//Opportunities for change : Preetu Venugopalan

Opportunities for change : Preetu Venugopalan


PREETU VENUGOPALAN, The Hindu Nov 5, 2006

Economic rehabilitation is an important part of giving victims of trafficking a new life. An NGO in Goa shows the way…

IT is 8.45 a.m. A confident Sudha waits outside her home in Goa, wearing a uniform designed by one of the country's top fashion designer, Savio Jon. She is waiting for a cab to take her to work. Sudha works for a laundry unit at Sancoale Industrial Estate, which she hopes will one day be the most successful rehabilitation programme.

Six months ago, 23-year-old Sudha had no aim or ambition and faced an uncertain future. Dedicated to Goddess Yellama at the age of 12, she was forced into prostitution as a Devadasi at the age of 14, and worked for a gharwali (brothel keeper) in Baina, Goa. The mass demolition of cubicles in Baina's unofficial red light area on June 14, 2004, didn't change her situation, rather worsened it. With no economic rehabilitation in sight, she was forced to travel to other parts of the State for "business".

Economic support

Incidentally, the Supreme Court in Gaurav Jain vs. Union of India, 1997, had pointed out that Welfare Departments should undertake economic rehabilitation programmes, as this would prevent the practice of the dedication of young girls to prostitution as Devadasis, Jogins or Venkatasins. "It would be meaningful if rehabilitation programmes are launched and implementation machinery is set up not only to eradicate the fertile source of prostitution, but also for successful rehabilitation of the fallen women who are victims of circumstances to regain their lost respect to the dignity of person to sustain equality of status, economic and social empowerment," the court observed.

In Goa, there is much talk about combating trafficking of persons, thanks to a report on "Trafficking of women and children in India 2002-2003", commissioned by the National Human Rights Commission along with UNIFEM and the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS), which reveals that Goa has the highest level of trafficking of women and children in the country. Though economic rehabilitation is vital, little has been done by the government or NGOs to economically rehabilitate trafficked victims.

"We need economic rehabilitation programmes because if we don't provide rescued trafficked victims with jobs, they will go back to prostitution, if not in Baina, then in another part of the State or country," opines former DGP of Goa, Neeraj Kumar.

New journeys

After nine years of commercial sex work, Sudha has embarked on a new journey that is helping her see herself as part of the whole. "At first it was difficult, but I was determined," reveals Sudha, who is now a trained commercial driver. And she is not alone.

Fatima doesn't remember her village in Karnataka. She always believed Goa was home until the demolition drive happened. "I was denied compensation by the Goa Government because I am a non-Goan," she says. She was six-months-old when her poverty-stricken family came to Baina seeking a livelihood. Personal problems forced her into prostitution. Following the demolition, decreasing income, loneliness and insecurity only compounded her troubles.

But now, like Sudha, she has taken her first step to freedom from sexual and emotional exploitation. "I have got an opportunity to change my life, to live life with dignity and I have chosen it," she said.

The wheels of destiny are changing, slowly but surely, for 40 silent, helpless victims of commercial sexual exploitation, desperate to leave the trade, but left with little due to poverty.

ARZ, an NGO working with trafficked victims in Goa, as part of its economic rehabilitation programme, has set up a fully mechanised laundry unit, "Swift Wash", at Sancole Industrial estate. The first of its kind in Goa, it provides employment to 40 trafficked victims, mostly from Baina. "We want to ensure that women earn a dignified income, as it is the only tool that can pull them out and plug all entries into prostitution," revealed Arun Pandey, Director, ARZ.

Arun hopes the unit will develop into a full-fledged women's cooperative with trafficked women being the sole owners of the entire unit. And, Arun is not the only person dreaming of a better future. Laxmi, a trafficked victim, optimistically reveals, "Our hard work will be rewarded. Within a year or two, we want the unit to grow and expand so that we can help more children and women like us."

The effort has won accolades from former DGP Kumar, who says, "This is the first time that an NGO in Goa has walked the talk." And, for trafficking victims like Fatima and Sudha, the laundry unit has helped them leave prostitution, something even the Baina demolition couldn't achieve. Today, they are confident and empowered women, ready to fight their exploiters, including their mard.

T.S. Sawant, Director, Women and Child, Goa, admits that the idea is very good and the department would support the endeavour. "This is what Goa needs at the moment to combat trafficking. After all, poverty is the main reason why innocent girls and women are pushed into prostitution and economic rehabilitation is the need of the hour if one wants to seriously combat trafficking of persons." The State Government is planning to seek ARZ's help to provide economic rehabilitation to trafficked victims in the State Protective Home.

If human rights are about the rights of humans, about empowering the underprivileged and neglected in society by providing them equal opportunities, then this is just the beginning.

(A few names have been changed to protect identity.)