Gillian Caldwell

(WOMENSENEWS)–The footage is grainy; the audio muffled. A young woman, her face digitally blurred, sits on a couch next to a man trying to recruit her for work in another country.

“Everything sounds all right,” she tells him in Russian, “It’s just that I’ve heard that a lot of girls go abroad and they never make it back.”

It is the stark opening of a 1997 video called “Bought and Sold” produced and directed by Gillian Caldwell and released by the Global Survival Network, a human and animal rights nonprofit in Washington, D.C., now a part of the animal rights nonprofit WildAid. At great personal risk, Caldwell and a partner went undercover in Russia with video cameras, setting up a dummy escort service, to document how organized crime controls a multi-million dollar business in trafficking women and girls for sexual slavery.

The film received widespread media attention from major news outlets such as ABC, CNN, BBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post. The coverage provoked an outcry against trafficking for sexual slavery and prompted legislators in the United States to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which gives victims of trafficking who are willing to testify against their trafficker an opportunity to remain in the U.S. legally.

“I think we’re really careful to be sure that we’re working on issues that are intransigent and in the shadows,” Caldwell said, who describes herself first as an activist, not a journalist, and who tries to lead the media to stories that have been largely ignored.

As the executive director of the nongovernmental organization WITNESS, Caldwell uses and promotes documentary video to illuminate dark places where human rights abuses have been able to thrive. Her commitment has been to shed “light” on issues that have been left dark by governments and mainstream press. In the words of friends and colleagues who spoke to Women’s eNews, Caldwell’s work provides “eyes around the world.”

“The media is used as a way to leverage issues and try to generate change on a human rights level,” said Caldwell. “People in positions of power can be made to make a difference.”

While WITNESS does not focus solely on women’s issues, Caldwell’s commitment to women’s rights and equality has motivated several WITNESS projects, including the project on trafficking in Russian women and, more recently, her efforts to document the systemic use of rape as a weapon of war in Sierra Leone. Other WITNESS programs have focused on extra-judicial killings in the Philippines and the conditions of institutionalized mental health patients in Paraguay.

A Step Further Than Journalism

As a result of Caldwell’s work, prominent news outlets now regularly cover trafficking, producing a “feeding frenzy” around the issue, Caldwell said. And that’s the idea–to get other eyes on the world so that Caldwell and her team can direct their attention to issues that remain hidden from view.

Her agenda has been not only to provide video imagery of human rights abuses, but also to encourage viewers to get involved with change.

“I think the difference with journalism is that, unless you’re doing editorial work, there is this pretense of objectivity,” Caldwell said. By contrast, in human-rights work, she said, “it is understood that you are making an argument, that there’s an agenda.”

In 2001, Caldwell helped produce “Operation Fine Girl: Rape as a Weapon of War,” which documented the systematic use of rape against women and girls during Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission asked Caldwell to produce a follow-up video that will become part of the nation’s official effort to promote a national dialogue on the subject.

“The similarity between WITNESS and a good journalist is that you are trying to make the truth visible,” said Sara Federlein, WITNESS development manager. “We operate with the same ethics as a good journalist: exposing the truth and getting it out to as many people as possible. But we take it further,” Federlein explained, “We try to create change.”

A Leader in Public and in Private

Singer Peter Gabriel founded WITNESS, based in Manhattan, in 1992 as part of the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights. WITNESS’ mission is to advance human rights advocacy through video technology. To that end, WITNESS provides cameras and training to partner programs around the world and trains them to document human rights abuses.

After producing and directing “Bought and Sold,” Caldwell took over as director of WITNESS in 1998. In March of that year, the organization had a staff of two and a budget of $150,000. By 2001, when WITNESS became independent of the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights, now called Human Rights First, it had a staff of five with a budget of $800,000. Today, WITNESS has 11 staff members and a projected budget for fiscal year 2005, which begins June 2004, of $1.5 to $1.8 million. WITNESS has worked with more than 150 WITNESS partner groups in more than 50 countries.

“WITNESS has had a tremendous impact in the human rights world,” said Federlein, “and that has a lot to do with her leadership.”

Early Exposure to Visual Mediums, Gender Inequality

Caldwell was exposed early on in life to the power of visual imagery. Her mother, an art dealer, represented New York artist Leon Golub, whose large-scale paintings often depicted violence and war, sometimes drawing directly from news photos.

Caldwell has no formal training in film or video. She bought a Hi8 video camera in 1989 when they first came out, thinking that someday she would like to produce a powerful social change documentary. A graduate of Georgetown Law School in 1992, Caldwell worked as an attorney for a variety of social justice causes. In 1995, Caldwell began working as a project director at the Global Survival Network and saw her opportunity to work in video when she stumbled onto the trade in women.

Caldwell’s commitment to gender equality began early. As a 5th grader, outraged that her school gave more play space to boys than girls for dodge-ball, Caldwell demanded equal space. “I actually happened to have been the top dodge-ball player,” Caldwell admitted.

“I was very ethically and politically motivated from an early age,” she said. She headed up her high school’s chapter of Amnesty International and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Caldwell’s commitment to justice extends into her private life. “She is someone who lives by her beliefs. She is extremely committed to all of her causes, and she lives a life that is reflective of that,” said Caroline Baron, co-founder of FilmAid, based in New York City, and close friend of Caldwell’s.

Caldwell, who has a young daughter and is pregnant with her second child, has refused to marry her partner until all people, gay and straight, can marry. She is also a member of the Social Venture Network, which promotes environmentally sustainable businesses.

“She needs to live in a world where there is fairness and she creates her world that way, in her personal life,” Baron said.

Asjylyn Loder is a writer in New York.

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