Courage and hope: These women survivor leaders are now helping others like them

While getting ready to attend a meeting with Ashar Alo, a self-help group, community leader Lilufa gets a distress call from a young girl in a nearby locality whose husband had hit her on the head with a brick. After tolerating the abuse for a while, the girl had finally decided to put an end to it and sought help from the local panchayat, who in turn redirected her to Lilufa.

“You see, this is not the first time I’m having a woman echoing Ruksana’s fate calling me,” said a relentless Lilufa as she rushed to the panchayat office to meet the girl.

The next day when I asked her how she helped the girl, Lilufa said, “I took Ruksana to have a CT scan before taking her to the police station. We submitted her medical report, a crucial piece of evidence of the abuse inflicted on her. Ruksana filed a complaint. Only after the police assured us that they’d arrest the culprit did we leave the police station. I dropped a still visibly shaken Ruksana at her parents’ home. Her look of agony and despair, and the innocent question of whether she would get a chance to live without the fear of getting beaten now and then, brought back memories that have made me what I am today. Her eyes resembled mine and a hundred other women surviving with the fear of abuse but with the hope of rising above it.”

Lilufa’s knowledge, courage and compassion were a lesson in leadership for me that day. Leadership often presents itself in multiple ways, shapes and forms, yet our understanding is limited to only those in power. The beauty of leadership lies in the diversity that leaders display, all the while working towards a unified goal.

Lilufa gives us a glimpse of her own path and how she got to where she is today. Her past, struggles and victories shaped her journey of becoming a community leader. She is a member of Utthan, a remarkable leaders’ collective formed by survivors of human trafficking who are spearheading the fight for social justice in their own communities and in the larger system. Asked to describe herself, she summarises, “I’m an activist, a mother, a community leader, and essentially a woman fighting against the odds in society with my fellow struggling sisters.” Her beautiful description leaves one wondering how such rich leadership abilities and co-existing feminine identities are seldom upheld as illustrations of “leadership”.

Another such leader is Reshma, who is part of the survivor leaders’ collective Bandhan Mukti, which also does unparalleled community work through awareness generation and advocacy. She self-admittedly finds her strength through collectivism. Reshma has a horrifying past, her potentially blissful marital life marred by continued torture, deprivation and violence. The legal pursuit for justice was so economically exacting that she was pressurised by the community and her otherwise supportive parents to give it up. Reshma found courage and hope in Bandhan Mukti’s collective support to not only pursue what was rightfully hers, but also aid numerous other women in their own journey. She is proud to have found a community which she leads and which leads her too.

In another part of India, Janaki, who is now a force to reckon with in the community, was one of the most eager recruits of Vimukthi, a survivors’ collective that works with sex workers and survivors of trafficking in rural Andhra Pradesh. Today, Janaki works tirelessly for the empowerment of sex workers and survivors of sex trafficking.

She says, “I quit sex work and am leading a life of dignity and respect. I want to work for other such survivors who have been deceived and are entangled in this vicious cycle of commercial sexual exploitation.” From starting a small vegetable stall to break the cycle of poverty that brought about her suffering to advocating for legal justice and social entitlements of sex workers and survivors, Janaki is now leading from the front.

Ajufa, who has led Bijoyini – a survivors’ collective working in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district – recounts her leadership journey from receiving hate from the community to now being indispensable within the same community. While talking about how living in the community is extremely difficult in the initial days post-rescue, she says, “I found myself very alone, rejected when I was first rescued and came to my community after so many struggles.”

Likening her life’s transformation to that of a caterpillar, she acknowledges that her refusal to keep quiet about the isolation she was facing and loud advocacy for her own rights forced people to take notice of their inner biases and include her within the community. Her indefatigable efforts to raise awareness about social perils have paved the way for community recognition for Ajufa and collective action against trafficking within the community. The self-proclaimed caterpillar is a “Bijoyini” (winner) in the community now.

Recently, when the world was grappling with the unforeseen COVID-19 pandemic, once again the bevy of leaders, who are all part of the Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking (ILFAT), a national federation of and by survivors of various forms of human trafficking, mobilised support to help those most in need yet left out of formal emergency support service provisions. The survivor leaders reached out to the most vulnerable population groups in their community, identified their immediate needs, and galvanised organisational and crowdfunding resources to provide immediate relief. The leaders supported migrant labourers, women vulnerable to violence, those rendered homeless by a devastating cyclone, children of low-income families who had lost access to education, oftentimes contributing from their own meagre resources. The true might of women leadership and collective action could not have been more prominent in alleviating the immense distress that these vulnerable groups suffered

Over the course of their leadership journey, the ripples that these women leaders caused in the ecosystem have reverberated back to them. The same community and institutions now hold them in high regard, treat them as knowledgeable, contributing members, even agents of social change. In one of our chats, one of the leaders mentioned she is now called “Madam” by the same cantankerous cop who had refused to help her earlier. She says, “I feel heard, and respected.” Another leader exclaimed how she recently heard a local school teacher praise their work in helping young girls understand the difference between good and bad touch. These small appreciations and recognitions provide impetus to the leaders to work towards the change that they want to bring. 

The sacrifices they made, the stigma they faced, the brutalities of their trafficked life fuel their quest to prevent other women and children from suffering a similar fate. They now hold institutions, communities and families accountable for stopping the vulnerable from getting pushed further to the periphery. From being relegated to the margins to making their mark and taking up space in society; from being silenced to now challenging the very forces and structures that had enabled their sufferings, these women stay resolute in their efforts to foster equity.

So, this International Women’s Day, as the world applauds women in leadership positions who led countries, research and relief through this extraordinary crisis, we celebrate our survivor leaders who have exemplified leadership through empathy, support, and resistance even during the pandemic as they had done before.

To conclude with what the fearless Lilufa said on being asked how she feels, “I feel aches and pains in my body but immense pleasure in my heart. You might ask where this pleasure comes from. I’ll tell you – it’s the joy of fighting together for a better tomorrow.”

Happy Women’s Day!

Rishita Mukherjee is the primary “cheerleader” of the leadership programme. She is a gender and mental health rights professional who manages Leadership Next, which the leaders are spearheading. You can reach her at rishita@kamoin.org.

Disclaimer: The article was initally published on The News Minute, and was republished here with author's permission.