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Utthan evokes community role in ensuring trafficking survivor’s safety

“Aspiring for a better life and wishing to earn in order support the family financially is not wrong or dirty. Young girls often migrate to other places, or cities, in search for a better life not to be sold, exploited and abused.”

“It is the duty of the family and the community as a whole to provide safety and protection to girls who are vulnerable to abuse, violence and trafficking.”

These are the statements made by leaders of Utthan – a collective of 17 courageous survivor leaders of human trafficking – at the community meeting they organised at a remote village of West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas. The meeting was to make the community members understand the issue of human trafficking and why their daughters and sisters are at the risk of being victims of this organised crime, and what they need to do protect their women and children, create a safety net around them and combat this menace.

The village meeting was organised as part of their efforts to counsel and help Madhuraa (name changed), a survivor of trafficking facing threats and intimidation from the trafficker who sold her off at a brothel in Mumbai some six years ago.

When she was only 16 years, a local boy who she was in love with encouraged her to elope with him promising that they would marry once they are out of the village. Blinded by love, she fled her home to be with the man she loved, giving up family, friends and studies. But she was totally unaware that the man who she loves is a trafficker, who sold Madhuraa to a brothel soon they landed in Mumbai. Her dreams of getting married and living a happy life shattered. She was subjected to unspeakable torture, abuse and sexual exploitation at the brothel for about three long years until she ran away from that place and returned home.

Madhuraa is now 25. Married and has three children who live with her aged parents in her village in North 24 Parganas. Her case against her trafficker has been going on for many years. Recently, she received threats from her trafficker’s family and goons hired by them. The goons have openly threatened to kill Madhuraa, her husband and the Social Worker who is helping them in their case if the case against the trafficker is not withdrawn.

They have even attacked Madhuraa’s family at their house. The incident has scarred them off so much that they are feeling unsafe to even come out of their house. This incident, however, did not perturb their neighbours who have so far been acting as mute spectators. One of the members of the local gram panchayat is allegedly taking side of the trafficker and trying to instigate the community members against Madhurra, branding her as an “bad gir

Upon knowing her problems, Utthan leaders decided to intervene and provide support to her and her family at this juncture. Four members from Utthan visited Madhuraa’s home twice following the threats they received.

From the conversations among the members of the community at the meeting, it was evident that there were three categories of people: ono who were supporting Madhuraa including their family, the social worker, Utthan members, police etc.; secondly those who didn’t support Madhuraa but had opinions, and third category included those who were totally against Madhuraa, criticizing and blaming her for eloping with her boyfriend who actually sold her to a brothel.

Since Utthan members have been working with all these categories of people, their interventions in such situations have been very strategic. They created a safe place for Madhuraa where she could speak out without fear and being judged or criticized by anyone. They encouraged Madhuraa to be fearless and speak before the community about her issues. Collectively, Utthan members were the voice of Madhuraa at the meeting.

Utthan members also took this meeting as an opportunity to talk about the issue of migration and human trafficking which is so pervasive and entrenched in our society. Firoza Khatun, one of the Utthan members, said, “There’s nothing wrong if a girl dreams for a better life, and wants to earn so that she could help her family financially. Girls and women migrate to other places in search of a better job and better life, not to be sold, exploited and abused. That's what happened with Madhuraa.

Lilufa Khatun, another leader from Utthan, said, “Being married off as a child is not the fault of the girls. The family and community are also responsible for this. It is easier to abuse child brides and sell them off once they are away from their families. If the communities and families do not know or understand this problem, then it's time for them to change. ”

She further added that Utthan intervenes to stop child marriage whenever they come to know about it. “In case you also know about any child marriage that is being planned or happening, please call 1098,” she informed.

A young boy who was standing next to her suddenly participated in the conversation and said “yes, it is our duty to stop child marriage in our village”. To which Tumpa Khatun, another leader from Utthan, maintained that it is actually the responsibility of the community to ensure the safety of their children. “In the case of Madhuraa as well, it should be the community which should provide her safety when there is a threat to her life,” she contented.

The key point Utthan members managed to send across during the meeting was that it should be unacceptable for the community if any of girl or woman from the community is threatened by anyone. They were able to convince the community members that if today they won’t support Madhuraa and act against the goons; tomorrow someone else’s daughter or sister might go through the similar trauma perpetrated by some other trafficker.

While the discussion was going on, a 40-year-old neighbour who was initially silent and not showing interest in the meeting started saying, “I would go to the court and be a witness to the attack on Madhuraa’s family members.”

Few other members also commented that if Utthan members can come from such far to show solidarity and support to Madhuraa, they should also come forward and support her in her fight for justice.

When the meeting was over and Utthan members were about to leave for their respective places, there was an expression of happiness and satisfaction on their faces. At least they managed to make the community understand their responsibilities.

But the fight is on, more needs to be done.