“She’s not for sale."
It’s been three days since that sentence was spoken, but I have repeated these words over and over in my head ever since.
I tell this story in order to fight for the young girl who spoke them.
These words were uttered on our weekly outreach walk in a red light district. The speaker was a young girl, Ai Li*. Ai Li’s makeup and scantily clad clothes looked older than she did with her tiny frame and young features unable to support the clothes’ facade. She told me she had come looking for work from a village hundreds of miles away.
This particular brothel’s décor was nicer than the others on the road. The room was clean with a winding white and gold staircase leading to the upstairs rooms. A crystal light fixture hung from the ceiling and this, combined with the pink bulbs fitted around the walls created a soft pink glow. It was just after 6 pm when we arrived and men in suits with briefcases entered casually into the lustrous room, as if it was just another part of their daily commute home. Perhaps it was. The women were on a 15 minute rotatory schedule for door duty. Ai Li’s role was to lure passer-bys into the shop and lock the door after each person entered or exited. While watching, I could not decide if the door locking was an act of safety or imprisonment.
As each customer entered, the lead girl on the couch would repeat a rehearsed greeting, ‘Welcome, welcome, take a look and pick a girl, rate is $22’. Conversations would pause and the mascaraed eyes on the couch would look up, willing his gaze to stop at her. The soft buzz of the heater was the only noise in the otherwise silent room. A single hand motion would break the silence. A woman would rise off the couch and lead the man up the knowing stairs. The room would erupt again with the rustling of magazines and ringing phones.
I was lost in contemplative thought when I realized the room had fell silent again, but this time the silence felt different. I looked up to see this particular man’s gaze resting on me. I was used to this. These men do not expect to see fully clothed foreign women sitting alongside the women and my presence always throws them. Usually, in other shops, if a customer’s gaze had lingered on me a little too long, the boss will clarify our presence as visiting friends. But on this particular night, the boss had not yet noticed and a different voice rung through the room.
“She’s not for sale” was uttered by Ai Li - the tiny, trafficked girl next to me. How I wished, in that moment, that the man could understand that the ‘she’ should be ‘women’.
I tell you Ai Li’s statement in the hope that it will penetrate our society so much that her customers will recognize the injustice. I hope and pray it reaches all fathers, husbands and sons, wives, mothers and daughters so we will become a generation that stands together, understanding how valuable a young girl is and therefore able to state,
“She’s not for sale!”.
*Names changed to protect identity.