By Sophie Pape Are you happy with your life? The way you have constructed it? What if you were born in another country? Would it be the same? It is likely that it will be quite different. Questions like these popped up while watching the documentary Time to look at girls: Migrants in Bangladesh and Ethiopia, which was shown by Marina de Regt during the EASA Anthropology of Children and Youth Seminar on 19 November 2015. Since June 2009, this EASA Network organizes monthly meetings, which bring together students, researchers, NGOs and policy makers working with children and youth (www.anthropologyofchildren.net).
The documentary details the lives of four girls: two living in Bangladesh where they worked in a garment factory and two living in Ethiopia where they worked in the sex industry. These girls were my age (in their twenties) or younger and had to make choices I – most likely – will never have to make. But what if I had been in their position? Would I have made the same choices?
The documentary captures the stories of these young women in a touching and intense manner. The set up is simple: women tell their stories while facing the camera. There is no distraction by their environment. The environment is not so much being downplayed as if it were less relevant, but rather shown to get a glimpse of the personal worlds of these women.
Besides simply capturing stories, the filmmakers have found a way to touch upon these women’s motivations. Indeed, their motivations for their choices while they were confronted with difficult situations. This setting drew me into these stories. It made me look at the women in a different way. However, finding the words to describe this film within the first five minutes was quite a challenge. I was not alone in this. After the closing credits everybody seemed to stare at the screen, silently – absorbing the stories that had been shown. A short coffee break proposed by the Network chair, Dr. Sandra Evers, was most welcome.
During the break people started to split up in small groups and share their thoughts. Slowly the groups melted into one group again and a very interesting discussion arose. Basically, what was being stated is that victims, in whatever way, always seem to be put in a specific box. They are first and foremost seen as victims. Therefore, it is assumed that taking the role of a victim comes naturally. This documentary showed otherwise. These women, although they had gone through difficult situations and had to make difficult choices that influenced their lives drastically, showed agency and an impressive perseverance. For instance, one of the women who worked in the garment factory in Bangladesh had a son. She explained that he meant everything to her. Hence, she stayed with the biological father of the child, even though this might not be ‘the best’ situation for her to be in. But it was best for her child and so she stayed with him. She had made a choice, understanding and weighing the consequences for herself, and consciously acted upon it.
A tough life does not necessarily imply that the person living that life is automatically a victim of challenging circumstances beyond his or her control. Instead, the person considered a victim is not so helpless after all. Agency is always involved, even when life gives you lemons. Individuals that experience difficulties in life should not straight away be seen as helpless or in need of help. In fact, this assumption has probably more to do with the expectations of the non-victims on the appropriate behavior of the so-called victims than their actual behavior. A victim role is imposed on them that downplays their agency.
Indeed, victims are more than just victims. While it is assumed that they have fewer choices, they make choices nonetheless. It must not be forgotten that in whatever way individuals construct their lives. This also goes for children and youth. They still have the power to make choices in life, even if their life does not turn out they way they imagined it. And that is exactly what the documentary shows.
Sophie Pape is a master student Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU
Trailer of Time to look at girls: Migrants in Bangladesh and Ethiopia:
 see also the book by Evers et al. Not Just a Victim: The Child as Catalyst and Witness of Contemporary Africa