Friday, July 25, 2008

In Search of Stillness

Does the mind really sleep. At least mine doesn't. Or maybe rarely does. In my case since my mind is constantly talking to me, even when my mouth is not.My mouth too does it , the talking I mean , to me I mean. What I mean is I do talk to myself.Sometimes. Many times.I would think the mind would rest when I sleep. But I am someone who rarely, does not dream...I have vivid dreams almost every night which I remember in good detail the next morning. I think that is a way my mind has figured to talk to me even when I sleep.

No,no,no I do not need psychiatric evaluation. This is not at all about me hearing voices but rather about me always thinking. Initially in my early 20's I prided in the fact that I was probably one of the "thinker" types. I had some people, my best friend turned lover turned husband and now also the father of my children tell me"you think too much". I scoffed at this statement and never failed to get into a purely, self serving, ego flattering discussion about how this thinking makes me a sensitive, intelligent, and passionate person. I truly believed this. A part of me is still hanging on to that belief.

But as I grow older and hopefully more mature I am beginning to understand the importance of quiet. I have to say that moments of quiet are difficult in my young household. I have 2 kids under the age of 4, a husband who takes pride in his Rajput lineage and repeats fondly the folklore about Rajputs from his village being known for their big noses and booming voices. So needless to say he dutifully honors his legacy and is never shy to use those legendary vocals. But admittedly I am no better. I am a loving mother. A mother who chose to stay back at home to look after her brood. Bui I am also a mother who is a screamer. I know its terrible. I was sure to have received hate mail after this confession but thankfully not many people read my blogs. So all this screaming around after my 2 tots has done its damage.(P.S the screaming usually accompanies a life threatening situation, it goes like this "you cannot smother your sister with a pillow" you will fall from the table and break your nose" you cannot run into a wall,"do not think of throwing anything from a moving car","don't bite your brother"........... On a normal given occasion when I speak to my husband he is like"why are you screaming?" and I am like "I am not screaming" all this while though definitely if not screaming I am what we would say very very loud.

Anyway the above is all bull. Because my constantly chattering mind is all my doing. I think I have not yet learnt the art of stillness, and being silent. I feel to quite an extent technology contributes to my problem. The phone, the television,the Internet,the audio system in my car, ipod etc etc etc. Yes and my beloved books too. Because all these make me think. I return to the conversations that have taken place. Books make me sad, angry,happy and definitely think. Music always makes me dream.Internet fires my imagination and even in the height of a balmy summer I can fly away to the pristine snow covered Austrian Alps within seconds of visiting a travel site. I always become the most loved character in a movie and relive every moment in the film. My mind and its thinking is like a car going on a highway. It takes exits and u - turns and alternate scenic routes and then joins the highway once again and takes another exit and on and on and on.....

I fool myself into thinking that if I was in a small tranquil mountain village I will achieve this much desired 'quiet'. But I know that's not true. I have to learn and master the art of disconnecting from everything and just being still and quiet.Even if for a couple of minutes. It also means distancing myself from my ego if not completely breaking away from it.I think in this stillness and being and absorbing lies the answer to understanding life and awakening to the purpose of my life.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Underbelly Part 5: Best Practices

Ruchira’s Speech Continued……….

The first need of the victims of trafficking is visibility. They want the state to recognize them as citizens of the state, their exploitation a crime and provide them protection.

Their second demand is that of relief.They want immediate relief from violence,severe trauma, and exploitation. They want both the process of human trafficking to be tackled as well as its outcomes, which include prostitution, domestic servitude, early marriage, child labour, bonded labour, organ trade, cheap labour, and pornography.

A range of comprehensive interventions from prevention, to protection to prosecution is an effective response to countering trafficking. Trafficking is not always about movement of forced or deceived people across borders. It is also about those whose vulnerability is abused to trap them into situations of exploitation in brothels, sweatshops, and farms, sometimes in the very places where they were born. They want protection programmes in the very communities that they are born in.

Those targeted for commercial sexual exploitation and cheap labour share key characteristics: poverty, youth, minority status in the country of exploitation, histories of abuse, and little family support. They want comprehensive protection programmes that address their vulnerabilities. They want legal protection tied in with viable economic options and the notion of rehabilitation to extend to community empowerment as well as individual empowerment. They want protection packages that will expand their livelihood options.

Trafficked women may be freed from their employers in police raids, but they are given no access to services or redress and instead face further mistreatment at the hands of authorities. Even when confronted with clear evidence of trafficking, officials focus on violations of their immigration regulations and anti-prostitution laws, rather than on violations of the trafficking victims' human rights. Thus those women who are trafficked across borders are targeted as undocumented migrants and/or prostitutes, and the traffickers either escape entirely, or else face minor penalties. By making the victims of trafficking the target of law enforcement efforts, governments only exacerbate victims' vulnerability to abuse and deter them from turning to law enforcement officials for assistance. By allowing traffickers to engage in slavery-like practices without penalty, governments allow the abuses to continue with impunity.

That is why the third demand of victims and survivors of trafficking is accountability. They want those responsible for trafficking to be punished and stopped. They want interventions to focus on the responsibility of those who buy trafficked people such as buyers of prostituted sex and those “entrepreneurs” (traffickers, procurers, pimps, brothel owners, and managers, owners of plantations and factories and money lenders) who make a profit off trading in women and girls, boys and men.

So far a large number of trafficking interventions have focused on the victim through rescue and post rescue care. While this has provided much-needed relief to victims and survivors, it has not made a dent in the trafficking industry. According to a study by the National Human Rights Commission of India, most traffickers state that they identify the demand areas before indulging in trafficking to ensure ‘prompt delivery.

Demand for trafficked people –from end-users to those who make a profit of the trade has become the most immediate cause for the expansion of the trafficking industry. Providing services and instituting preventive mechanisms among those at risk to trafficking has provided protection to pockets of vulnerable people but not detracted the traffickers. According to the same National Human Rights Commission Study 82.5% of traffickers stated that they supply women/ children to brothels on demand- from underage girls to fair-skinned women. When increased vigilance and new laws prevented traffickers from sourcing women and children from Nepal to Mumbai and Kolkata, they simply shifted their area of operations to Bihar, West Bengal, the hill states of the northeast and Jharkhand in India because a demand for trafficked women and children continued to exist.

An increase in convictions against traffickers and buyers will serve to make this trade untenable. Countries have to strengthen their law-enforcement response to trafficking and work across borders to tackle the organized nature of the crime bringing traffickers to book, confiscating the illegal assets created out of trafficking, making the traffickers compensate for the damages and penalizing them. All act as a deterrent to traffickers and buyers and restores a sense of justice to the survivor. Very often traffickers commit the crime in one country and jump across the border and have a bank account or residential status in another country.
Countries and UN agencies can work together to investigate and prosecute these traffickers across countries. The UN protocol has already laid out guidelines for this. While there is increased cooperation for the repatriation of victims of trafficking, we need more cooperating and collaboration between law-enforcement agencies to investigate, arrest and prosecute traffickers ad those who buy trafficked people.If the numbers of convictions go up, the costs of operations of human trafficking will become untenable and the business models of traffickers will be disrupted. This will be the best way of countering trafficking.

Addressing the demand for human trafficking, use of the law and its full implementation can only be done by states individually and in collaboration bi-laterally and multilaterally. It is urgent that the UN and its members take the leadership on this. Article 9, paragraph 5, of the UN protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children states that: “State Parties shall adopt or strengthen legislative or other measures, such as educational, social or cultural measues to including through bilateral or multi-lateral cooperation, to discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children that leads to trafficking.” We urge governments to enact domestic legislation that incorporates the standards outlined above.

An example is the Swedish government legislation passed and implemented in 1999 that stepped up measures against prostitution not only by directing strong penalties against pimps, brothel owners, and other sex industry entrepreneurs but by also directing criminal sanctions against customers. (The law also eliminated penalties against prostitutes, such as the penalty for soliciting.) After the passage of the new law, Sweden spearheaded public education campaign warning sex industry customers that patronizing prostitutes was criminal behavior. The result was unexpected. Sex trafficking to Sweden has declined. The danger of prosecution coupled with a diminished demand made Sweden an unpromising market for global sex traffickers. Based on the success of the Swedish model, country after country is following Sweden’s example-Norway, Korea, Lithuania, and New York State.
India is a signatory to the protocol and is in the process of amending its anti-trafficking law to penalize buyers of trafficked people and severely punish traffickers.

The Underbelly Part 4: Glimmer of Hope

The title of this blog I fear is recklessly optimistic. I do not really see a glimmer of hope except when I hear or see some really good work being done by organizations and individuals. But I do think certain things must be done for the protection of victims of trafficking.
The things that need to be done that I mention here are not my original ideas but inspired by my mentor/guru who also happens to be an expert on Human Trafficking issues and the Executive Director/Founder President of a NGO which works for the victims of trafficking. The NGO APne Aap Women Worldwide ( has 5000 members. So what I write here is an abridged version of Ruchira's recent address to the General Assembly Thematic Debate June 3, 2008. These are some of her recommendations:

1. Actively investigating, prosecuting, and punishing those involved in the
trafficking of persons in countries of origin and destination, and
imposing penalties appropriate for the grave nature of the abuses they
have committed. Particular attention should be paid to evidence of
collaboration by government officials in the facilitation of trafficking

2. Exempting trafficking victims from prosecution for any immigration
violations or other offenses that have occurred as a result of their
being trafficked.

3. Not preventing the migration of women but ensuring they have enough information about how to protect their rights overseas or destination they migrate to.Over-regulatory policies for women migrant workers, however well-intended, trades one human rights problem for another by discriminating against women seeking to travel and limiting their freedom of movement. It also makes women who want to migrate even more dependent on the services of trafficking agents, because it is difficult for women to obtain travel documents by themselves.

4. Ensuring that trafficking victims have the opportunity to seek remedies
and redress for the human rights violations they have suffered,
including compensation for damages, unpaid wages, and restitution. This
requires guaranteeing victims' access to legal assistance,
interpretation services, and information regarding their rights, and
allowing all trafficked persons to remain in the country during the
duration of any proceedings related to legal claims they have filed.

5. Taking strong precautions to ensure the physical safety of trafficked
persons. This includes witness protection measures for those who
cooperate with law enforcement efforts and asylum opportunities for
those who fear retaliation in their countries of origin. Countries of
origin, transit, and destination must also cooperate to ensure the safe
repatriation of trafficked persons, working together with
non-governmental organizations to facilitate their return home.

6. Protecting women's and girls’ rights and addressing the inequality in status and
opportunity that makes women vulnerable to trafficking and other abuses. States should support policies and programs that promote equal access to education and employment for women and girls.

7. Not treat human trafficking for prostitution simply as a health management or AIDS prevention programme. These programmes end up creating a vested industry around the manufacture and distribution of condoms without dismantling the process of the trafficking or making a dent to the brothel systems which serve as a magnet for traffickers and buyers of trafficked people. Protection includes preventing prostitution, not simply mitigating its impact.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Underbelly Part 3 - Questions Answered...

As a couple of months went by the horror and tragedy of the impact and the consequences of sexual slavery became clearer to me. The assumptions and beliefs I previously held about the women in prostitution altered dramatically.

Lets tackle the obvious questions anyone would have who is not familiar with the issue of sex trafficking.

How many are really forced/tricked into this form of slavery?

To my best knowledge almost all of them are in some way or the other duped or coerced into prostitution. In the 2.5 years of my field work I did not come across a single woman who willingly chose this line of 'work'. If I could do justice in describing the degrading and appalling conditions they live in all doubts would be erased. Well the ones whom you can say get into prostitution willingly are usually the daughters of the women in prostitution(I will call them WIP). But they join this 'profession' not because of its prospects but because of a total lack of alternatives.
I remember an 8 yr. old girl, a daughter of a WIP, telling me that she wanted to be a Gharwali (the madam or the brothel keeper) when she grows up. This was because she knew no better. She had no role models to look up to. She knew no other life. In her eyes the most powerful person was the gharwali who had financial freedom and who had means to control the lives of women like her own mother. There are other forms of prostitution like call girl rackets and beer bar girls but that is a different category. These forms of prostitution are also extremely exploitative.

Is it really all that difficult to come out of this situation?

Well first lets examine how most of these girls ended up in the red light area.

1. N was a happy 10 yrs. old living in some remote impoverished village in Nepal.She has 5 more siblings. One probably suffering from TB. If they are lucky they eat twice a day. She used to go to a village school, but had to stop because of a paucity of funds. Days of going without food and the worsening condition of her brother who is afflicted with TB, forces her parents to sell her to a lady who promises to get her employment as a worker in a carpet factory in Kathmandu or as a domestic help in Mumbai. She travels by foot, bus and finally train to Mumbai. And is sold into a brothel for Rs 10000.

2. B is a 17 yr old from a village in Andhra Pradesh. Her father, a cotton farmer committed suicide because of increasing debt and falling revenues. There are 5 mouths to feed. So our brave young B decides to go to Mumbai to some acquaintance who could get her a job. She is illiterate and is travelling outside her village for the first time. She meets a friendly woman in the train just before arriving in Mumbai who looks at the address and tells her she lives in the same neighborhood and offers to take her there. She is brought to Kamathipura and sold.

3. D fell in love and decided to elope with her lover. The lover promises her marriage. She runs away to Mumbai with him, dreaming about marriage and domestic bliss. She is brought to Kamathipura and is sold and she never sees her lover again.

4. P gets into prostitution because her mother is a prostitute. She knows no other life. She was born in the brothels. We call this inter-generational prostitution.

5. M remembers going to the village fair somewhere in Jharkhand with her family. The next thing she knows she is drugged, thrown into a sack, and then dumped onto the back of a truck. She is brought to Mumbai. She is sold and since she is only 8 yrs old, she fetches a really good price.

6.There was a particular peculiar arrangement that I saw in Grant Road. That of Bangladeshi WIP. They were living in the brothels with their families , husbands included. I found out that these women would service clients in the night, while their husband played cards in one of the many eating places nearby. During the daytime the women would sleep and the husbands would cook and look after the children. The would stay in Mumbai for 6 to 8 months, make enough money to go back to their villages. They would be back in Mumbai with their wives, and sisters,once they ran out of all their savings. Well I know the woman had no say in this arrangement and this was not a result of mutual consent.
7.L was a devdasi in a village in Karnataka. When the priests of the temple tire of her, she is sold to a Mumbai brothel. This consort of the Gods is no luckier than the others.

Could they not run away from the brothels?

When she arrives at the brothel she refuses to obey the gharwali. She is locked up in a small room.Starved, beaten, tortured. This continues for days. If she refuses to give in, she is finally drugged and repeatedly raped. She is raped by more than 5 men in one night. Virginity is much in demand. After months of this torture she gives in and is moved to a room in the brothel. She cannot read or write.She does not understand the language. She is not allowed to leave the brothel. Gharwali has goons to watch over her. Crushed chillies being rubbed onto her private parts is one of the many threats she hears day and night.

As a girl told me she spent her first year begging every man she was forced to sleep with to help her escape. One of her regular customers was a policeman.
By the second year the girl is battered, and diseased. Her spirit is irreversibly crushed and she is ashamed and afraid to go back to her village for now she is 'dirty'. Some part of her still hopes to go back one day and resolves to do whatever it will take. Which is paying back the money the gharwali paid to buy her. This is not easy to do. She gets only Rs. 50 per customer. She also has to pay for her lodging, food, clothes and medicines. Add to this the interest on the principal amount, freedom is one distant dream. I never heard of any happy endings.

Some brave and lucky ones did manage to escape thanks to the occasional police raids. But the happiness is short lived. Once her family back in the village realizes where she has been she is beaten, disowned and thrown out. She returns to the only thing she knows.

Her destiny was never hers to make.

The Underbelly Part 2 - My First Day

I clearly remember my first day. The journey from Andheri to Grant Road in the local train. I was dressed in a full sleeves green kurta with an orangish yellow churidaar from Shoppers Stop. My aim was to look modest and professional without calling too much attention to myself. In my hand I clutched the address of the NGO I was to visit. I also kept feeling for my cell phone in my bag, my only sense of security. But mind you I was not worried about the place I was about to visit but my absolute pathetic sense of direction was my actual cause of concern. The lack of worry about visiting an NGO in a red light area was not due to boldness on my part but naivete, ignorance and truly being clueless about what to expect.

I had undertaken this journey because I was required to. I was doing post grad in TISS and the course required 5 days of classroom training and 2 days,Mondays and Tuesdays of field work. I was hoping to be assigned to the Narcotics Cell of Mumbai Police in VT(oops sorry, CST). I saw myself as the sexy intelligent future CBI agent clad in a pinstriped, butt flattering pant with straightened hair, hunting down the evil drug traffickers with effortless chic.
But getting posted to a NGO in a redlight area for one whole year was a big let down. The faculty concerned saying that they thought I was the most able and mature person in the class for such a post softened the blow. But I was not sure what I would really do with these women who sold their bodies for a living. They did not really need me or anyone else for that matter, did they? Oh, was I in for a big surprise.

The nature of the place I was visiting started dawning on me from the minute I got into the taxi at Grant Road station east and gave the directions to the driver. The man actually in an almost slow motion kind of a way adjusted his rear view mirror looked me over and said "you want to go there?" He was a nice guy I guess, and concerned about me because he went on to ask me 3 more times if I was sure I had the right address. By this time though his questions were lost on me because I was busy mouthing "shiv, shiv, shiv......" as I took in the scenery around me.

I was astounded, and horrified, would be the least to say. I saw a narrow street with wooden rotting structures on either side. On the doorways of these houses stood women of all ages garishly painted and in different states of undress. I saw men walking up and down the street looking at these women as if they were wares on display. Some women talked and laughed loudly, some beckoned the men who went by, while some just stood there stone faced. I went by a cinema hall which had some porno movie playing by the look of the posters. While I gawked foolishly at the men standing near the theatre someone grinned lecherously, saying something which fortunately I could not hear. But by now I was beginning to feel the stirrings of fear. I could hear the ominous sounding instructions of my faculty supervisor asking me not to stay beyond 5 pm in the Center (NGO) and in any case if I had to absolutely stay after dark I must insist on some NGO staff escorting me back to the station.

The building which housed the NGO had seen better years. It was a stone building, a relic from the Colonial Raj. The ground floor had a big, dimly lit but cool room where I saw a few young children sleeping, while some recited the hindi alphabets with heartbreaking earnestness. I later found out it was a night creche run by a NGO. A place where the mothers left their young ones at sunset, so that the children could have a good nights sleep while they went to'work'.
My NGO was on the first floor and had 2 huge rooms. One where the center in charge and a couple of more staff members sat. The second room was used by the women and children of the area to rest, hold meetings, do homework etc. There was another room on the ground floor which was used by the visiting doctor to see patients.

Even before I had settled in I met this woman whom we shall call S. She came in singing and laughing loudly. She was vibrant and beautiful - the first thing I noticed. She was completely shameless is the second thing I registered,when she lifted her 'nightie'/long gown to show some sore on her inner thigh. My delicate sensibilities were under fierce attack when she went on to tell us loudly that she had made Rs600 the previous night. I was busy calculating how many men she had to sleep with to make that kind of money. The center in charge had told me that the going rate was Rs 50 and maybe Rs 100 per 'act' if you were lucky or very beautiful. You can do the maths. But I had to admit that there was something about her so like able that I used to wait for her to visit the center and would worry over her prolonged absences. I went on to befriend her by impressing her by my knowledge of the Bengali language.

The second woman I met that day had 2 sons aged 3yrs and 9 months old. She had close cropped ragged hair and I was told she lived on and off on the roads and the brothels. She had HIV and the days she was well enough to service men some madam/brothel keeper more commonly known as the Gharwaali would take pity on her, giving her lodging and food in return of the money she made. And on days she was too sick she and her children would be found on the streets, surviving how, I don't know. She died by the end of my year there. What happened to her sons you ask? I truly don't know.

The other woman who made an impression on me that day was a young girl whom I had seen from the taxi. She was beautiful in a way you wondered what she was doing in a place like this. Mind you this is Grant Road/Kamathipura, a place where human life is cheap, beauty is mercilessly crushed by abuse and exploitation and disease so great that you age beyond your years if you manage to remain untouched by the ravages of TB and HIV and cheat a miserable and lonely death.
This girl was dressed in a blouse and lehenga/petticoat playing the innocent game of kitkit while waiting for a customer. She looked so out of place..a very North Indian looking girl in a population mostly consisting of girls from Maharashtra,AP,TN,Bangladesh and Nepal.
After a month or so when I knew my way around I went searching for her. But I never saw her again. There were rumors that she was sold and sent to Dubai or Sharjah but no one could tell me for sure what became of her. Memories of her still haunt me.

Thus ended my first day. I went back to the safety and comfort of my home bewildered, and confused. The only thing I was certain about was that I was very wrong in thinking I am not needed here. I still didn't know what I could do. But I knew, do something I must....well that is a beginning right?

The Underbelly - Part 1

I did not write for so long for two reasons : a) I was waiting for a new laptop. My previous laptop would suddenly shut off without a warning and had very sticky keys making writing a not so pleasurable exercise. I obviously have a new laptop now.b) My friend Piper has been asking me to write about my work back in India.

Well to do a good job writing such a blog meant revisiting the underbelly of humanity and honestly to take a trip down there and come unscathed is not humanly possible. I was also finding it difficult to think about the places I visited and the people whom I met there without feeling a tremendous amount of guilt and self loathing. Guilt for having left them there, self loathing for cribbing and undermining all that I have.
Moreover as I am surrounded by cheer, sunshine,innocence thanks to my 2 kids A and A, it was difficult to get ready to confront such darkness.

Reading the book "SOLD" by Patricia McCormick was a fast and furious roller coaster ride to those days. Roller Coasters are not my cup of coffee and thinking of the depravity and desperation and horror surrounding sex trafficking makes me equally sick to the stomach.It is undoubtedly an amazing book and she has done a brilliant job. Telling the story as it is, without sensationalizing the issue is a feat in itself. The simplicity of the writing style adds to the beauty and pain to the story being told by the protagonist, a 13 year old Nepali girl who is sold and tricked into sexual slavery. It describes the girls journey from a small impoverished village in Nepal to a brothel in Mumbai. And from all that I know there is no detail that Patricia McCormick has missed or exaggerated. She has told the story simply and honestly.

And while I read the book I wept first quietly and then not so quietly for there was not one character I could not identify with. Faces and names jumped out of the corner of my consciousness that had neatly tucked them away, to be brought out at my convenience,and at my chosen time. I knew these people, each one of them and I left them far behind in that hell hole. Besides physically distancing myself from them I am also guilty of emotionally and mentally distancing myself from that life. So while I was busy enjoying and cribbing about the pleasures and challenges of domestic bliss and motherhood, life went on as usual in Kamathipura, Grant Road and Sonagachhi.....

Chew on this...............

1. The U.N. estimates that one to four million people are trafficked worldwide each year.

2. Human trafficking is the third most lucrative criminal activity in the world after illegal drugs and black-market guns, generating $9.5 billion in annual revenue.

3. In 2005, the International Labor Organization estimated that there were 9.5 million victims of forced labor in Asia alone.4. Women constitute 70 percent of the world's 1.3 billion absolute poor, those living on less than $1/day.