It was a unique anti-trafficking effort. Survivors of trafficking spoke, discussed, presented and questioned issues pertaining to rescue and rehabilitation of victims, at the Survivors' Conference - organized by NGO Prajwala and supported by Miseror, Germany, and held in Hyderabad, recently.
As many as 120 girls and women, aged between nine and 45 years, gathered at a serene church and chalked out an action plan to support one another and to spread awareness on trafficking. Called the 'Aparajithas', or invincible ones, these women - rescued by Prajwala - resolved to create an emergency fund to be used to combat trafficking and to organize rallies to spread awareness about the societal menace.
Incidentally, all the participants of the Survivors' Conference had been trapped, physically and psychologically, in brothels or street-based prostitution, till recently. They had been deceived, sold, beaten, raped, drugged and left with no other option but to consider sex as "work". For a string of jasmine from a broker or kingpin trafficker, some of the 12 to 14 year-old victims would sexually entertain 20 men a day. These young girls couldn't ask to see their earnings or dream of knowing another life. After being rescued, often forcibly, from such labyrinths of abuse, they are now exploring life beyond the dead end. Currently pursuing education, working, or now married, many of the survivors are HIV+.
At the conference, the survivors raised about 35 points with respect to the rescue of trafficked girls and women. Some of the suggestions noted down were: Customers, pimps, brokers and 'gharwalis' (madams) should be arrested when a victim is rescued; bail should never be granted to a trafficker, who should be treated as an accused and paraded in public; the victim's belongings and children should be produced before court and handed over to her; rescued victims should only be examined by a lady doctor; and the media should never be allowed to be part of a rescue operation.
Through role-play activities, the survivors showcased the peculiar problems faced by victims immediately after their rescue, which is a crucial period. It is during this time that they receive peer counseling, peer support and training. They try to overcome substance abuse, depression, suicidal tendencies and health complications, among other things, during this period.
Salma (21), a rescue-worker with Prajwala could relate to the role-play activities. She had been trafficked from her hometown, Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh, to a brothel in Delhi. "I am from a conservative family," she says, "I used to earn Rs 30 per salwar kameez that I stitched. My sister and I became friends with two women, who were new tenants in our neighborhood. These women wore expensive clothes and jewellery and promised to get us good jobs in Delhi. We left home with them."
The sisters were horrified when they discovered what the 'good jobs' were. Salma's sister, who was about 15 years old, slit her wrist and was thrown out of the brothel and left to bleed. Fortunately, she was soon found and reunited with her family. Unfortunately, Salma was initiated into brothel life. "I lived there for three months. I was told that my sister was dead. I was about 19 then. Girls who were between 14 and 16 years of age were in heavy demand. Men would pay Rs.5,000 for half an hour with those girls. We were all made to take drugs and drink alcohol," she recalls.
When Salma's sister was brought home by a Delhi-based NGO, her Chittoor traffickers were also arrested. Says Salma, "The police were very good. They did not even register our names in their records." After the arrest in Chittoor, the Delhi brothel was raided and Salma was sent home the very same day. "My family accepted me. I know many families don't take back girls like me. My brother works as a rescue worker with the NGO that helped my sister and I in Delhi. I work with Prajwala and rescue young girls, especially minors, from prostitution."
"My work involves risk. Once a broker caught my arm and twisted it but the police team was with us and they beat him up. I wear a 'burqa' (veil) when I go to work. We take the girls away to our counseling centre at the police station. We tell them that we want to help and not harm them. Most often they don't go back to their old life." Dr Sunitha Krishnan, one of Prajwala's founders, says, "Salma is a key factor in any rescue operation. Her whole family is into anti-trafficking work now." Working for Prajwala, Salma earns a monthly salary of Rs 3,500 (US$1=Rs45).
Meena is a carpenter in an industry run exclusively by survivors. "I am perfect at making anything in wood... chairs, tables, hard board...," she says with a smile. Once her goods are ready, Prajwala's purchase team doubles up as sales team to market the products made by her and the other women. They get regular orders from schools and offices for stationery and furniture. "Although my family did not take me back, I am in touch with my mother in Chennai. I have forgotten all the bad things that have happened to me but I am willing to help women like me," she adds. Meena, like many other survivors, stays in a Prajwala-run home in Hyderabad.
Unfortunately, not all survivors have a smile on their lips. Take the case of the five schoolgirls dressed in white uniforms and plaits, who only occasionally contributed to the conference discussions, or that of the disinterested pre-teens dressed in bright clothes. "They have been rescued recently and we are watching them closely," says Krishnan. "The youngest in that group is a notorious trafficker's 'favorite.' He is in jail but we are apprehensive about her getting back into that circuit when he gets out." The girl in question is about 13 and wears a pink sari that is pinned and draped over her styled hair.
For about six months after rescue, victims are vulnerable to re-trafficking or return to prostitution "by choice". Victimized by enforcing agencies, families and the society at large - even after rescue - 85 per cent of the girls or women turn survivors if they cross the crucial six-month period, during which counseling and skill training are provided.
One positive outcome of the conference has been that the suggestions and requests put forth by participants have been forwarded to the relevant authorities, like the state Department of Women and Child Welfare and law enforcement agencies.
But, while these survivors have been able to tell their tales, there are those, caught between abuse and an insensitive society, whose voices are muffled in a painful silence.
(Some names have been changed to protect identity)