Women Behaving Badassly is a roundup of women across the country doing things that kick ass. From starting their own businesses to creating nonprofits and even making a living through unconventional careers, these ladies are all making positive contributions to the world. They deserve to be recognized and their achievements celebrated. Let's all take a few minutes to marvel at these inspiring, empowering, badass women making their mark on the universe.
Introducing: Sadhvi Siddhali Shree, director of the 2017 sex trafficking documentary Stopping Traffic.
Sadhvi Siddhali Shree, an author, human rights activist, U.S. Army Iraq War veteran, and the first North American Jain female-monk, made her directorial film debut last year with Stopping Traffic, a documentary about human trafficking. Inspired by her own life experiences, she seeks to inspire viewers to join the movement to end human trafficking and give a voice to the millions of victims it affects every year.
What inspired you to produce Stopping Traffic?
I was sexually abused when I was six years old. It was my #MeToo moment. The abuser threatened to kill me and my family, so I stayed silent my entire life. As a human rights activist, I wondered, How could I help victims and survivors use their voices if I didn't have the courage to share my own story? Then the idea for the film came. Making it brought me personal freedom because I was no longer trapped or ashamed. I became free.
Part of the inspiration also stemmed from knowing that girls and boys are tortured and raped on a daily basis — for PROFIT. We couldn't fathom that reality. Practicing nonviolence (something I'm committed to as a Jain monk) includes standing up for and protecting the vulnerable and helpless.
You have a degree in communications, so how did you become a film director?
I was exposed to video production in high school and was the anchor on my high school television show. I also launched a YouTube channel for my spiritual teacher which required only basic video editing skills. Directing a film was an all-new experience, and Stopping Traffic was my first film. We had our mantra, “we’ll figure it out,” plus Google, which helped us make the film. We literally had to research what kind of video equipment to get and how to set up cameras for an interview. [But] When driven by heart, you can do anything.
You exemplify this through your role as a Jain monk. Tell us more about that.
A Jain monk is someone who renounces the world to pursue a life dedicated to spirituality, self-improvement, and total transformation. They live by the principle of nonviolence through their thoughts, actions, and speech. Jainism is one of the oldest religions in the world and most of its practitioners are in India. However, the spiritual practices and teachings of the Jain system are starting to attract westerners.
To become a Jain monk you take on the five vows: nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-possession, and celibacy. Through right vision, right knowledge, and right conduct, one achieves total freedom and liberation.
This path became attractive to me because I had experienced a lot of pain and suffering in my life and I also served in the Iraq War. When I saw and experienced a lot of violence in the world, I was inspired to live a nonviolent life. That is how we can bring peace, compassion, love, and empowerment to our world.
What was it like serving in Iraq?
Surprisingly, the military life prepared me for my spiritual life. Whether one is a soldier or a monk, discipline is required to succeed. You train yourself to live anywhere, sleep anywhere, eat what is given, [and] interact and connect with different people from all walks of life. You learn to follow instructions that can save your life and potentially save other people's lives. Selfless service and sacrifice are also part of both the solider life and monk life. It’s amazing really. It’s just a matter of perspective.
I was recently with one of my longtime friends who I served in Iraq with, and she opened up about a prior deployment experience while she was serving as an MP (military police) that brought more PTSD than the Iraq War. She told me about her experience with sexual harassment. A senior leader threatened her, saying that if she did not sleep with him (and he was married), he would make her life a living hell during her deployment. She declined and resisted and he followed up on his threat. There is a #MeToo movement in the military because many women (and men) get raped or harassed, but oftentimes it gets swept under the rug. There is too much fear because of people in power. I definitely feel this topic needs more attention. I can only hope the courage that soldiers are trained to have translates to raising their voice.
We literally had to research what kind of video equipment to get and how to set up cameras for an interview. [But] When driven by heart, you can do anything.
Tell us about the people who worked with you on Stopping Traffic.
Siddhayatan Tirth produced the film, I directed it, and assistant director Sadhvi Anubhuti contributed to the film and project in so many ways. She helped launch our Kickstarter campaign, assisted with branding and marketing, story ideas, poster artwork, graphic design, reaching out to Indie musicians seeking song contributions for the film, conducting all the interviews in Mexico, filming, and producing two screenings. I am extremely grateful to her for her hard work, time, and love she poured into the project.
Most of the production was volunteer with the exception of our editor, Jason Calhoun, and audio producer, Tamas Bohacs — both who wanted to work on the film with our low budget because they cared about the topic so much.
For the cast, we took to the internet to find out who the leading activists were around the globe. We sought male and female human trafficking survivors-turned-activists as well as celebrity advocates. One thing the film process taught us is that “it never hurts to ask.” We spent three weeks sending out 125 emails to celebrity publicists, and three celebs (Dolph Lundgren, Jeannie Mai, and Kristen Renton) believed in our project and message and shared their time with us.
For those who don't know much about human sex trafficking, can you elaborate on what it entails?
Legally defined, sex trafficking is "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age."
There are so many angles to sex trafficking as every situation is different. In some cases, like in third world countries, family members (parents) sell their own kids for sex or cybersex to pay for food. Or they are approached by traffickers with promises that their children will have a better life in another country and have opportunities to earn money. Sadly, parents naively literally hand over their kids. In countries like the U.S., young girls and boys are groomed by traffickers. Traffickers seek vulnerable teenagers on social media who need attention, love, and help or those seeking job opportunities like acting, modeling, etc. Traffickers will get the teen to fall in love with them or fully trust them, give them everything they want the first few months, and once they are psychologically controlled, the trafficker will then force them into commercial sex acts under the guise “If you love me you will…” or “You now owe me for the life you have,” or “If you don’t do this, I will kill you or your family.”
It takes a lot of courage for a victim to escape because there are the fears of being caught, beaten, and killed.
How many sex trafficking victims are able to successfully escape?
Only 2% of trafficking victims survive and successfully get out. Sometimes victims escape but they go back to “the life” because they don’t know any other way to survive, or because of drug addiction. Sometimes diseases kill them or they commit suicide because of too much shame. They need so much help and support.
Stopping Traffic was Shot in the U.S. (Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans), Iraq, Mexico, the Philippines and Vietnam. Is there a specific reason these locations were chosen?
It was important to us to raise awareness about trafficking in different parts of the world, especially shining [a] light on the fact that it happens here in the United States, too. I grew up in Los Angeles, California, and now live in North Texas, and these are the two states with the highest amount of human trafficking cases — they have major hubs. Because my family is from the Philippines and due to my deployment to the Middle East, I felt a personal need to bring attention to those developing countries. Sadhvi Anubhuti is from Mexico, and one of our executive producers Jeannie Mai's family is from Vietnam.
What are some of the most extreme stories of sex trafficking highlighted in Stopping Traffic?
In the first 30 seconds, you will know it is not a sugar-coated film and it’s a topic that shouldn’t be. One of the people we featured, Dr. John A. King, was abused and trafficked by his own parents among their friends and came to this realization late in life. Recently, he authored a book, #DEALWITHIT: Living Well With PTSD, to talk about his PTSD and how he deals with it. Karla Jacinto was trafficked between the ages of 12 and 16, raped 30 to 40 times per day, and was beaten and burned. She is now an internationally known speaker and activist doing everything she can to protect girls and boys. Mario Hidalgo Garfias is a reformed ex-trafficker who was sexually abused as a child starting at the age of eight. He spent 12 years in jail on human trafficking charges and since changing his life, he’s asked for forgiveness from five of his victims and now helps police find traffickers. Recently, he helped rescue 200 victims from a brothel in Mexico.
[Some say] a child sex slave can be purchased online and delivered to a customer more quickly than a pizza. How is this possible?
It takes about 20 to 30 minutes to place an order for pizza and have it delivered to you. In the same way, you can go online and visit websites like Backpage and Craigslist and browse the personal ad/escort sections and find a girl/boy who is local and will go to your hotel room in just a matter of minutes. Very recently, the senate passed legislation that allows victims of trafficking to now sue the website they were sold on. Before the victims had no power to sue. Because of the passing of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), Craigslist immediately took down their personal ads section, citing they can no longer take the risk for possible sex trafficking to happen through their website.
How much does a sex trafficking "transaction" generally cost?
It depends on the situation, country, and what’s involved. People can pay as little as $20 for sex or into the thousands. We learned that people will pay “extra” for different fantasies, objects used, etc. It’s pretty disturbing what people will pay for. Pornography can also be a form of sex trafficking depending on the situation, and people will pay online to view it.
The most popular event for scoring a trafficking arrangement is the Super Bowl. Why is that?
Thousands of women and children are trafficked from around the world to service men during the Super Bowl. The environment is a different kind of energy — you have lots of local fans and many fans traveling into the city (leaving their family) to have fun, get away, and who are in a party/who cares/no-one-will-know mindset. Then you combine that with drinking and hotel parties. It happens because it is easy — that is one of the roots of the problem. If people knew there were consequences and harsh punishments, people would buy sex less often.
You're involved with the Siddhayatan Tirth Spiritual Retreat. Tell us about it.
Siddhayatan Tirth Spiritual Retreat is located near Dallas, Texas, and serves as an ashram — a spiritual learning center. It was founded by my spiritual teacher, H.H. Acharya Shree Yogeesh, almost 10 years ago. We conduct three-day retreats to help our guests heal, find purpose, live a nonviolent life, overcome addiction and stress, reduce PTSD, and much more. People want freedom, so we provide tools, techniques and teachings to help them do just that.
My role is to help the center grow and expand. Some of my projects and duties include teaching, counseling, conducting retreats, book, CD/DVD, and podcast publishing, website design and marketing, and managing our YouTube account, which recently achieved 10.6 million views. We are three monks — my teacher, Sadhvi Anubhuti and me — doing our best to bring goodness to the world.
Where can people watch Stopping Traffic?
Where will proceeds of the film go?
Since Stopping Traffic is a nonprofit documentary, proceeds and donations help support our human trafficking awareness campaigns and the three trafficking shelters (Visayan Forum, Eden House and Camino a Casa), as well as a private rescue team featured in our film.
You're definitely well-accomplished and we admire you so much! Is there anything you haven't done that is on your bucket list?
Ha! I think when I became a monk I gave up my bucket list. At the same time, everything new and exciting gets added to the bucket. Establishing healing and empowerment centers around the world is definitely a must. Also, having the opportunity to speak on a major platform that allows for global impact.
With all the inspiring work you're doing in the world that keeps you busy, we hope you make time for yourself. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
What is spare time? Just kidding. Though I live and work at an ashram, it does get busy. I really enjoy taking a moment to walk by myself or sit on the grass and feel and soak up the positive and spiritual energy. I reflect on how grateful I am for the life I have and the people in it — especially my spiritual teacher Acharya Shree, and the work I have the opportunity to do.
When I saw and experienced a lot of violence in the world, I was inspired to live a nonviolent life. That is how we can bring peace, compassion, love, and empowerment to our world.
Do you have any personal heroes or people that inspire you?
H.H. Acharya Shree Yogeesh is my lighthouse, my hero, and inspiration. I met my spiritual teacher when I was 20 years old and have been studying under his guidance for 14 years now. Words don’t do him any justice because he’s helped and guided me in so many ways. I’ve changed for the better because of his teachings and mentorship. He continues to push and challenge me to be better in all areas of my life. It’s not easy, but it is worth it. I feel really blessed to be one of his monks and honored to serve the world by his side.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
My mother died of cancer and I was13 when she passed. Before she died, we shared a precious moment when I crawled into her bed and hugged her. She whispered into my ear, “Always believe and love yourself, love God, and serve others.” She also said in that moment, “Fight and never give up.” I do my best to live by it every day. She was an amazing, strong, creative and inspiring woman. Always selfless.
Watch the Stopping Traffic trailer below:
This interview has been edited for grammar, clarity, and style.