Oct 22, 2011 via The National by Helena Frith Powell
The pair run Odanadi – meaning “soul mate” – an organisation that provides refuge, counselling, education and rehabilitation for up to 85 victims of trafficking at a time. They have taken in scores of domestic slaves and bonded labourers. They’ve raided 60 brothels and secured the convictions of 137 sex traffickers.
Impressive figures. But then the problem is on a massive scale. The Indian government’s own figures put the amount of people in some way involved in human trafficking – the illegal trade in people for the purposes of slavery, commercial sexual exploitation or forced labour – at around 100 million. Of those, 1.2 million are children.
But this fight did not start as a crusade against seemingly insurmountable odds; instead, they were shamed into it.
In the late 1980s, the two young friends worked together as newspaper journalists so closely their byline read simply ‘Stanly Parashu’. It was while conducting interviews for a piece on Dalits – members of India’s strict hierarchical system born below even the lowest caste – that they were challenged by a woman in the street.
“Her name was Radhamma,” Stanly says. “She was a prostitute, lower in social standing than even Dalits.
“She asked us: ‘What do you do with the story of these poor people? You write about them, get yourselves a good name, but these people get nothing in return. They think you are a saviour but you don’t come back.’ That really pricked our egos,” says Stanly.
Stung by the criticism, the men turned their attention towards one of India’s greatest taboos – prostitution – starting with Radhamma herself.
“Radhamma had been a housewife,” Stanly says. “But her husband took her to Bombay and sold her to a brothel. When he returned home without her he explained to her family she had run off with another man. He then married his wife’s sister.”
After two years Radhamma managed to escape the brothel and return to her village, now with a child fathered by a client. But her family believed her husband’s story and she was cast out, ending up living on the street working as a prostitute, depending on 10 clients a day to earn enough money to live on and send her son to school.
Radhamma had been working the streets for 10 years when Stanly and Parashu met her.
“We wanted to help, to give her financial support, and look after the boy’s education,” says Stanly.
Although they gave her a little cash and arranged for local restaurants to feed her son, Nanjumda, Radhamma found resistance to her change in circumstances too much to bear.
“When we returned a fortnight later, we found her again on the street in the same filthy condition,” Stanly says. “She said: ‘You gave me money but money is not changing my life. No one is accepting me, people are bothering me, police are harassing me.’ ”
Prostitutes coming under the police spotlight are treated with little sympathy.
“Women were dragged by their hair; there were no policewomen in those days,” Parashu says. “The male officers would drag them to the police station half-nude. “No one would ask the authorities about this violation of their human rights. We told the police that these ladies are citizens, human beings. We asked them to treat them humanely.
“We started questioning this ill-treatment and dragged chairs into the offices for the women to sit on instead of being forced to stand in the corner of the police station,” says Parashu. “This started the gap to open between the police and us.” Next page