When the marginalised stand up against prostitution, trafficking

    By Shilpa Raina, IANS,

    New Delhi : Fatima Khatoon and Mohammad Kalam have three things in common: they belong to the Nat community, live in red-light areas in Bihar and are fighting against prostitution and human trafficking.

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    While Khatoon got married at an early age into a family of prostitutes and child and women traffickers, Kalam’s sisters were sex workers.

    Belonging to the Nat community, a denotified tribe that was labelled criminal by the British colonial rulers, they continue to face ridicule from society. Determined to change their own destiny and of others like them, they joined the NGO Apne Aap Women Worldwide that steers these “independent voices” into a more fruitful direction.

    Speaking to IANS, Khatoon said: “I got married when I was just nine and that too to a man who was 20 years older than me.”

    “This was because I come from a marginalised community and we were very poor. So, the idea of providing a safe shelter to me pushed my parents to agree to the marriage,” said Khatoon, who was here to attend a meeting of the NGO.

    “When I went to my maternal house, my mother-in-law gave me strict instructions not to speak to any other women in the house. I was too young to understand anything, but I did wonder why these women would apply make-up every day,” said the 28-year-old Khatoon, who lives in the red light area of Khawaspur village in Siwan district.

    She soon discovered that she was married into a brothel and her husband was a trafficker.

    So appalling was the situation that she helped four women escape from her “home”. Her mother-in-law was furious and gave her a good thrashing. But, rather than succumbing to the pain and fear, she vowed to help other women.

    “My fight began from home. That beating encouraged me to change the system. If I would have feared these beatings, how would I have had the courage to come so far,” the mother of six asked with a determined glint in her eyes.

    “Our fight should begin from home where men of the house – brother, husband or father – should be discouraged to go to a brothel. Because these sex workers too have dreams…in fact many dreams that are crushed in just an hour,” she added.

    Coming from the red light area of Rampur in Forbesganj town of Araria district, Kalam too had to face rejection and humiliation from society as members of his Nat community, including his sisters, are trapped in inter-generational prostitution.

    “People would make fun of me. Even though my elder sister always told me not to listen to them, but focus on my studies, it was impossible not to get affected,” he told IANS.

    “I always knew I wanted to stop this, but I didn’t know how till I met members from Apne Aaap,” he added.

    Both Khatoon and Kalam joined hands with Apne Aap in 2004 when it started its community centre. Since then the two, in their respective areas, have been incessantly fighting against human traffickers, brothel owners and the police.

    They have made many enemies during their lone crusade, but neither believes in giving up.

    The Delhi-based NGO works specially with people like them who come from vulnerable and marginalised areas at the gross root level.

    Local torchbearers associate themselves with them and empower women and young girls by educating them and making them aware of government schemes and how to avail of them.

    Apne Aap founder Ruchira Gupta told IANS: “We help them improve their lives and reduce their dependency on the brothel. This includes giving them the right to legal protection, the right to education, the right to sustainable and dignified livelihood and the right to safe housing.”

    The organisation is actively involved in Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Delhi. Since its inception in 2002, it has worked for the betterment of around 15,000 women and girls.

    “We tell these women about their rights and show them a path to justice. There are many voices and people who are doing good work, but they need someone to direct them. We are doing exactly that,” Gupta added.

    Today, Kalam is a happy man.

    He has been able to take his sisters out of prostitution and also alerts the police and the authorities if girls and women are trafficked.

    Khatoon said her life has changed for the better.

    “My house is no more a brothel. My husband plies a rickshaw. Those who know him jokingly tell him he has become a pauper from a king. But this life is better than building a house from someone’s crushed dream,” she added.

    (Shilpa Raina can be contacted at [email protected])