Washington, DC – Peace advocate Maya Soetoro-Ng, US President Barack Obama’s half-sister, last week called for an end to sex trafficking in India and elsewhere.
The University of Hawaii professor and author highlighted abuses in India to an audience convened in Washington Aug. 14 by the politically well-connected Center for American Progress. Neera Tanden, a US-born child of Indian immigrants, has led the center since 2011 after serving as a top advisor to Obama and former Senator Hillary Clinton.
“An estimated three million children are currently exploited in India’s sex trade,” according to the center’s introduction promoting the lecture, which was a rare speech in Washington by the president’s closest relative of his late parents.
“The vast majority of trafficked women and girls usually come from the poorest, most disadvantaged backgrounds in India: the Dalits, Adivasi and other low-caste communities,” the introduction continued. “Every day in India, 200 women and girls enter prostitution, and 80 percent of them do so against their will as victims of trafficking.”
Soetoro-Ng, born in Indonesia to the late anthropologist Stanley Ann Dunham, urged an end to trafficking and similar exploitation of women and children.
She began her talk by praising “prophets, revolutionaries, and saints.” But she warned her audience “don’t be a martyr.” Then she highlighted successful strategies that international organizations are using to rescue and rehabilitate victims, and prevent trafficking. She recommended spiritual counseling, yoga, and artistic pursuits as especially effective in helping victims.
After her talk she signed copies of her 2011 children’s book, Ladder to the Moon, which portrays the spirituality of her mother, who died in 1995. Three decades previous, Dunham had married fellow University of Hawaii student Lolo Soetoro. She followed him to Indonesia along with the young Barack in the late 1960s after the overthrow of Surkano, the nation’s longtime leader.
Maya Soetoro was born in 1970, and named for the poet Maya Angelou. The Soetoros separated, and Ann Dunham reared her son and daughter with help from Hawaii-based Dunham grandparents.
Maya Soetoro taught in New York, Indonesian, and Hawaiian schools following graduation from Barnard College, and obtained a doctorate in comparative international education from the University of Hawaii. In 2003, she married a fellow academic, Dr. Konrad Ng, a Canadian-born US citizen who, like her, is now an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii.
In early 2007, Soetoro-Ng wrote Ladder to the Moon, which presents some of her mother’s spiritual ideas in storybook form. She wrote the book for her daughter while living in her brother’s Chicago home and assisting during the early stages of his 2008 presidential campaign.
Also, she assisted her mother’s thesis advisor in publishing her mother’s dissertation under the book title, Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia, published in 2009.
Ladder to the Moon sale proceeds this week went to Odanadi.US.org, whose parent organization was founded in India by two journalists who wanted to provide a safe haven for sex trade victims. The group claims responsibility for “nearly 60 brothel raids, and in the process brought 137 traffickers to justice.”
The professor’s talk, delivered in a friendly, engaging tone, was well-received by the audience.
The lecture by a non-government member of the president’s inner circle underscored in low-key fashion several important Obama administration messages. One is the administration’s commitment to human rights overseas, even as it fends off harsh domestic criticism for its surveillance programs and Mideast policies.
The talk also provided an opportunity for the president’s half-sister to burnish the family legacy and move to greater visibility as a global advocate for women and children.
The president has half-brothers on his late father’s side but is especially close to his half-sister. Her message this week matches other themes from his second-term foreign policy team. Expect to see more of it—and her.