India is rated as the fourth most deadly and dangerous country for women in the world, just behind Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Congo. In a country that is pacing quickly ahead through economic progression, India’s cultural traditions keep this nation in a violent past, especially when it comes to the rights of women and girls. During my last few weeks in India I met a young woman who was working with survivors of human trafficking. She introduced me to an organisation called Odanadi, where the world of human trafficking lost it’s facelessness forever.
Odanadi, founded in 1993 by two journalist, Stanly and Parashu, is committed to rescuing, rehabilitating and reintegrating victims of human trafficking. Human Trafficking is the third largest international crime industry. Unfortunately, when there is space for exploitation, vulnerable women, especially young girls are the first to suffer.
No human should be for sale, yet in today’s world, there are more slaves than ever. These slaves are cheaper than at any other time in history. When the topic of trafficking humans comes up, many myths and assumptions are created. Many of the complexities of this issue are left out of the narrative, such as the forced labour market that dominates much of the agriculture industry and consumer products, or the many important faces who also fall prey to this violence such as young boys and the LGBTQ community. Odanadi is working hard on educating the public on the wide spectrum of the suffering caused by human trafficking. Odanadi works with both boys and girls on their recovery, as well as rescuing those from all forms of forced labour. However, the fact remains that 70% of persons trafficked do fit the profile of being young girls from low caste, low-income families. These are the young women I met, and this is a story about them.
Traffickers steal young girls while walking on the street, some are sold by their parents given the low status of the girl child or in many cases, desperate for work, the girls are baited by false work opportunities, bonded into a lifetime of misery. 18% of those trafficked are used for forced labour, while 79%, usually young girls, are sold for commercial sexual exploitation (CSE). If the girls are lucky not to be sold into forced prostitution, they may instead be sold into child marriage, domestic servitude or for other sexually based entertainment purposes. There are currently over 2.8 million women bonded into CSE in India. In 26 years, Odanadi has worked tirelessly to rescue over 4300 victims.
Odanadi means soul mate, someone who walks with you, hand-in-hand through life. As soon as you walk into the large gates of Odanadi, the heavy sounds of honking and a thick cloud of dirt coloured smoke that covers India disappears. Instead, the wind blows peacefully against the palm trees that guard the house of Odandi, the only noise is the sounds of the girls laughing or learning.
As we arrived at the gates, we were greeted by the house security guard, a young girl who has lived in Odanadi for 8 years. Gradually working her way up to the role. My friend joked, ‘She is the most stunning security guard I’ve ever seen’! She really was.
Odanadi is built in Mysore, Karnataka State, which is one of India’s hot spots for trafficking. The plot has a house for girls as well as a separate home for boys. While the space itself provides protection for these survivors, Odanadi also offers many programs for their recovery and rehabilitation. Part of their psycho-social therapies includes karate, yoga, drama and dance classes. All of which help the victims to regain a sense of self-love and strength for their bodies, which was too often stolen from them. To help them prepare for their roles back in the community, there is a satvic bakery, where the girls can learn cooking skills, a beauty salon where the girls are learning a trade as well as computer rooms for the girls to take classes.
Laksmi*, one of the recently rescued girls, stayed inside for most of the day while the other girls went off to school. She was 19, but given her Indian heritage, she looked much younger. She is one of the most beautiful girls I’ve laid eyes on. Partly because of her flawless features, but more so because of the relentless nature of her light that shines through her smile, despite how much darkness laid behind it. When we first met, she was having a ‘good’ day. Excitable and polite, out of context you would never know the suffering she endured. By the second day, the weight of her recovery was more felt. Being the vivacious young woman she was, despite her pain, she still smiled brightly and said ‘Hello Sister’ with a warmth worthy of the effort. The strength of these girls, with their ability to still give love and light to others despite the horrific brutality offered to them by their abusers, is worthy of much more worship than all the Hindu gods of India.
While my role as a visitor was insignificant, the role of my friend was vital. A stunning and confident young woman, travelling the world alone, she became a great role model for the girls. Faced with some dark times in her past, sharing her experiences with the girls in her presentation on women’s empowerment opened the girl’s eyes to how global these issues were. For many of the young girls, trafficking and violence were only something they had seen happen to girls like them, young Indian or Nepalese girls, born into poverty and seen as second class citizens. To see a strong and bright young woman from a different part of the world they could relate to was a gift that lifted them out of their past horrors, if only for a moment.
During our time at Odanadi, I also supported my friend to host discussions and workshops about women’s empowerment. One of the discussions was about women who inspire us. As we sat on the floor together, the girls opened up, one girl answered an Indian classical dancer, another Mother Theresa, an Indian warrior figure, her mother, and one girl said herself – which just about made my heart explode into pieces out of awe of this young woman. To hold onto your sense of self and value after the trauma of abuse is near impossible. It shatters you, until you feel like nothing more than a shell of suffering skin. This might account for the fact that 67% of brothel owners were previously victims of CSE, which shows how inescapable the industry is and the type of loss victims must suffer to be in a place to repeat the vicious cycle. The fact that the girls are able to begin to build their lives back is owed to the space created at Odanadi.
Despite the success of the discussions with many of the girls, some of the recently rescued girls were unable to participate. Their captors usually make very real threats to the safety of their loved ones if they ever did escape or detail their captures. So being at Odanadi was a very real risk for them. They wanted out.
Other reasons for their withdrawal from socialising is the fact that they had been held for years and their hourly fantasies of being free didn’t look like Odnandi, it looked like home. The girls have families and some even have children to get back to. They did not care for their rehabilitation. An understandable urge. Others are coping with the news that due to stigmas, their families won’t accept them back. A burn so deep, girls may take years to adjust to their new life outside of slavery.
The overwhelming reality that women are sold and stolen, only to be raped a dozen times a day so that some brothel owner or madam can profit from their flesh is a cycle so sick my throat and heart silently burned with fury. These women know the kind of suffering reserved only for the depths of hell. Yet despite it all, these women, with the help of the staff at Odanadi, the sisterhood created within the walls of Odanadi and the growing global support for this organisation, are beginning their life long journey away from trauma towards trust.
My visit to Odanadi will stay with me forever, as a place I witnessed the most strength and courage I’ve seen in a lifetime. However, despite the wins, the inability to find justice for these young girls was shattering. I could barely cope with the weight of their trauma, despite wanting to carry it for them. I found myself caving and indulging in my own emotions in this space, which gave me a sense of selfishness I’d never know. This was a space for healing and strength, and I was not about to weep my mourning for their once stolen lives all over the place. They had their freedom now, and I was there to celebrate this.
This has been one of the most difficult articles to write. Not simply because of the obvious emotional content, but because covering the correct complexities of this issue is vital to its’ end. One of the most important things I have learned since searching for answers around this issue is that beyond the bad men or evil madames enslaving young women and boys, a scene we can distance ourselves from and know we played no part, is a larger cultural context in which we all participate. As conscious consumers, especially as travellers, human trafficking is not something that only occurs in the hidden shadows of slums. Human trafficking is in our cheap massages and manicures, the clothes we buy and wear and the restaurants we visit both at home and overseas. Here in Australia, many migrants are forced into labour for the debt of their transport, their passports are burnt and the conditions in which they work are violent and unpaid.
For India, many new efforts need to be made to stop this modern form of slavery. The government has been criticised globally for not complying with minimum standards of combating this issue. By prosecuting victims and accepting bribes from abusers the cycle of corruption continues to grow. What needs to be done is to eliminate the prosecution of victims, increase the penalties for those convicted and provide better protection programs for victims.
In the meantime, Odanadi is here to work relentlessly to give love and support to the victims of this international crime ring.
You can donate to Odanadi on their website here: Donate
Or if you are a yogi and would like to host one of the many world wide Yoga Stop Traffick events in March, get involved here: Yoga Stops Traffick