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From a street performer to activist: A trafficked women’s painful story of survival

Hashina was just 13 years old when she made the hard decision of joining a dance group to help her family survive. It was the day her favourite actor Balakrishna’s movie “Bangaru Bullodu” was released, and she had long planned to watch the first show of the day, without any inkling of the fate that lay in store for her.

Through a neighbour known to her mother, Hashina met Jani Bhasa, who was operating a dance group called Jani Bhasa Recording Dance Group. The same day, Jani took her with his troupe to Pamaru, a village in Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh, for a programme where Hashina, a self-trained dancer, performed to popular Telugu movie songs. Her dancing skills attracted many people’s attention that night.

Hashina was happy that she was able to entertain a huge crowd. But her happiness soon turned to shock when some youths climbed onto the stage and started dancing with her and touching her inappropriately. She tried her best to resist the harassment, but it did not stop. One of them even tore off her clothes, forcing her to run into the greenroom and hide until the programme ended.

The manager came to her and told her bluntly, “This is the business and this will remain the same. Accept it or perish.” Hashina decided not to join the dance group again. After returning home, she did not speak to anyone for weeks. Her mother, who was also in the same profession and was aware of the hazards, supported her and told her not to join the group if she did not like it.

But the situation at home was getting worse, with her mother not finding any work and having a hard time keeping the family afloat. During this time, her father, who had been living separately with another woman for over 10 years, also returned home after his second wife threw him out. He was ill and was in urgent need of treatment, which required more than Rs 5 lakh. Hashina’s siblings – two sisters and a brother – discontinued their studies. Even arranging a day’s food for the family was a daunting task for Hashina’s mother, who by then, was running into several lakhs in debt.

Being the eldest sibling, Hashina decided to join the dance group again. She accepted her fate and felt that she had to work to save her family. “That day, I realised I was no longer a 13-year-old child. I felt like a middle-aged woman with a lot of responsibilities. I knew the path would be difficult. There would be harassment, but how could I see my family suffer? I accepted the professional hazards and decided to move on with it,” recounts Hashina.

Life continued as usual. Her love for dancing and her earnings kept her going, despite the occasional discomfort and pain that came along the way. But all her hard work came to a standstill after she was injured in an accident. Her doctors told her not to dance. Again, the burden of running the family fell onto her mother, but she emerged stronger this time. She also got Hashina married in her neighbouring district.

Seven years passed by. Hashina was happy in her married life and enjoying her time as a wife and a mother of two kids – a son and a daughter. But that did not last long. Her husband found out about her past through a photograph from her days in the dancing group. First, he started quarrelling with her and abusing her, and then he demanded that Hashina return to dancing and that he would work as her manager.

It was a difficult situation for Hashina, but she felt obliged to save her marriage and family. Whatever she could earn, her husband would spend on alcohol and gambling, and this continued for a few years. But soon it became impossible for her to tolerate. In 2015, she broke off the relationship and returned to her mother’s place with her kids.

“I continued to go with dance troupes, but I gave up that profession as it was physically and mentally very straining. But in this juncture of life, I received great support from a friend and started a small business, and life slowly came back on track again,” she says.

In the same year, she came in contact with HELP — a local Guntur-based NGO working on children and women’s rights — when they were conducting a community sensitisation exercise in Chilakaluripet. She met a representative of the NGO and got to know about Vimukthi, a collective of over 75 women and girls who were formerly sex workers. Their work inspired Hashina to join the group, and she started working as a “community mobiliser” in her locality, beginning a new chapter in her life. 

As a member of Vimukthi, which aimed at protecting children of women in sex work from getting into the trade, she tracked vulnerable children and encouraged their parents to send them to school. She also helped create several “child protection” groups in and around her community, who in turn took on the responsibility of identifying 15 other vulnerable children from their areas.

Her passion and commitment towards her work were highly appreciated and acknowledged by her peers, people from her community and within HELP. She is now the district coordinator of Vimukthi. She is also a member of Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking (ILFAT), a national forum for and by survivors of all forms of human trafficking and slavery who have come together with a common vision to collectively combat human trafficking and improve access to justice for survivors.

“The work not only helped change my own perspective on life, but also helped me to change many other lives. I am happy that I have managed to bring in some positive changes in my own capacity. It’s my contribution to society, and I am continuing to do so,” she says.

“I don’t want any other child gets into sex work, or dance to the tunes of item songs meant to titillate the men in the audience. I want all the children to go to school, complete their education and take up livelihood options as per their skills and ability.”

Author: Saroj Pattnaik is a freelance journalist associated with grassroots organisations working on the issue of human trafficking in India.

DisclaimerThis article was published on The News Minute as a part of Meri Suno, a campaign to give voice to survivors of trafficking. The campaign is led by members of the Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking, a survivor-led organisation formed to combat trafficking.