January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month. The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York joined 29 Jewish organizations around the country to issue a statement of guiding values on ending human trafficking—also known as modern-day slavery—throughout the U.S. and abroad.
For the final eight days of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month we invite you to read our series of blog posts highlighting each of the Jewish values included in the statement and how they motivate us to work toward the end of slavery and human trafficking.
Value 2: Every human being has the right to make their own decision about their body, life, and future.
Bodily autonomy and self-determination are sacred. No one should be forced to work or engage in a sex act against their will. Survivors of human trafficking should not be penalized for decisions they made that resulted in them falling prey to traffickers.
by Miriam Libove
“Don’t forget to kiss Aunt Gertrude.” How many of us grew up with well-intentioned instructions like these when leaving family gatherings? These innocuous-sounding directions were meant to teach us social skills and politeness. While they were given with the best of motives – you wouldn’t want to offend dear Aunt Gertrude – they also served the unfortunate function of disempowering young people.
By telling children that they are required to show affection physically, they learn that what they do with their bodies is not up to them. This is further reinforced when children have their cheeks pinched in the name of “cuteness,” or are the recipients of other uninvited touches from strangers.
While these actions are seemingly innocent, they send the message that children do not have the right to decline physical contact. This can have potentially dangerous consequences as youngsters, especially girls, start to grow up. If they are taught to be passive as children, how are they to have the ability to assert themselves or defend themselves against unwanted advances as adults?
When I became a parent, I made a deliberate decision to teach a different lesson. My daughter came home from kindergarten one day with a book about “good touches” and “bad touches,” and I embraced (pun intended) the subject. When she started repeating phrases she had learned in school like, “my body belongs to me,” (which is also the title of a powerful book by Jill Starishevsky) I encouraged this line of thinking. It was important to me that she learn to be an agent of her own body, so I refrained from directing her to kiss relatives at family gatherings if her inclination was to be more reserved.
The decision to let her make choices about how she received expressions of affection was sometimes challenging. As a mother, it is natural to want to hold your child when she is upset. Nevertheless, I was committed to respecting her boundaries, so I made a point of asking if she wanted a hug first. Sometimes the answer disappointingly was “no,” but when it was “yes,” I had the satisfaction of knowing that she genuinely welcomed the contact. More importantly, I had the security of knowing that she had developed the skills to discern who she wanted to let in, and how to manage her personal space.
As we consider the Jewish Statement of Values presented by the Jewish Coalition Against Trafficking, it is important to ask ourselves if we are truly empowering our daughters to say, as my kindergartener did, “my body belongs to me.”
For information on Jill Starishevsky’s book, visit http://www.mybodybelongstome.com/book/.