Taina Bien-Aimé started speaking up for women’s rights when she was still a teenager. A daughter of two Haitians who had met and settled in New York City, she was only about 15, some childhood friends recently reminded her, when she volunteered at a domestic violence hotline near her Swiss high school; protested in favor of reproductive rights; and diversified her junior-high reading list by petitioning to include books written by women.
Bien-Aimé, 64, a longtime lawyer and professional champion of women’s rights, had a profound grasp even as a child of the difficulties women encountered — and the power they wielded despite the limiting, restrictive patriarchal system they lived in then and still live in now. It was only upon reaching puberty that she began to understand the scale of oppression.
In April, Bien-Aimé was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her commitment to women’s rights and gender equality. During an exclusive interview with PassBlue, she explained what galvanized her early on and what has kept her going during decades of passionate activism. Her awakening was aided by strong women like her mother, Nicole, and maternal grandmother, Violette, who taught her to be independent. After an uncle got angry when Taina, then a teen, would not fix him a cup of coffee, her mother told her she never raised her “to serve men.” She introduced Taina to Ms. Magazine, so she could pay attention to important women’s issues.
“My [paternal] grandmother fought for women’s suffrage in Haiti,” Bien-Aimé says. “My mother was always very explicit in making her daughters understand that education was critically important and that it was important for us to be independent of men. And that we were our [own] persons.”
At age 10, Bien-Aimé went off to a boarding school in Geneva. Her father, who worked as an airline machinist, would visit her once a month. Her years of schooling and living largely by herself contributed to her sense of independence.
She believes, she says, that “patriarchy is the system under which we all function, and the patriarchy will have different manifestations of its systems of repression.” For Bien-Aimé, domestic violence is a problem no matter where you live (though she stressed that being a girl in Afghanistan today is very different from being a girl in Italy, say, or the United States).
“The violence against women is both universal and particular,” she says. “Universal means there’s not one country in the world where a woman is not considered a second-class citizen. [It occurs] even in the most progressive countries, where there are no discriminatory laws, like Germany or Sweden. The level of domestic violence, the percentage of domestic violence, whether you’re in Sweden or Portugal or Greece or wherever is the same more or less.”
Bien-Aimé earned her law degree at New York University and a degree in political science at the University of Geneva’s Graduate School of International Studies. Over time her dedication to women’s issues, most notably the trafficking of women, has grown stronger and fiercer. She has dedicated her career to preventing gender-based violence and advancing gender equality by helping to enact laws that protect victims and punish traffickers.
In 1993, she joined the board of Equality Now, an organization with offices worldwide that advocates for the protection and promotion of the human rights of women and girls. In 2000, she joined the staff and ultimately became the executive director. In 2014, she was made executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), an international nongovernmental organization opposed to human trafficking, prostitution and other forms of paid sex as well as commercial surrogacy. Her approach, in a nutshell: “You target the demand, and the entire business structure collapses.”
After nearly 10 years leading CATW, she says, the important lesson she has kept is that no achievement is permanent; the battle never ends. She and her team have fought on many fronts, including a highly visible one at the UN Women agency, where CATW sought to overrule its 2013 decision to drop the words “exploitation of prostitution” in favor of “sex work” and “sex workers.”
“[T]hey were unofficially promoting the decriminalization of the sex trade — sex buying, pimping, sex tourism,” Bien-Aimé says of UN Women. “We wanted them to declare they will abide by international law, but they couldn’t do that. So, neutrality was a victory.”
It took her organization and countless individuals and others globally more than six years to change the agency’s language. During this time, the UN came under heavy criticism for seemingly siding with organizations that sought to decriminalize prostitution.
“If UN Women is the purported champion for gender equality, it must recognize that endorsing the sex trade, including pimping and sex buying, destroys the rights of women and girls to [have access to] health, safety and equal opportunities, and to live a life free from violence and discrimination,” Bien-Aimé said in an interview with PassBlue for an article on UN Women’s stance in 2019.
Founded in 1988, in New York City, CATW has been working to target the demand for prostitution instead of decriminalizing the practice. During her tenure, Bien-Aimé has fought to raise awareness and push for policy changes worldwide to protect victims and bring traffickers to justice.
According to the International Labor Organization, there are an estimated 25 million victims of human trafficking globally and, according to the International Migration Organization, nearly all of them are women and girls. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime puts the global annual profits generated from human trafficking, including sexual exploitation, at approximately $150 billion. The United States Department of State’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report identified 25 countries that had not been making significant efforts to address human trafficking, including sex trafficking.
Along with leading various coalitions and writing numerous petitions on behalf of women’s rights, Bien-Aimé is credited with helping to enact such laws as New York State’s 2007 Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act, which protects victims of sex trafficking. She has promoted the law as part of a larger effort to strengthen legislation and policies related to human trafficking in the US and elsewhere. She adds: “You cannot accomplish any of this by yourself. Everything must be done within coalitions.”
Bien-Aimé is more interested in talking about these achievements than the fact that she just received the Legion of Honor — France’s highest order of merit — “for her commitment to the fight for women’s rights” — or appeared on the 2021 Forbes 50 Over 50 list of high-achieving women, or won the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights and the Charles Bronfman Prize, an annual award that recognizes young innovators who have made major contributions to social justice causes and are poised to make an even greater impact.
“I think a lot about the women we leave behind,” Bien-Aimé says. “Only one percent of trafficked and exploited [people] can escape or be assisted. . . . It’s a lot of suffering, and I carry with me the pain and suffering that women endure every day. It is a privilege to have this sort of responsibility. It is always sobering.”
PassBlue’s interview with Bien-Aimé is part of its Women as Changemakers series. She fielded questions in mid-April by Zoom from New York City, where she lives with her partner of 34 years, Veronica Jordan, and two sons, Milan and Ali Gabriel. The conversation has been condensed and edited for space and clarity. — DAMILOLA BANJO
PassBlue: You were born in New York City and lived there until you were 10, then moved to Geneva. What was it like growing up in these two places?
Bien-Aimé: I am a first-generation American and was raised bilingually in French and English. Despite coming from Haiti, my parents met in New York. My father was a machinist for an airline. We took a lot of trips without purchasing any tickets. My parents never fully assimilated into American culture at that time, unlike other immigrants. So when I received my degree in Switzerland, it was clear that I would not fit in well there. I suppose I’ve always been ambitious. I simply reasoned that returning home and beginning my career in New York would be much simpler for me professionally. It was an incredibly difficult transition, where a lot of culture shock was met with a lot of bigotry in the US — in ways that I couldn’t have predicted, coming from Switzerland, so it was a major challenge.
PassBlue: Interesting. Were there particular events or experiences that you would say shaped your perspective of gender as a girl?
Bien-Aimé: I wrote a brief essay about this in the book “Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female.” I remember being very clearheaded [before the age of 11] about the repression of women and [their power to bring about change]. My environment was very much a woman’s world. Since the sexes are traditionally divided in many of our countries, the woman is responsible for taking care of the home while sitting at the kitchen table. The dads are, in many ways, outside a child’s life. As I am the oldest of three children, I have always been my mother’s confidante. The women in my family or their friends would tell stories around the kitchen table about bosses who would not only call them “coconuts” because they were from the Caribbean, but also pinch their bottoms and engage in a lot of sexual harassment. So from a very young age, I was aware of what was happening to the women around me, whether it was beatings, infidelity or sexual harassment at work. My grandmother was a suffragette. She fought in Haiti for women to have the vote. My mother always made it very clear to her children that education was essential and that we needed to be independent of men. Without their husbands’ consent, women were unable to open credit cards. There were too many limitations on women wanting to buy property — your husband’s consent was required. When I had to fill out all the immigration documents when I once visited Nigeria, and they only asked for your husband’s name, you get the impression that you belong to your father until [you] marry. These were some of the impressions my mother and grandmother told us to reject.
PassBlue: Who were your earliest role models or mentors?
Bien-Aimé: I never actually imagined being a lawyer. I was interested in comparative literature, in getting a doctorate. Then, during a trip to Africa, where I was traveling with with a graduate school dean, he said I should think about attending law school. But absolutely, I would say that my mother was definitely my primary role model, followed to a lesser extent by the other women in my family.
PassBlue: What were the earliest signs of what you have become: a strong, powerful woman’s rights activist?
Bien-Aimé: I was telling my childhood friends about the remarks I made at the Legion of Honor award ceremony last week, and they all came up with stories that I had forgotten. When I was, I guess, a 7 or 8, I wanted to join a Girl Scout group. I’d read about this famous French feminist lawyer, whom I wrote about for a book report. Another person recalled that I had volunteered on a domestic violence hotline, possibly around the age of 15. As soon as I was released from boarding school, I went straight to a women’s bookstore and volunteered there and protested for reproductive rights.
PassBlue: Tell us what you consider your most significant accomplishment so far.
Bien-Aimé: First of all, I must say that I have never accomplished anything on my own. So if I had to sum up who I am, I’d say that I’m a coalition builder. You cannot accomplish any of this by yourself. Everything must be done within coalitions, and managing coalitions is extremely difficult. But because individuals have so many varied interests and priorities, and because egos may often get in the way, if you have a specific primary purpose — like passing a law or influencing one UN agency — you must convince others to become concentrated to accomplish that particular goal. Persuading UN Women to declare neutrality on the subject of prostitution as they were actively advocating for the decriminalization of the sex trade, which includes sex buying, pimping, brothel cloning and sex trading, was also significant.
PassBlue: You’ve had many prestigious awards, including the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights. What have they meant to you and how have they affected your work?
Bien-Aimé: One thing I can say is that they don’t help with fund-raising. You would expect that someone would say, Well, let me give you some money for the organization for the work that we do, but no. [Editor’s note: CATW raised about $700,000 in 2020, according to Charity Navigator.] We lack resources and are really underprivileged. In light of the prizes, I believe it is a peer acknowledgment, which is always gratifying and humbling. It also inspires you to see that coalition building and being a part of a movement are valued and recognized, which motivates you to do more.
PassBlue: What influenced your career path most of all?
Bien-Aimé: While I didn’t identify as a human-rights advocate, the framework and the law taught me that there is a wider legal foundation from which feminist activism can be developed. When you identify yourself as a feminist, people tend to walk away, shut down or have preconceived notions about what feminism is like. Yet if you identify yourself as a human-rights activist and can support your claims with references to, say, the [UN] secretary-general’s decisions, human-rights principles and international law, you have a strong foundation. We’re now having a lot of discussions about criminal justice reform and the importance of our laws. What does it mean to live by the law? It is still the foundation upon which society might be arranged. As a result, even while on paper divorce rules appear to be neutral, their actual application often discriminates against women when it comes to regulations that harm them. The same is true if you consider that prostitution is illegal in the US [and other countries]. The fact that women are detained more frequently than men is disproportionate or discriminatory.
PassBlue: As the executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, what are some of the major challenges that you have faced and how have you overcome them?
Bien-Aimé: There were no international or domestic laws against human trafficking before the year 2000. Now, because of the passing of these laws, there has been a great deal of legal progress. The biggest difficulty is culture. When you dehumanize someone, anything can be done to them, including being sold on the marketplace for profit — for example, in Nigeria. Sexual harassment, sexual violence and degrading behavior are acceptable if the man pays for them. It can be seen in porn. We witness it at the highest echelons of government, among politicians and those who make policies about commercial surrogacy. And I believe that changing that culture is the biggest obstacle we are now facing.
PassBlue: What advice do you have for young women who are interested in the path that you have chosen, advocating for women’s rights?
Bien-Aimé: Life is not a straight journey. Be true to yourself, and if you have the privilege of following your passion, do so. Speaking up is an act of courage, it’s very hard to speak up against acts of violence against anyone, particularly women and girls. Trust your instincts. Many young women, because of the pressure they face, feel diminished in some ways — even they don’t feel good about some things. Look at your community first, you don’t need to travel the whole world before fighting for people’s rights.
Numerous corrections were made to the article after it was published, including the year when CATW was founded.
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.