By Katarzyna Rybarczyk
In India’s Uttar Pradesh NGO workers put their safety on the line to fight child prostitution, end sex trafficking, and restore victims’ dignity.
Uttar Pradesh is amongst the poorest states in India and, with limited employment opportunities,women and girls who live in extreme poverty often have no choice but to sell their bodies to be able to be able to sustain themselves.
I talked to Ajeet Singh, the founder of Guria, a Varanasi-based NGO which works towards eradicating trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children.
Ajeet says that the key to success is a holistic end to end strategy which starts with the preparation for rescuing women, involves the actual seizure of brothels, and ends with empowering victims and lowering their dependence on the criminal nexus that puts them at risk of being exploited again in the future.
Despite notable successes, Ajeet points out that the rescue and rehabilitation process in India is complex, lengthy, and sometimes dangerous.
Drivers of prostitution
‘India has the highest number of people living in slavery,’ Ajeet says and explains that women are disproportionately affected. Every year, Guria rescues around 250 women and girls who have been trafficked for sexual exploitation.
Lured in with the promises of employment and better living conditions, women find themselves in the hands of traffickers who burden them with debt and keep them in brothels.
‘We recognise that there is a link between trafficking and hunger, trafficking and gender discrimination, trafficking and lack of happiness,’ Ajeet explains and adds that, in addition to wanting to escape poverty, ‘there is also a cultural aspect, particularly in the South. There, girls are dedicated to the goddess and have no choice but to engage in prostitution. And, in some communities in India, prostitution is part of a tradition, something passed from mother to daughter.’
Sadly, the cycle of exploitation and abuse often does not end at one woman. In India, there are thousands of children who grow up in red light districts, which puts them at risk of maltreatment and trafficking. Second generation prostitution is a significant challenge in Varanasi and the wider Uttar Pradesh region. Girls grow up seeing their mothers engage in prostitution and, not having the resources to change their social position, many end up following in their mother’s footsteps.
To rescue women from brothels, Guria works closely with law enforcement agencies.
This past February, they managed to rescue ‘136 victims, belonging to the Indian states of West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka and from Nepal from the brothels of Allahabad district,’ Ajeet tells me.
‘Seizure of brothels does not happen overnight.’ Such operations require careful planning to make sure that victims have a place to go after. And, as the traffickers and brothel owners have the right to get out of jail on bail, before organising a raid, it is necessary to make sure that the brothel will be closed permanently before that happens.
If a brothel is not shut down while the men are in custody, women and girls often find themselves back in the same place.
‘If the traffickers get out of jail, they will harass the girls. Cases of femicide are also not unheard of. In India there is no witness protection. The girls are exposed and their lives are at risk if they go to court. So we started our own initiative where we help them find places where they can hide,’ Ajeet explains.
‘Survivors and their families need to get justice, which means convictions for traffickers and brothel-keepers.’ But in India, getting convictions often takes years and when the acquittal of traffickers happens, they threaten rescued women.
Participation of victims in trials is necessary for their oppressors to be sent to prison but many women are scared of what the consequences will be if they speak up. This is why Guria created a security mechanism where it not only takes the girls to a safe place after they leave a brothel but also trains them and prepares them to testify in courts.
Successes and sacrifices
Guria’s efforts bring tangible progress, proven by the fact that, over the last thirty years, Guria saved more than five thousand women and girls from brothels.
Just a few months ago the organisation managed to get 41 former traffickers and brothel-keepers convicted to between 10-14 years of imprisonment and had a total fine worth 2314 000 INR imposed on them.
But these achievements did not come without obstacles.
Ajeet tells me that, throughout the process of getting these recent convictions, he and his co-workers often had to sleep in the car, restaurants, or railway stations, due to security reasons. And, despite being careful, they faced five attacks, one of which involved an attempt to murder Ajeet and his wife in a staged road accident.
In the past, Guria’s members received life threats on multiple occasions. This, however, did not prevent them from stepping in as witnesses and continuing their mission to change the lives of trafficking victims and create a society where women are respected and safe.
One of Guria’s biggest achievements has been establishing the first child prostitution free red light area. The organisation achieved that through opening an education centre where children can come after school instead of spending time in the streets.
An important aspect of activities that take place there is empowering children through art therapy. Painting or making clay figures allows them to express their emotions and heal trauma.
At the education centre, as well as working with children, Guria organises vocational workshops for women living in Varanasi’s red light district. Through that, it equips them with skills allowing them to find alternative livelihood options.
Liberating a woman from a brothel does not mean that the process of rescuing them is completed. On the contrary, it is the beginning of a long journey during which they attempt to rebuild their lives.
Victims often face social discrimination upon returning to their home communities and receive very little support with reintegration. Besides, when they find themselves in the same poverty-ridden area that they got trafficked from in the first place, the likelihood of them turning to prostitution once again is very high.
To prevent that, root causes of the issue such as poverty, limited employment opportunities, gender inequality, or the absence of rule of law need to be addressed. And, women and girls need to get an education and professional training enabling them to make an income without having to resort to selling their bodies.
This is what Guria aims to do as part of the war it has waged against prostitution and trafficking. Ajeet says that Guria’s mission is to ‘change lives.’ While this undoubtedly is an ambitious project, thanks to his and his team’s dedication, it has been successful in gradually building a humane environment where women and children are respected and safe.
About the Author
Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a political correspondent for Immigration Advice Service. She covers humanitarian issues in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.