Interview a traveler: The Fulbright scholar in Dhaka

She's sailed around the world's circumference and traveled alone across the Subcontinent of India. Passion fuels her global pursuits, and today she's investigating women's rights and human sex trafficking in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Let's check her out.

Amanda boat

Amanda Ferrandino was a fellow student on the Spring '07 voyage of Semester at Sea who has been doing amazing things ever since the final disembarkation. This series of Interview a Traveler continues to give kudos where they are fellow travelers doing some very cool things.

A little spooked...

A little spooked...

Her Bio: Sup, traveling dogs! I'm Amanda, guilty of being from Long Island but a NYC girl at heart. I think the best way to bond with people is through dancing. I studied abroad with Lindsay on Semester at Sea Spring '07 then studied abroad in Kolkata, India with IPSL while working in a shelter for survivors of sexual violence.

In May '09, I finished my Bachelors in Anthropology/Sociology and Women & Gender Studies from Pace University in NYC and currently living in capital of Bangladesh on a Fulbright Scholarship studying the independence of women after sexual violence.

"Moon River" is my favorite song. I shaved my head on Semester at Sea. I could live off of trail mix, and I have a slightly odd fear of peacocks.

Amanda meditating

Have you always been very globally-minded, or was there a life experience that got you thinking and caring beyond American borders?

I never was globally-minded as a youngin'; Long Island was a safe little bubble that didn't need to burst. But my high school teachers led a trip to Italy my senior year in '05 - first time I left the country. I remember sitting in St. Anthony's Basilica in Padua, staring up at the endless ceiling, crying with a good friend, realizing that we didn't know who we were. A little existential, I know, but from then on, I keep running to try to understand the world and myself. The same teachers pushed me to explore the world on my own, so I spent a summer working in the slums of Lima, Peru and that's when my learning turned in activism.

How did you grow to have such an affinity for South Asia, and what calls you back over and over again on your travels?

It's such a simple answer in my heart but expressing it is so hard. It's cliche, but you just have to go to South Asia to understand. Everyone should. The best I can describe it: South Asia is real. Everything is just real - a punch in face of beauty and ugliness, poverty and wealth, color and grey, joy and suffering. There's not a particular moment that represents this; it's more the accumulations of experiences over almost 9 months of living here. South Asia is so loyal to all the positive and negatives of that is life, and that's what makes life, and South Asia, beautiful.

Tell us briefly how you decided to pursue the study of human/women's rights in Bangladesh.

One of the ladies Amanda works with

My study abroad program in Kolkata, IPSL, required us to volunteer for credit hours. Working in the shelter with these amazing young girls left such an indelible impression on me that their nickname for me is tattooed on my wrist: paagli didi (crazy big sister). It grew to reflect how, yes, I'm slightly off my rocker and can entertain the masses with creepy renditions of Ursula from the Little Mermaid...but more importantly how I felt this deep connection and sisterhood with these girls. I'd do anything for my own sister, Camille, and I felt the same love and responsibility to help their growth toward independence.

As soon as I arrived home, I shouted "How can I go back?" My university advisor said, "Here, apply for this." Fulbright is, as an advisor said, "a crapshoot" in terms of being selected because there are thousands of perfect candidates...and I was lucky. What's great about Fulbright is that I have freedom to explore all depths of my location, discipline and topic.

What have you discovered about the anti-trafficking programs in Dhaka thus far?

My focus is mainly on sex trafficking, so that's what I'll be talking about here (but please note that labor-trafficking exists too). Most the programs in Dhaka are pretty comprehensive and multi-faceted. They are trying to cover all sides of the issue: rewriting policies (obvious illegal loopholes are taken advantage of), providing awareness and sensitivity trainings to families and communities (it takes a village to raise a child, so let the village stand guard against trafficking; also erasing the 'stigma,' which is another word for "blaming the woman") and offering health, social and legal services to survivors (i.e. What does she need now? She was just raped for two year).

What I am looking at exactly is how the NGOs treat the survivors: are they victims needing to be saved from the evils of the world? Are they sinners in need of redemption? Or are they active agents in their own lives? The last view is the ideal: don't victimize them, and don't blame them - empower them. It's too soon to say for sure, but I think some aid worker's attitude DO need adjusting toward the women. But stay tuned to know for sure.

The biggest factor facing both changes in attitude and trafficking is how taboo sex is. It's an uncomfortable topic anywhere, but especially here, being an Islamic country. Sex is to remain inside the home between married couples; therefore it's hidden and also immoral. Most people don't know about it, and if they do, judgement is placed on them without knowing the situation. Sexual violence needs to be pushed into the public space if it's going to change.

What were some of your greatest fears about living in Bangladesh before you arrived, and where do they stack up now?

I was too excited to start my project, and too sad to leave my perfect NY life to be afraid of Bangladesh. Mostly my thoughts ranged from,"What can my research contribute to the global fight against violence against women?" to "How will I survive a year without penne alla vodka?"

The first few months living here created my greatest fears. It's Bangladesh: as a Westerner, even a well-traveled one, it's scary when you first arrive to armies of armless beggars, stormy seas of angry vehicles and endless types of crime. I never wanted to leave the house past sunset. Now, I go home at 3:00am on a rickshaw and still have the audacity to argue with the driver. I've learned to adapt.

Traveling to a place, and living there is completely different, so I experienced culture shock for the first time. Recognizing it as cultural shock, I had no choice but to adapt. Please note, this involved a lot of crying to my mother, angry that a man on the street couldn't understand me. But I had to feel the emotions then overcome them. My biggest fear now is not learning everything I can in the next 7 months.

Describe a day in the life for you in Dhaka.

Awkward, wonderfully awkward.

My house mother pounds on my door to wake me up and feed me potato parata and eggs. Throwing on a salwar kameez and orna (affectionately named 'boob scarf'), I go to the old, bustling part of Dhaka (as if the whole city isn't either of those characteristics) and work in a center for women who are trying to leave prostitution. They learn crafts and skills and once they receive their certificate, some can work making crafts for the organization's shop.

As an anthropologist, I perform participant observation for a few months until they feel comfortable enough to share their lives in a structured interview. Right now, I sit on the floor with them and help them do their crafts and try to gossip with them in Bangla.

Lunch is always the same: rice, potatoes, mixed vegetables, dal (lentil soup). I complain, but I'll miss it when it's gone. After spending at least an hour in traffic to go 2 km in a baby taxi, I have meetings with different NGOs to make myself known in the women's rights community (it's all 'who you know' here). I love listening to the different programs development organizations offer and will conduct structured interviews in January. Nights and weekends are with my fabulous new friends, getting tea and chilling on someone's roof, attending a few shows of local bands and trying to score illegal substances (i.e. alcohol is illegal for Bangladeshis by Islamic law.)



Any plans yet when you return home in 2010?

HA! I always laugh at that question. The only plan I have is spending 4th of July with my best friends and family at an outdoor concert on Long Island with buckets of wine and cheese. I don't know what I'll learn from this experience, and what I learn will shape what I want to do when I'm back. Then again, what falls in my lap first might be the thing that I'll do. I believe in serendipity; that's the only plan.

Is there an effective way your fellow Americans at home can impact issues of human trafficking globally?

Talk about it. Believe me, I know how it is kind of a downer at parties, but if you don't create space for it, how will it ever change? Read The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam, a first account experience of sexual exploitation and share with people what you learned. And please realize that it could be your neighbor exploiting these young women and girls, either in a foreign brothel or downtown America. People are trafficked to America too.

One reasons for trafficking is the want for exploitative labor: it's our corporations and our people that demand cheap labor or sex as much as foreign countries do. If there is ever going to be an effective way that we can impact human trafficking, it's starting with our own awareness and choices.

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Do you have any questions for Amanda about Bangladesh, the Fulbright, or human sex trafficking? Leave a comment, and I'll make sure she gets the question!