Monday, March 14, 2016

Fighting Trafficking

Rashmi, with some of the women she works with
Rashmi Tiwari founded the Aahan Tribal Development Foundation. Fighting trafficking in young girls from the state of Jharkhand, India, Rashmi’s advocacy efforts have helped to slowly shift the social mindset and landscape on the perception of girls and women, and their rights. Here is her story in her own words.

Slog overs
The four decades of my existence has been much like a roller-coaster ride. Life gave me the opportunity to experience a whole range of situations and shades of human emotions. Life treated me like a princess till I was 9 years old. I had a shot at all the possible luxuries of life. And then, in the blink of an eye, I found myself at the other end of the spectrum, where the only luxury I could have was a 60W light bulb in a room that measured 3.5 feet x 5.5 feet: a room which was my drawing room, bedroom, study as well as the kitchen, till I completed my Masters.

I was a posthumous child. During the period of struggle, my not-very-educated-mother dabbled with various professions ranging from being a daily-wage laborer to a primary school teacher, to help us survive this tough journey.   

The discrimination and stigma of our conservative society was evident and worked as spanner in the wheel whenever I tried to spread my wings. However, nothing could hold me back. It only slowed me down. I distinctly remember that even under those harsh financial conditions, I gave up the scholarship meant for girl students who were coming from financially weaker sections when I was in Class 7. I knew what the reality was, but I never believed that I was weak or vulnerable. Instead of taking the scholarship that would have tagged me and my mother as poor, I decided to protect my self-respect and earn my school books and clothes by entertaining senior girl students through my dance and mimicry skills.

Adversities such as hunger, poverty, discrimination and such else made me stronger. By the time I was ten, I had experienced the taste of my own notebook page, because at times, it was the only thing I could nibble on. However, I never chose to seek sympathy.

I always had a latent desire to work in the social sector. However, fear of financial uncertainty always pulled me away from taking the plunge. After my US State Department-Fortune Mentorship Program in the USA, I started searching for my cause. The turning point in my life came when, during one of my journeys in search of a cause, I met a tribal family of four in a small village of Orissa. The family was very poor and had very little food to survive on.
While I was interacting with the mother of the three girls, I expressed my desire to speak with her daughters, as well. She said that she could only call one girl at a time, as there was only one proper set of decent clothes that her three daughters shared. I was transported back to my period of struggle. I saw tribal girls as young as seven being brought to Delhi and being sold for a few years as a domestic maid, working for 18-20 hours in miserable conditions! I knew that my calling was to help these tribal people living on the edge.
That was when I decided to start Aahan Tribal Development Foundation. I left my corporate job at CEO Clubs of India to be able to fully devote my time to this initiative.

The challenges
Tribal areas, especially those areas where primitive tribal groups reside, are extremely deep seated and are devoid of even basic infrastructure like toilets, electricity and roads. It is not only that it is extremely difficult to reach such areas, it is also extremely dangerous. The Naxalites have been considered as biggest internal security threat and are actively opposed to any development activities in many tribal regions in India. The frequent combing operations in these areas further delay our pace of activities.
It is extremely difficult of earn the trust of people as they do not understand our language. The tribal people of India have been neglected for an awfully long period of time and few encounters they have are with mafia and other unscrupulous people who are ready to devour their land and resources. It was extremely difficult to win their trust and start activities. The worst part of it all is that not much information is available about the vast majority tribal areas of India as they are not covered by media and sometime not even by the research bodies. Under these circumstances it is imperative to find somebody in the tribal areas who not only understands our language but also has an intention to help us in starting the community development work.
A majority of the tribal regions do not form a part of the consumer segment and hence we faced difficulty in raising the funds from the corporates. Since we are less than three years old we are not eligible for government aids under the current rules. In order to penetrate deeper and in lesser time, together with the help of my business partner who happens to be from a journalism background we forged a network of journalists. They helped us in getting foothold into the tribal locations by connecting us with the local leaders and communicating them our vision.
We set out to identify change agents, women leaders and influential people who were ready to lend their support in identifying and empowering girls/ women who wish to make a difference in their lives.
We made use of local news-reporters and few people who are well aware of the local areas. The reporters and locals are not perceived as imminent threat by Naxals. By carefully choosing such resources we ensured our safe passage to the interiors to gather information and support for the cause. Further, we approached the women Mukhiya and Sarpanchs of the villages and explained to them our objectives of coming to their village. These women have detailed knowledge about their areas and are well connected as well.  They took several steps in advance to ensure a safe passage and stay for me and my colleagues.

Aahan also stationed a resource and entrusted a few volunteers of local origin to periodically visit the Chatakpur village and gather support and to actively lobby with government and develop contacts. We interacted with the women Sarpanch and members of the women self help groups. We made them aware about our intentions and how exactly we are going to systematically eradicate the menace of trafficking. These women enjoy great respect among the tribal community members and especially tribal women. They were able to make the tribal families aware about us in their local language and put a word of recommendation as well. All this greatly helped us in breaking the ice and take tribals into confidence.

Of the leaders who supported us, some are the Minister of Women and Child Development, the Chairman of the Women’s Commission, College Teachers, Senior Police Officers, Journalists, Senior Members of the Judiciary and Members of the Local-Government

The story of change

Archana Toppo was a Tribal girl taking skill course from a quite well known college in Ranchi, Jharkhand. She came from a relatively well off Tribal family. However, she neither had anybody who could guide her nor she had any career road map for herself. She intended to get a job as soon as possible and hence decided to take up skill courses, which could have helped her in getting some clerical job.

Archana’s case is not alone where girls are not have any clue about how they can improvise and make themselves suitable for the high rewarding blue collared jobs in leading companies.

ATDF took help of an organization called Sales Express, which is into providing trained sales professional to corporates. Archana Deepti Toppo was sponsored to get her training completed so that she could apply for decent jobs available with big companies. With this little help Archana was able to clear interviews and got recruited with in a month.

Archana is now a role model for many Tribal girls who have been shown a way to lay a strong foundation of their career by moving into the sales field, which offers huge employment opportunities.

Soni Lakra’s story

Soni Lakra is an ambitious girls from Jaria village of Jharkhand. She is one of the two girls in entire village who has completed graduation. However, the absence of facilities and job opportunities had fettered her ambitions. She was just as lost as other Tribal girls in the village. The situation was becoming complex for her each passing day as she was reaching marriageable age and was coming under constant pressure to get married. She knew that once she enters into this life-stage she would never be able to live her dreams.

ATDF gave her a platform to share her problems with experienced mentors during the annual Aahan Tribal Mentoring Walk. She got inspiration from women speakers, discussed possible ways of moving forward and got support from women entrepreneurs.

Soni Lakra is now a confident young girl who is actively interacting with the members of the Women Self Help Group and bringing positive changes not just in her life but also in the lives of other girls and women of her village.

You can support them, too

Aahan has created a successful method to eradicate the machinery of trafficking in tribal areas through the creation of women empowerment center in Chatakpur village in the heart of Naxal region. We need to open up many more such centers for creating a substantial impact on the lives of a huge number of tribal girls and women. However, Aahan is a self-funded organisation and it needs external monetary support for creating more centers. We have requests from other villages to open such centre but due to lack of funds, we are unable to accept these requests. People who can help us in creating small sustainable business in tribal areas, which can employ tribal women and girls are always welcome.