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Stories that change the world

Monday, August 13, 2018

I can survive everything

Verah Okeyo

Verah Okeyo is a journalist with the largest media house in Kenya: The Nations Group. She covers science with a particular concentration on the environment and health. She is well travelled with the peak of her career being covering the 70th United Nations General Assembly in New York in 2015. As a trained musician and tailor, she occasionally writes about arts and culture, and often finds admirers and admonishers engaging vocally with her on social media. Esha Meher writes her story out, in the very words with which it was told to her. 

I am a carefree soul, known for my terrible memory. I live in London at the moment. I hold a record in locking myself out of the house without keys, losing pieces of jewellery, cellphone and fear that someday I will board the tube and forget where I was headed!

My nephews always crack jokes at me saying “Auntie one day you will forget us in the market.” A health journalist by profession, but what makes me happy are moments I spend sewing and playing.


What does it take to be an ideal woman? A question that I have dwelt over, for the past 30 years of my life, being greeted by a new answer at every point. My childhood was spent mostly on the shores of Lake Naivasha in Kenya where my love for nature and the environment was born. The other portions were spent in rural Homa Bay county in the southern part of Kenya where women’s healthcare was a luxury.From a young age, I got the feeling that if I did not cook, wash, clean and yet look presentable during and after the ordeal, I would be returned from my husband’s house!

With a countryside full of teenage pregnancies, contraception still remained a matter of theory.  When I grew up and went to school,I started speaking out against these things.  That was not well received. Questioning things that have been a given fact since forever. I believed that womanhood and the rights that come with it, is not a taboo that needs raised eyebrows. It is a matter of identity, inherent to us, to be defined, shaped and limited only by our preferences and choices.

When we spot a nice souvenier at a store, we often get it as a gift for someone special. Or we heave a sigh, wishing that someone somewhere would have the exact same thought, and it would magically land up in our drawers or table tops. No, don’t do that. Don’t wait for that someone. See, a pretty thing? Gift it to yourself. Accomplished something? Take yourself out for a coffee. Sharing quality time with oneself, is not a sign of loneliness. For whoever, taught us, self love was a crime, girl, we need to get over it.

They say my story is that of a struggle against society, against the institution of patriarchy, against family and loved ones. I wouldn’t quite say so. If you ask me, I would say it was one for life and independence.



Being fierce and upright in values, was a gene that I inherited from my mother. Rosemary Akinyi Okeyo was a midwife by profession. She travelled in the most remote parts of my village to ensure women delivered in hospitals because somehow they needed that permission from their husbands. However, she soon realized, that the problem was not of lack of knowledge or shortage of pills. The problem was not of reproductive health awareness, it was a case of delegated agency. Women in rural Kenya could not step out of the house and go for their monthly check ups, without the permission of their husbands. “I couldn’t come for the check up, because we have been having guests for the past month, and my husband doesn’t think it right for me to go”. 

“Another child? Well, my husband does not want me to take the pill”. Among statements like this, Rosemary fought on. She soon became a villainous figure in the village and was hated for her work and strength of personality. Strangely, my father always had my mother’s back in all her endeavours. A dutiful wife and a strict mother, society often murmured at her marriage to my father Charles Okeyo, a man with little formal education. To date, I can understand what my mother saw in my father. He was a man of great values.  In a time when his peers held on so much to being “the head of the house”, he allowed his wife and his daughters to be who they wanted to be. My mother was very pragmatic in how she raised us and ran her home.

I still recall the day she came back home, sat the children across the room, and decided to have the talk. So, Verah, Boys, today, I will tell you how babies happen. Wait. What? Has she completely lost it?! But years later, today, as I report on maternal mortality, death rates due to STDs and teenage pregnancies as a result of skewed power dynamics, I understand her fears and concerns for her children. She had ignored the alleged impropriety and societal taboos, to educate her children, and empower them with knowledge. As cases of child sexual abuse are today haunting the corners of the world, I realize that the first distinction of a good touch and a bad touch was taught to us, at a time when this day could not be easily foreseen.

My mother lived a short yet eventful life, which saw its end under questionable circumstances. And true to the bond of love, her husband too, passed away exactly a month later . I do not know how they died. I was too young perhaps. Some say they were poisoned, some say, they died of HIV. I do not know, till date, what it was.

For me, the struggle now began officially. To gain admission into a prestigious public school, one had to be a student of merit. I studied in Kenya’s best girls’ school at that time (Bahati Girls, Nakuru) as long as I performed well in academics and extracurricular activities such as sports and arts. My journey to that school, my stay in it and how I came out of it reminds me that education for a girl in Africa but one that she has to jumps so many hurdles for.It starts with just institutionalized belittling of your efforts to grow.

In my teens, I remember this one incident that changed the way I saw people and learnt the value of trusting the wrong ones. There was a teacher at school whom I really admired. One day I wanted to coach the lower classes in my alma mater after completing my secondary school and managed all As in my sciences. I thought I could help as I waited to join the university.

I cannot forget the steps the woman went through to humiliate me, for daring to imagine that she and I could even walk in the same corridor as equals.But I did not give up. I graduated, getting a degree in education and subsequently journalism. 

Life came a fill circle the day I was called by my boss to help out a lady. “Madam, Verah is the best science journalist in our newspaper, just have a chat with her!” And, what a pleasant surprise. That day, karma paraded before my eyes. I still do not know why my teacher had taken a strange pleasure in calling out on me. Why being rebellious for a woman was considered to be such a sin, that a school girl had to be humiliated and reduced to tears. But years later, things had changed. The feeling of having achieved when naysayers mock every attempt of yours, is sublime indeed.

The newsroom is one of the most trying and unfair places on earth, but also very exciting. It won't be wrong to call it a reflection of society. Rife with segregation, power dynamics and sexism, the race continued to demonstrating “justice” in society. As a single woman in the newsroom, one is propositioned multiple times none of which could be torn down aggressively because “we all need friends to survive in the media.” 

I must say it is the place I learnt the art of not voicing my opinion and indignation at everything. That sometimes the most abhorrent person as an individual but really good at what he does in the newsroom is better off an ally than an enemy.As a woman, I had to learn to navigate that sexist environment  in a less aggressive manner as I wait for things to get better.

They say journalism is tough. And journalism for women is specifically tougher. Standing in the field for days and nights, through the sun and storm covering general elections or mob violence, we choose between saving our health or sometimes our life and protecting our field notes or camera and the footage in it. We make ‘friends’ in those parts of the city, where no person with a family would venture and at the end, we hear theories which trace our promotions (if and when they come) to our abilities of seduction or physical features or appearances. Hah! I have lived through them! And man, I will continue to live through it.

As a journalist you also have to prepare for online trolling, calling you names on social media for stories they do not agree with how you covered. I have learnt to take it under my stride becauseJesus didn’t die on the cross for me to be scared and sad, man! Journalism also tries you as a woman in ways that are different. You report on children and women who are going through issues that makes you ache for them as a mother or a sister would her own blood. It gets very difficult to be objective under such circumstances.

I found myself in this situation when I lost my only sisterto HIV after years of her being abused. I lost her to the culture which normalized subjugation of women. Yet, there was nothing I could do, then. Even in fighting for her children who she left after that, I was surprised that the same issues my mother was facing in the 90s when I was a young child running after her in the village were the same I was facing. The fact that I was not married made me a wrong parent as opposed to the same family that abused her to her grave.

I have been awarded many time for my reporting in gender, science environmental and youth issues and this somehow encourages me to stick to this career.

It also adds to my credibility, and I can assure you that this growth came from those sexist individuals who I chose to keep at a distance but not in my usual “get out of my face” style.

This is not to say, there wasn’t a single soul who held fort for me. I still fall back for support on my superiors  who have become like father and mothers in that field.

Now that I have mentioned mother and father, my definition of family comes to my mind. Family can be people who are not even related to you by blood.

I have a foster family who, strangely, come from another tribe that normally does not get along with the tribe that I come from.They sheltered me when I was homeless, sticking up to me when situations were tough and believing in convictions of covering stories which would otherwise rustle up political feathers.

Most importantly, family (whatever definition you have for it) is important in a job and a life such as mine. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by what I see. My employers would offer counselling but nothing beats a supportive family when you cannot gather the strength to get out of bed, traumatised by your own memories of what you see in the field.

The times have passed and I am now completing my Masters degree in Global media and communication from the London School of Economics and Political Science. I cannot wait to go back to the field as a reporter and apply all the theoretical things that I learnt in school.

Note: When asked about not wearing enough warm clothes, Verah responds in her usual form:
“Man, I have survived three presidents of Kenya, what is this winter then! I can survive everything. Trust me on that!”




Monday, August 6, 2018

Truepic

Diplomat turned entrepreneur, Mounir Ibrahim is all about translating experiences in his journey so far into making meaningful change through tech. Here is his story.

The beginning
Mounir used to be a diplomat with the US Department of State, for almost ten years. He mostly focused on Middle Eastern issues, and was posted in Damascus in 2010, a year before the Arab spring began. Mounir held the portfolio of a political officer, so his work centered around civil society organizations, individuals, NGOs, and on issues like religious freedoms, human rights and the freedom of expression, among other things. 

In the early days of the Arab Spring, he was literally in the heart of what was to be  one of the most brutal conflicts in modern times. Mounir used to see peaceful protests being dispersed with violence, and see people being beaten lifeless - possibly even to death. He saw people running away from the scene when things got violent. and was also, at one point, forced to run away to avoid harm. As everything unfolded,  Mounir couldn't help but notice how central the internet and social media were to all the protest movements throughout the middle east.  While the internet helped gather people, it also allowed Society to become polarized very quickly, through the digital means. People couldn't necessarily discern fact from fiction online, and this happened rather quickly in the Middle East. On the contrary, in the West, particularly in the US, this transition took place much later - and he didn't really see it until the elections in 2016. Up until then, you largely saw internet fraud used to perpetuate fraud. 

His career in the government led him to appreciate the importance of authentication online. Without authentication, it is easy for fraudsters and bad actors to polarize society, play on emotions and manipulate the internet for ulterior motives. 

Looking for the truth
While still  with US State Department, based in NYC, Moujnir served at the United Nations, representing the US Government.  He used to cover a range of issues, particularly concerning Syria and Burma. At the time, the UN was often presented with a range of photographs of events purportedly happening in Syria, Burma, and elsewhere, but too often other countries and critics did not consider the information simply because it was digital - from a smartphone.  Critics would argue the UN Security Council cannot consider digital photos because it cannot establish if they are authentic. It was a convenient excuse for people who did not want to admit reality. 

Around this time, Mounir met with the founders of Truepic after the first seed round was through. The goal, at the time for Truepic, and in many ways continues to be, to return authenticity back to the internet; it targeted the insurance industry and other private sector areas as entry points for its technology.  Truepic's technology is used to counter fraudulent arguments, transactions, and claims. Truepic is really versatile, in that sense. When the goal is to authenticate images, you can really use it anywhere - if you want to either document stories, or if you want to authenticate someone's photograph in an online dating setting. 

Truepic
The app is free to download from either the iStore, or the Google Playstore. It is completely free. One simply gets to sign up using any email ID, and can take pictures. When pictures are taken, the user then determines their choice vis-a-vis the GPS location services on the phone - which is where you can choose the level of GPS detection. Truepic does not sell any information for analytics and its business model is pretty simple. It offers the app for free for citizen use and offers priced and customized versions to private businesses, to fund our business. Truepic also partners with non-profits for social good causes too. 

At the very heart of what Truepic does is building trust between people - and that can be true for anyone that's connected, really - be it individuals, or the government and a business establishment, or even the UN. Truepic has alot of users in India - especially now that it has a competition running in collaboration with the India Photography Awards, which is now calling for citizen-shot photographs documenting lives in cities, using Truepic as the provider. 


Truepic wants to present people with a free tool that can corroborate claims they see or chance upon. It wants to ensure that there are decreased levels of polarization with a heightened level of trust. Any conflict emanates from a place of mistrust that is exploited and manipulated online. Truepic hopes for a day where people don't just consume an image they receive - but instead, say, "Let me check if there's a TruePic of that, first, and then decide if I'll believe in its authenticity."

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

I listen, I observe, I react, I respond.

A TEDx speaker, columnist, mentor with Vital Voices Global Mentoring Walk 2017 and festival curator, Kiran Manral published her first book, The Reluctant Detective, in 2011. Since then, she has published eight books across genres till date. Her books include romance and chicklit with Once Upon A Crush, All Aboard, Saving Maya; horror with The Face at the Window and nonfiction with Karmic Kids, A Boy’s Guide to Growing Up and True Love Stories. Her short stories have been published on Juggernaut, in magazines like Verve and Cosmopolitan, and have been part of anthologies like Chicken Soup for the Soul, Have a Safe Journey and Boo. She was shortlisted for the Femina Women Awards 2017 for Literary Contribution. The Indian Council of UN Relations (ICUNR) supported by the Ministry for Women and Child Development, Government of India, awarded her the International Women’s Day Award 2018 for excellence in the field of writing. Her novella, Saving Maya, was long listed for the Saboteur Awards 2018, UK, supported by the Arts Council England. Two of her books, The Face at the Window and Missing, Presumed Dead, were long listed for the JIO MAMI Word to Screen. Here is her story.
Let's start right from the top. What facilitated your journey into writing? 
I think I was always a writer. I was an only child and had my nose in my books constantly, much to the dismay of my mom who was often apologetic of my penchant for carrying a book constantly wherever we went, even to visit friends and family, or weddings and festive occasions. My mom was a teacher, my dad who was an officer in a nationalised bank died rather early when I was nine. So I was often left to my own devices, and that meant I was only too happy to keep reading.
I read so much, it was perhaps only natural that I began writing. I wrote terrible stories with princesses and towers and dragons and illustrated them too, as a child. Then in college, I was doing my English Honours, I wrote terribly pretentious poetry. Journalism knocked the pretentious socks off me. And straightened me out to write on the straight and narrow for over a decade. Then I had the brat and dropped out of the formal workforce for a few years. When I got back, I began with freelancing, then blogging, and voila, at the ripe old age of 40, I wrote my first book, The Reluctant Detective in 2011. It’s been eight books since, many short stories, and a great ride.
As an author and as a writer on women's issues and feminism, what are your constant creative and thought processes like? Do you find yourself tending towards reacting, or is it more of responding, to things around you?
I would think it is always a mix of reacting and responding depending upon how issues impact you. For me, the women who drop out of the professional workforce and find themselves searching for purpose as their kids grow has been a strong influence, having been there myself. That was my protagonist in The Reluctant Detective. In Saving Maya, it was a woman struggling to rebuild her life after a divorce. Once Upon a Crush and All Aboard, which both frothy romances on the surface, dealt with the very real fear of crossing 30 and not being ‘settled’ which most women face, and specific to All Aboard, of being forced to take stock of your life, once the plan (marriage in this case) crashes. I listen, I observe, I react, I respond, and some of this filters down to what I write.
You've broken heteronormativity in your writing, presenting it like it is. What informs your thought process? As a writer, what were your key challenges in presenting a narrative on sexual orientation that isn't lived or your own, directly?
I’ve always believed that we need to present all orientations in our literature, and that heteronormative relationships need not be the only ones depicted in our literature. As a writer, one writes on varying experiences, situations, times and lives one hasn’t lived. Different sexual orientations are one manifestation. I think as long as one approaches every situation, character and narrative with the determination to treat it with respect and truthfulness, the narrative will hold good.
Tell us about your new book. 
My new book is titled Missing, Presumed Dead. It deals with a woman going missing, a dysfunctional marriage, mental illness and all the battles that break us, and sometimes we don’t emerge from. It is a psychological thriller, and I write about how perspectives and narratives change and how we can’t always trust what we’re told, or shown, and we don’t really know what is going on in anyone’s head. What inspired it was the strange thought that what if all one runs away from is the urge to be found.
Stories have the power to move, and create change. Could you share an anecdote or more from your journey so far, of the impact of your writing? 
Well, Saving Maya, my last book had someone write in to me that she finished the book and sobbed because she was a single mother too. It is a funny book, laugh out loud in places, but it is also a very layered book beneath the surface frothiness, and it did affect her very strongly. Her message really affected me, because until that point I had written the book thinking it would be a fun read. To see how cathartic it proved for someone in a similar place in her life was quite humbling.
What about the flip side? It can't be easy being a feminist visible in public spaces, online and offline. What do you do to deal with negativity in the form of trolling? 
I’ve learned to ignore and block. I don’t need to get onto social media and deal with unsolicited, unacceptable abuse. I also have my twitter settings on high privacy so I actually don’t see notifications from folks who don’t follow me or whom I don’t follow. It keeps me peaceful.

What helped you gather knowledge / learn more about feminism in your journey so far? 
Reading up a lot about it. Reading fiction and non fiction. There are lessons in feminism I learnt from Jane Eyre, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying as well as Caitlin Moran. Reading has been the only route and journey and destination for my feminism.


Her latest book Missing, Presumed Dead, can be ordered on Amazon here.) 

Monday, July 30, 2018

Let’s discuss Human Trafficking today. Are you still there?


Priti Patkar (Photo Credits: Supreet Singh)
A subject that has long been pushed under the rug and has failed to find a place amidst important table discussions, it is only recently that policymakers have begun to treat Trafficking in Persons as a real problem. However, there have been a few who have relentlessly been striving for the recognition of the rights of this invisible group. One of them is Ms. Priti Patkar, the Co-founder and Director of Prerana – an organization working to combat human trafficking and end second generational prostitution since 1986. Prerana leads the South-Asian Anti-Trafficking movement and works for the Rights, Dignity and Choices of Woman/Child victims of sex trade, children rescued from Beggary and Child Sexual Maltreatment. We spoke with Ms. Patkar and learn about her journey; what is it that inspired her to be a leader and fight for a cause that was considered to be a stigma even to be spoken about. Here is her story.

The younger years
I was born in a middle class family and went to a middle class school. I grew up in a neighborhood comprising government employees. For the most part, I had a very sheltered childhood. I was brought up in a very protective environment.

Everyone’s personality, attitude and behavior is a reflection of his/her childhood. For me it was no different. In the early years of my life, my father helped me through my journey. Usually, the essence of education loses its value when it is treated as an indicator of success or pressurizing competition. However, my father’s approach was quite refreshing. He treated this as essential to learning, and that was it. For me, this stands out, as back then, forty-fifty years ago, when the norm was producing engineers and doctors, he was different and supported me in the choices I made.

I pursued Arts after my 10th standard. Later, I went on to obtain a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work from Nirmala Niketan College. I had professional, and formal social work education which provided me with adequate exposure to human rights, understanding of gender issues, the problems that plague our society and approaches/programs employed to tackle them. I knew this is what I wanted to do. Following this, I went to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) to do my masters.  

The birth of Prerana
It was 1986 – the year when the entire world was discussing child rights. With the world, the United Nations was recognizing the significance of defining the rights for every child. Soon, in 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was globally adopted. Yet, years of discourse leading up to this document of declaration of child rights excluded the children of the Red Light areas. We realized that none of the dialogue around child rights looked at issues pertaining to children born to prostituted women, and their social problems. While global discussion focused on child trafficking, there was no discussion on inter-generational trafficking.

I remember going to the RLA in Kamathipura as a 22- year-old student, right out of TISS. What I saw drove me to create Prerana. I had the picture of the innocent and defenseless in front of me - generations after generations caught in a vicious cycle of exploitation; children sitting in the filth, made to buy condoms or alcohol and sleep under the bed, as their mothers attended customer after customer. The deeper we looked into their lives, the more we realized that every child born in the red light area would end up in the sex trade or allied activities. It was necessary to shed light on children born to prostituted women, focus on what happens to them, and how they could be supported. That is why Prerana was born – to break this cycle of exploitation and inter-generational trafficking.

Initial days for us as Prerana were not easy. The laws that prevailed for the protection of children three decades ago were not as well defined. We witnessed a total absence of several focal areas to cater to the needs of these vulnerable children. Furthermore, every time we tried to bring up the topic for discussion, whether it was with civic society, stakeholders involved in implementation of the law or policymakers, the response often received was, "What else do you expect of these children? Prostitution is a necessary social evil; who better to substitute their mother than these children born to prostitutes?". Our efforts were met with such apathy.

Of course, after being exposed to the life of this segment that is at the bottom rung of the social structure, perhaps absent from the very pyramid, giving up ceases to be an option! We kept building on our efforts. We began by addressing the civic and human rights of the women in the sex trade. They had none; no ration cards or bank accounts, and as a result, no civic identity. We wanted to get the state to look at these issues, the judiciary and the police to stop being apathetic towards the lives of these women and children. We had to help the vulnerable build their voices.

In 1996, a mass raid was conducted in a brothel because of a suo moto writ petition filed by the then Chief Justice of Maharashtra. The entire experience made us realize a very essential thing–there was no systematic provision for or any attention given to what happens to a victim post the rescue! This meant, the chances of victimized women and children being re-trafficked post rescue were a high possibility, and in many cases a reality. The need was to take a hard look at the existing provision in the law for when a person was rescued from the sex trade. Our attempt to understand the situation led us to realize: a lot of these women did not cooperate in the prosecution of their traffickers due to lack of support post rescue; there was no victim witness protection or support system for the victims or intimidated witnesses. The women did not trust the system or the law for their protection. There was no way to get them to testify as the society blamed the women; they perceived them as perpetrators and not victims.

The experience brought determination with it – the determination to advocate and amplify our voices for the rights of the victims before, during and post rescue, leading towards sustainable rehabilitation. We understood that livelihood training has to be creative, current and market-oriented. We also talked about alternatives of rehabilitation; all forms of rehabilitation need not be in an incarcerated setting. For generating sufficient awareness around the situation, processes and laws, sensitization, training, advocacy and scaling-up of post rescue reforms, were the approaches that we felt the need for, and also what we practice.

Of course, changing a mind-set takes a lifetime. Of many arguments that came our way, one that we often heard was, "These women already make a lot of money in the sex trade, so why should we spend more money on such women and their children? These women fail to take care of their children, so why do they have them in the first place?" Some argued that by starting services for children of the prostitutes, we were absolving them of their responsibilities. Some came with a “guarantee-wanted” board; they needed assurance that this “investment” will not be futile, and that the children would eventually not end up in the sex trade or any other criminal activities. What they could not understand is – rights are for all, irrespective of to whom they are born, where they are born and when they are born.

We also advocated for the reproductive health rights of women in the sex trade; reproductive health rights are not exclusive to the wealthy. We questioned the issue, put together a document and sought a mindset change. 

In the development space, service-based interventions are extremely crucial. However, the impact is much larger if best practices, approaches or systems translate into policies. Hence, with a strong service base, our next step was to address the glaring need for resources on this issue. The outcome was the first Anti-Trafficking Centre (ATC) in South Asia. The ATC was a knowledge hub, a medium to share and disseminate our learnings on the field or in research about Human Trafficking and its destination crimes. We also conducted trainings of duty bearers and other positive stakeholders.

Over the years, we grew and so did technology. We noticed the widening gap between the availability of and access to resources. This realization led to our latest development –  the creation of an online Anti-Trafficking Resource portal – fighttrafficking.org.  The ATC portal is a knowledge hub focusing on verticals such as research, publications, advocacy and policy in context with the broad human trafficking issue and its destination crimes. This is our platform to carry our advocacy efforts to a global level.

Milestones and Anecdotes
Every time a woman recognized her rights, a child cleared board exams or one of our children took the mother out of the Red Light Area into the mainstream, it was a milestone, and it still is. Although, when our programs or models are replicated, adopted and up-scaled by those who drive the Anti-Human Trafficking movement alongside, it feels so good!

So many stories etched in my memory… For instance, a group of girls was rescued from a brothel and placed in a government shelter home. A session to help them open up was conducted, but no one shared a thing. To break the silence, I asked, "Why don't we talk about our lives?" No one responded. Then I asked, "Why don't we talk about our likes and dislikes?" There was still no response. So I volunteered to tell them about a day in my life. I told them about my daily life undertakings and activities. Still, no one opened up. Suddenly, one girl stood up and said she wanted to share something. She told me, "You sleep at night, but I lay wide awake. You switch off the lights at night, so it's dark, but for us, it is a world of darkness despite the light running on electricity. You women sleep with one man at night, we sleep with 4 to 5 men every night. The man you sleep with, the age difference may not be much but the men that we sleep with often are as old as our fathers. Your home is probably huge, but my home, my universe is ‘6 by 4’. You probably enjoy a meal on your table, but our lives are customer controlled. The customer is the king."

This incident occurred almost 20 years after being in this sector and seeing almost everything that my eyes could have. Nevertheless, it shook us so much. It hit us, how we are with our own children, yet how different we are towards the children in the sex trade. We don't even have a proper understanding of multiple rapes!

Yet another anecdote I recollect goes back to when I was sitting with a group of pre-primary (Balwadi) children. I was pregnant at that time. Of the lot, there was a child around six and a half or seven, who was still in the Balwadi. A child aged around six said, "so-and-so boy so-and-so girl pe line maarta hai" (so-and-so boy is hitting on so-and-so girl). I feigned ignorance and pretended like I didn't understand. A point came when one girl said that it meant the boy loves the girl. Still, I kept up the charade of being ignorant, and said, "Love is good. We should all love each other!" Then, the boy aged around seven asked me, "Are you really this ignorant? It is impossible that you are pregnant without understanding the kind of love they are talking about!"

That was when I realized how shy we are as adult caregivers and change-makers around the whole issue of sex and sexuality. It also struck me that because these children speak about sex, we as a society view them differently. But here is the point – their only exposure, day in and day out has been this, of course they will speak about sex!

If you see Prerana’s work, it is more about scaling deep for us. What it means is adding numbers to our program does not matter, what matters is handholding a child throughout till she or he is out of this space and develops into a responsible and financially independent young adult, away from the darkness of the Red Light Area. Scaling deep for us, even then, wasn't just about protection issues or giving them a place to stay, but about getting the children to channelize their understanding of sex and sexuality, and getting society to understand why they were speaking about it. 

Crossing hurdles
During our initial years, our biggest challenge was social indifference, apathy and the lack of trust in us. For the outside world, we were “experimental and adventurous” and they wouldn't invest in children who, as per their assumption, were most likely to end up in the sex trade.

Often, we were asked for guaranteed deliverables and outcomes. At this point, we would try to make them see that four pillars of child rights – protection, survival, participation and development – are for EVERY child.

As and when we discovered problems in the Red Light Area, we structured services that tried to offer solutions. The Night Care Center (NCC) was not just our first, but also a pioneer model globally. The NCC offered mothers a safe place to protect their children from dangers of the red light district during the critical night hours. Initially, even finding a space for NCC was difficult; people were not willing to give us the place because it would be frequented by prostitutes. Today, we have 4 NCCs providing a comprehensive package of services on a 24x7 basis such as: protected shelter, wholesome nutrition (3 meals in a day), free medical and health facilities, and education and recreational facilities.

The challenges posed by the traffickers and the pimps came much later. Initially, they were happy that we were educating the children. For them, higher education meant richer clients. However, the moment they recognized our struggles were to ensure these children walk the path towards freedom and a career beyond the sex trade, they began seeing it as an affront. 

Eventually, we started our Educational Support Program, strengthened our Post Rescue Operations programs, set up a shelter home as a model for minimum standards of Care for girl children between the age of 8 to 18 years, expanded our work with children in need of care and protection, initiated an After Care Project and a project working for the protection of children rescued from beggary.

Amidst all this, the challenge that has persisted is the treatment of these children and women as criminals and not as victims. We constantly strive to establish these women as Victims of Commercial Sexual Exploitation. These are people suffering the worst form of exploitation, refused a chance to reintegrate with the mainstream. Of course, we try.

Let’s acknowledge that the recent decade has seen quite a change in the treatment of the issue by the government and policymakers. Human Trafficking is being viewed as a serious offence and child friendly laws and systems are being sought out in our provisions. However, that approach has still not rubbed off on to the civic society or the implementers of the law as it should. We are still struggling to adopt the law in its spirit. The stakeholders involved in the implementation of laws need to undergo sensitization and law trainings.

The bottom line – it is a long battle. We have just touched upon the surface. Although, what has been so crucial to all our accomplishments or the little work we have done is the collaborative support provided by the other NGOs, our partners, the police officials, the Child Welfare Committee and other stakeholders working with Children in Need of Care and Protection. Collaboration and unity is the key to working in this space. That is what will ensure that no child falls through the cracks of social apathy, and that the RIGHTS, CHOICES and DIGNITY of these women and children are restored and protected. After all, children cannot and should not be kept waiting!