International Anti Trafficking Day: Behind Painted Faces

International Anti Trafficking Day: Behind Painted Faces

Walls painted pink and green with windows as small as a pigeonhole. Narrow staircases with colorful sarees hanging all around is the sight of a room in a red light area. Young and old wait in the alleys with their faces painted and bodies perfumed, covering up a multitude of emotions, selling sex to men who frequent the area from different walks of life – the educated, the illiterate, the rich, the poor, the affluent and so on.

After a short walk, I entered a shack-like room. A young girl named Pinky caught my attention as she carefully examined my footwear that was piled up with some other footwear just outside the door. I sat next to her as she continued to show interest in my footwear and asked if it belonged to me. I responded and offered it to her. In exchange I got to wear her footwear and realized how hard it was to walk in her shoes. Though she didn’t quite fit into mine, she was happy with the exchange for the moment. As we got talking, I got a glimpse of her world through her eyes.

Pinky, caught in a cycle of poverty and exploitation, works in the brothel serving 15 to 20 customers a day on average. She finds momentary comfort for her cravings for love and care from her customers who frequent her. Although she admits that she goes through a gush of mixed emotions, she has learnt the art of numbing her feelings and finding joy in the little things around her – as simple as wearing someone else’s shoes. Within minutes, Pinky was busy answering calls from her customers and did not seem interested in me or my shoes anymore. She left me sitting on a bench wondering what her world is like. She definitely did not belong to the brothel but she was convinced that there was no way out for girls like her. She roams around the red light area like prey that has already surrendered its life to the predator who is too big to fight . Perhaps my few minutes in her shoes rocked my core being to the extent that my encounter with her has now become one of the most unforgettable moments of my life.

women standing in the dark on the phoneAs I walked back through the alleys and took a closer look at the painted expressionless faces, I could see an out-pour of hopelessness, fear and anxiety. Behind every painted face is a story that got them into the murky world – some have been pushed into the trade by poverty, abuse and desperation while some others are trapped and tricked into the trade by pimps. Whatever the reason, they live a life that is frightening, controlled and misused by the business-owners, abused by violent customers and become victims of the corrupt system. Rape, abuse, violence and many other crimes are a daily occurrence that is considered part of a normal routine.

Alcohol and drugs add a rosy haze to everything – a crutch that many of them rely on to make life bearable. Though outwardly, they seem to have dressed to attract customers, a closer look at their faces communicate the contrary.

This issue of commercial sex work, abuse, human trafficking and violence against women is a global phenomenon. Looking through Pinky’s eyes, I wonder what it would take to empower young women like her to stand up for justice and change. I wonder what it would take to fight the giant predators rather than surrendering. There are several individuals and social entities that have been combating violence against women, but for many, the situation of hopelessness remains.

However, I believe a change to this situation begins at our homes, our work places and our spheres of influence. Educating our children to respect women will set the bar high on women’s safety and protection. Every act of respect for man and woman is one step closer to making our society a safer place.

Every fight against injustice is worth the risk, worth the love and worth the cost. Let us stand up for Justice, Equality and Change.

This international anti trafficking day we remember Pinky, and all those children trafficked whose stories are like hers.

 

Fenny Kanagaraj is Partnerships Director at WOW and mother of two. She is a networker and bridge creator.
Someone Like Me?

Someone Like Me?

You don’t know what people here are like, especially towards someone like you.

This was one of the first warnings given to me when I arrived in the village. The statement correspondingly led to the meeting of him, my security guard, assigned by the school to ensure my safety for the semester.

Why do I need a security guard? What do they mean someone like me? A teacher? A researcher? An advocate? A musician? A student? A traveller? 

A woman. But really, an outsider woman.

I had just moved to a small village in rural Punjab to begin a six month teaching contract in an exclusively female college. I was expected to stay inside the college grounds most of the time, and only leave with the assistance of my security guard.

For the first 2 months I used to pay him to leave me alone, to ‘forget’ to leave the gate unlocked and to develop alibis if anyone asked my location. I paid him for my freedom as I couldn’t surrender to the protocol that was implemented for my benefit. My fierce, independent, over confident, (naïve) 22 year old ego didn’t allow me to be spoken for by a guard.

My ego realised my independence cost 250 rupees and a hot masala chai from the favourite corner side vendor. Those 250 rupees paid for me to travel all over Punjab, being fully immersed in a different culture. I didn’t know it yet that the experience would alter my existence, forever being changed by the stories of the lives I encountered.

Opening up my security guard took three months. I wanted to know him, learn him, understand him. This man who is assigned to be with me every day but I don’t know anything about. Finally by month three he began to talk, and more yet, smile. The rest followed like a montage in a film, supported with a cheesy soundtrack, sepia undertone and laughing audio bites to portray the fast development of our friendship.

He said he considered me as his daughter, and needed me to meet the rest of his family so they could all love me as much as he did. The first visit to his home was where the real initiation process occurred, the bridge transforming this friendship into family. The kindness and warmth was overwhelming, not only did I have a new Indian father but a mother and 2 brothers! He never had a daughter, but always wanted one. I was a blessing, an answering to his prayers, after all these years God had finally answered him. I had never experienced the love and intensity of a Punjabi family. It was like the rewriting of my history, as if I could see the baby pictures of me materialise into their photo albums. I could feel my blood starting to run hot with the blood of a new identity, a Punjabi identity.

A nightly ritual began where I would join Papa Ji for a 7pm chai outside his station near the gate of the college. Each day I looked forward to my 7pm chai’s, like a treat at the end of a long working day where I could replicate the feeling of home. One night I arrived at the gate station and resumed my normal seat like every other day for the past 3 months, but this time Papa Ji told me to bring my chair inside the office. Without a second thought I complied, chai in one hand, chair in the other, mid-sentence debriefing about my day until I heard the door lock behind me. It was then, locked in a gate keeper’s station, did I feel my chai fly out of my hand as I was pinned against the wall with full force.

Then, my Papa Ji, kissed me against my will.

The kiss felt like a knife to my lips slit me open and all the newly acquired Punjabi blood spilled out. The baby pictures unmaterialised, my 5 year old self pixelated before dissipating into nothing. The memories tainted beyond redemption. It was as if my entire Punjabi family entered a car and had a head on collision on the highway, but the one who died was me, as I evaporated out of the delusion I put myself into.

The irony is, he was the one to protect me, he was the one hired purely for the sole reason of my safety, and he was the one who breached it. Not just physically, but emotionally abusing me. It was then I realised this is how every child who goes home to an abusive family member feels. That confusion of what does it mean to be safe? What does it mean to be loved? When my father/mother/uncle/aunt/cousin tells me they love me yet continue to hurt me, is that the definition of love? Why does love feel so bad?

53% of people in India have been sexually abused as a child, and 88% of those abused have been abused by their parent. I, luckily, at the age of 22 knew my rights and my worth to address this problem and take proper steps to deal with it. A child would not know. A child is the emblem of purity and child sexual abuse is a crime against innocence. It is our responsibility as adults to protect our children, and defend that innocence.

Speak up, dare to be fearless.

 

Eliza van der Sman is a passionate human and animal rights activist with a love for words. Her curiosity and background in anthropology has taken her to 65 countries, where she found her second home in India. She now stays here dedicated to working towards the empowerment of women.

The Suffocated Little Girl

I had the displeasure of growing up with people who strongly believed that all girls had to behave a certain way. Surprisingly, though I was a child, their worldviews failed to change me. Instead, I found myself wrestling with comments like “She can’t even cook!” or “Watch it! Girls shouldn’t get so angry.”

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When Fear Drives Parenting

Sunjula Daniel, a Woman Of Worth staff member shares her perspective in this very relatable point of view of a mother.

​I​ first saw 5-year old Sushmitha looking through our compound gate. She didn’t say a word – just kept looking. I began to feel uncomfortable and guilty as I avoided her for a good twenty minutes and then I gave in and we invited her home. She was thrilled and rushed in without telling her parents who it appears were migrant construction labourers working nearby. The girl was smart, well-behaved and highly observant. I enjoyed her broken Tamil and her drama to illustrate how her mother and her brother would do things. She was so cute! She would come home everyday. When she wasn’t at our place, I would see her just roaming the street, chatting with much older men and women, whiling away time.

It is sad that we live in an era that feels like our kids are walking in the wild with predators lurking in the shadows.

She had both parents and a little brother. She also had food, shelter and enough clothes. But did she have safety? Each time I saw her, I kept asking myself “Is she safe? Will she be ok on these streets? What if something untoward happens? What if she is abused? Will she know? Will she ask for help? And if she does, will she be helped? Or will she be shushed?”

Sushmitha and her family have now left our neighbourhood. I often think of her and wonder if she is safe. It’s sad that I worry over her.​ It is sad that we live in an era that feels like our kids are walking in the wild with predators lurking in the shadows.​ ​It is sad that it is possible for a child so cute and lively to be abused!

​Childhood is sweet and tender. Let’s give our children a safe childhood. Let’s keep our eyes open for child sexual abuse. Let’s end it.

#endChildSexualAbuse #EndRape #FearlessProject

[su_box title=”About the author” style=”soft” box_color=”#f3f3f3″ title_color=”#000000″ radius=”5″]Sunjula Daniel is Operations Manager at WOW and a mother who is passionate about changing the world. [/su_box]

Silence is no longer Golden

It was indeed one of the highlights of the month to be part of the launch of Edex’s campaign THE REST IS HER STORY, (#safenotsorry). The panelists and guests namely Madhumitha(filmmaker), Rema Rajeshwari (IPS), Dr.Geeta Madhavan (advocate), Kirthi Jeyakumar (founder, The Red Elephant) and Leena Manimekalai (filmmaker)  made the evening matter in more than one way. What will really make women feel safer? Does sexism in films encourage abuse? Do we need revised laws with more stringent consequences to crimes against women? etc., were some of the questions in focus?

I was pleased to hear all the panelists single-mindedly assert and reiterate that what we need is education and awareness. The power and influence of awareness is often underestimated. As a result, much of our work as non-profits revolves around the areas of rehabilitation and trauma recovery. While that is critical and should be happening in increasing measures, we should be simultaneously investing our time and skill in bringing awareness through education to men and women, boys and girls on issues pertaining to safety and equality, which in turn brings attitudinal and behavioral changes.

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Safety for women at the workplace continues to be one of the major areas of concern. WOW conducted workshops titled WOMAN UNINTERRUPTED (WU) throughout the month of March. At these workshops, I met a wide range of interesting people, from those who say that there is absolutely no gender bias or inequality at the workplace to those who feel no progress has been made for women in general. I think the real answer to this lies somewhere in the middle. The bias we feel, or experience today at the workplace can be termed as ‘second generation bias – often very subtle and at times ‘unconscious’ or even ‘unintentional’ and is usually guided by gender stereotypes of the past. This type of bias is hard to identify but is very prevalent in general at the workplace.

We have certainly made positive strides towards change with the swift manner in which laws are being enacted to protect women at the workplace. For example, the mandatory Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) has ensured that Corporates seriously take action against all complaints that women face at the workplace. But as rightly pointed out by IPS officer Rema Rajeshwari, laws alone don’t bring about change. What we really need is change of attitude towards women, as well as a concerted collective response by society to enforce these laws to protect women.

Silence is no longer golden. Every woman must be heard, not just seen. Safety violations need to be reported. What will give women the courage they need to step out boldly and claim their right to safety at the workplace? Platforms provided by such campaigns are part of a public collective force to give back to women their voice and their rightful place in society. Safety is not the privilege of a few but the fundamental human right of all people irrespective of their gender, race, colour or faith.

So, what will make women feel safe and be safe? My answer to this question is simply this: It is when the world fully recognizes the inborn dignity, intrinsic value and worth of a woman, then she will feel safe and be safe. As WOW, therefore we have a lot of work to do.

Join us on May 11th, at the Novotel-Ibis hotel, OMR, Chennai for a workshop and networking platform titled: Barriers to Progress, to explore the effects of unconscious bias and its impact on women’s safety at the workplace. And do tell us YOUR STORY, stories of pain, of courage, or hope, and by doing so, you give a voice to those who feel alone and need that initial push to speak up.

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Dear Teacher, Five Tips To Remember While Talking About Safety With Your Students

To the teacher who told her students that girls should not dress in jeans and lipstick:

Dear Teacher, have you used public transportation in your city and never been groped? Have you walked along a street lined with men smoking beedi or drinking chai and never been hollered at? Have you never been judged as a woman when your parents sought a suitable alliance for you? Have you never been mentally undressed by perverted eyes in public? Or did your iron-clad-saree-armour protect you from these experiences?

Ever wonder why it’s easier to blame a girl for her jeans and lipstick?

People generally believe that bad things happen to others. The “others” is something people do not want to associate themselves with. Because once you do that, the threat becomes personal. Bad things could then happen to all people. We are scared to believe that. And so we start defining the characteristics of “others.” Jeans, lipstick, heels, being out after dark, alone with a boy, cell phones, Indian-Chinese food, peacocks, etc. etc. etc.

Don’t feel bad to associate yourself with your students. Yes, you are free to choose what modesty means to you and what perverse means to you. No, you are not free to pass judgment on a girl because she has defined her boundaries differently.

Dear Teacher, you are free to speculate Nirbhaya’s gruesome assault, torture, and demise. But you are not doing anyone any favors when your speculation has no bearing on statistical facts of a study showing 41% of women who reported their rape in India were dressed in sarees. And no, the other 59% were not all flaunting themselves in jeans or skirts. Majority of them were burkha clad, which indicates a very small possibility of sexual provocation as defined by you.

I am a woman, a mother, a sister, and all those wonderful tags that people use to associate themselves with others. I am saying this to find common ground with you. So that I may plead with you to not just take back your words but to learn the truth about sexual assault and rape.

Your prejudice filled rant might have actually been an attempt to educate your young students about safety. But I urge you to use not only sympathy but empathy, in the classroom. Without empathy, you will be fighting a losing battle. So here are some ideas that might help you to effectively advocate the safety of your students:

  1. Boys and girls are both in danger of being raped and sexually abused in our nation. The Study of Child Abuse: India 2007, published by the Government of India had a shocking revelation that 52% of boys surveyed claimed to be sexually abused. So, when addressing safety issues, make sure to keep students from all sexual and gender orientation safe.
  2. The hardest thing for a child to do is communicate the violation and abuse they experienced because often they lack the awareness and vocabulary to do so. The next time you choose to address your students on safety mandates, begin by assuring them that you will be an adult who will believe their broken words and incoherent stories. Assure them that the violation of their bodies was not their fault.
  3. Do not let socio-economic status or caste lead you to believe in the existence of an automatic safety zone for the child. Please know that most children are sexually abused during the day in places where they feel safe: their home, their neighborhood, their community. So make sure to talk to all your students about safe resources available to them, like 1098 (the phone number for Childline), or a school counselor, or your classroom – because it’s time to maintain an open door policy and create safe classrooms.
  4. Also, if anyone tells you that ignoring the abuse will allow the child to get over it sooner, please do not believe them. Trauma manifests itself in different ways and at different times, often hindering the student from enjoying healthy lifestyles and relationships as they grow older.
  5. I have already presented data to dispute that clothes don’t make a victim, and this is especially true in the case of child sexual abuse. But if clothes are something that distracts you from associating with a student who has been sexually abused, look for common ground as a fellow human being. Always exercise your power to empathize.

I am glad you want to address safety issues with your students. For a student to succeed academically, socially or emotionally, safety has to be a priority. Make sure the school administration supports you in this effort to keep your students safe.

There are several organizations that can help your school implement safety protocols in order to promote the best interest of the student. If you unable to find one in your area, write to wow@womenofworth.in and we’ll help you with your efforts.

Let’s build each other up instead of shaming those who have suffered much already.

Sincerely,

Lydia Durairaj, WOW Staff.