Manila, I felt both the “fight” and the “flight” of this desire for justice. There were moments I was completely overwhelmed by and paralysed at how complicated the problems are: a history of foreign oppression and exploitation, traditions and systems which seem antiquated and inefficient, population and infrastructure pressures, a massive gap between the rich and the very poor who live side by side.

But when I distilled it down, and thought of these beautiful children whose bodies are used for profit when they deserve to be safe, my “fight” was awakened. I was looking for a hero; a Wonder Woman or Black Panther to fix things quickly so that no more children will have to be exploited.

But instead of heroes with a superpower, the heroes I met had strong hearts, pragmatic minds, strategic plans, calloused knees and a hopeful vision of what can be if they continue to do good and do not give up (Galatians 6:9).

These were the heroes I met:

  • Lawyers who are slowly transforming the justice system by pioneering widespread acceptance of plea bargaining. They are strategically planning the right case to set a precedent for the use of video evidence. This is so that young survivors will not have to recall their abuse in court over a period of months and years but rather have their stories that were recorded hours after their rescue stand up in court as evidence.
  • Investigators who are mentoring and supporting their police counterparts whose jobs require them to see things that no one should have to see and pretend to be someone they are not. These investigators never partake in the rescues as they have to conceal their identity at all times. The personal toll is unimaginable.
  • Policemen and policewomen who are on the front line of every investigation, rescue and arrest. They are consistently under-resourced to deal with the thousands of trafficking and abuse reports that come through monthly yet they are proud to be doing more each year with IJM’s partnership increasing their capacity. We were honoured and welcomed as fellow “warriors” in the fight for the children of the Philippines.
  • Social workers who are the “angels” who attend the rescues and care for the survivors. They bring transformation by presenting training around the country on trauma-informed care, so that government social workers understand the unique complexities of cybersex trafficking.
  • Young women leaders and entrepreneurs who advocate for, mentor and educate children using puppet shows to teach kids about cybersex trafficking in schools and neighbourhood centres. Their strength, wisdom and empathy is fuelled by their own stories of survival from commercial sex trafficking.

These heroes don’t operate alone – they depend on each other. They bear scars from lost battles and shed tears from caring about those who haven’t been rescued. They don’t “fix” and “win” everything, they serve faithfully, look for opportunities, pray for miracles and celebrate small victories.

Their sacrifice is mental, emotional and physical. It often involves hours of mundane “waiting” to get somewhere. I met an IJM social worker who has a 6-hour commute each day to get to the office (most have 3-4 hours). I met many who have moved from beautiful regional areas to work in the chaotic Manila region of 21 million people (the most densely populated city on earth at 43,000 people per square km).

Yes, they know that things are not what they should be. Their glasses are not rose-coloured. They know there is no quick fix in seeking justice

Seeking justice is more like the Biblical analogy of a river: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24). A river is powerful, but it does not cut through land and rock to create something as beautiful as the Grand Canyon quickly. It can run fast or slow but its power to cut rock comes from being relentless.

May we too be relentless in our pursuit and partnership for justice.

Natalie Stackhouse is IJM Australia’s Strategic Partnership Manager. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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