05/21/2013 02:19 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2013

The Subaltern Can Speak for Themselves

By: Laura Odenthal

The images of red light districts are burned into the collective mind: seedy, dark, unsavory places where people go to do unsavory things with filthy women. In India, specifically, poor, minority, and low caste girls are vulnerable to being forced into sex trafficking.

Subsequently, when people from the first world look at the third world, it seems that we never bother to imagine who these women are, what they want for themselves and what actions they are taking to obtain it. Indian literary theorist and philosopher Gayatri Spivak maintains that the most marginalized populations, if given the opportunity and the appropriate forums "can speak and know their conditions."

Spivak argues that we must let the "subaltern" speak when investigating problems in other cultures and let them be heard in the corridors of policymakers. The "subaltern" are individuals who may be viewed by society as inferior and powerless. I began seriously thinking about Spivak's thesis after returning from a field intensive in India. Two weeks working alongside Apne Aap, an NGO leading a grassroots movement to end sex trafficking, inspired me to explore if the "subaltern" can help to engender real social change.

In much the same vein as Spivak, I contend that we must not underestimate the power of the seemingly voiceless people. Moreover, we must analyze the resistance strategies that women use to carve out a place for themselves in the public sphere. Indian women know how to best serve their local community, and can more accurately target girls susceptible to sex trafficking and create or administer holistic and preventative programs.

My time in India gave me a glimpse of what it looks like when international organizations and policymakers do not identify the positions, interests, and needs of the women they purportedly serve. Therefore, it is necessary to analyze bottom - up strategies used by different organizations for the empowerment of Indian women to identify approaches that are most effective. The most effective strategies are those that empower and acknowledge Indian women's intersecting identities and vulnerabilities.

As Ruchira Gupta explains in India: Breaking the Supply Chain of Human Beings, "We envision a world where every woman and girl can realize her full human and social potential." During my visit to Kolkata, we sat in circles with survivors of sex trafficking. We spoke about their interests, families and played games with their children. Indeed, at this time it became clear that the victim narrative associated with marginalized women is changing. These women were not letting their vulnerabilities interfere with their ability to mobilize or waiting for anyone to come "save them." Despite the terrible circumstances in which many of these women are forced to live in, they still want to make a way for themselves in the world.

While sitting in circles, some of the women described their economic undertaking to each deposit 30 rupees a month to put towards collective projects. These communal projects included building businesses such as a laundry service and a restaurant. In areas where girls tend to lack alternative options, the implementation of educational and vocational programs can regionally eliminate the seeds of sex trafficking before this scourge has a chance to grow.

Nupur Srivastava, Apne Aap staff member, believes economic empowerment will help sex trafficking victims to liberate themselves from the social prison. Educational and vocational programs strive to dispel traditional gender stereotypes that constrain women to the home. Abandoning these stereotypes will help women to gain a voice within their families and communities. The women will then work in self -empowerment groups. Understanding that they are not alone bolsters their confidence and trust and subsequently helps further community development. Srivastava maintains, "Side by side, attitudinal change workshops should be conducted for the women, so they remain motivated to keep fighting."

As a Westerner and practitioner in this field, I think it is necessary to recognize that the subaltern can speak for themselves by exercising agency, shaping their own identities, and motivating action in others. Beneath the image of the woman in the dark, seedy red light district, there is also a woman capable of self-empowerment.

When the first world looks into the developing world, all too often we believe we must lift these marginalized populations out of the gutter and into a "better" situation. While this may be the narrative that Westerners are comfortable with, this belief must be set aside. All this evidence points to the strong need to ask how we can help marginalized populations to achieve self-empowerment. The first step towards this goal is understanding that societal change must emanate from the marginalized populations, and be supported by those willing to help like NGOS such as Apne Aap.

Help Apne Aap in the Raise for Women Challenge. Donate here.

Laura Odenthal is a graduate student at New York University's Center for Global Affairs. In January of 2013, she traveled with a group of students to Delhi and Kolkata for a course taught by Apne Aap founder, Ruchira Gupta, entitled "Movement building around sex trafficking."