We have been seeing many unfortunate events in India in the recent past. Amidst these ‘visible’ problems, one serious issue - i.e. an increased risk of child trafficking - has remained 'invisible'.
Last week I watched a video on child prostitution in north India's holy city Varanasi. It speaks about a small NGO named Guria that has been working silently to rescue the trafficked girls and rehabilitate them. I was inspired by the work of this NGO. This article focuses mainly on the origin of the NGO, it's founder and achievements.
A shocking story
A 15-year-old girl from Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur district was allegedly drugged and forced into prostitution by a beauty parlour owner in Ramnagar area of Varanasi. The matter came to light on August 16, 2020 night when the girl managed to escape from the captivity and reached the police outpost in Ramnagar and narrated her story. A police officer said that the victim belongs to a village in Mirzapur. She informed that a woman from her village in Chunar area of Mirzapur promised her a job in a beauty parlour in Ramnagar on June
15, 2020 and brought her there. She started working at the beauty parlour from the same day.
According to the girl, everything went normally for about a fortnight. But thereafter, the beauty parlour started giving her sedative pills and drugs and forced her into prostitution. She claims to have been held hostage by the beauty parlour owner in a house in Gola Ghat area where a youth allegedly raped her. Thereafter, she was raped by around a dozen people. After listening to the girl, the police officer contacted Chunar police station to inform them about the matter. Chunar police said that a person had lodged a complaint on July 21, 2020 that her niece had gone missing. As the FIR about the missing girl was registered in Chunar, Ramnagar police handed over the girl to Chunar police.
The police officer said that the girl gave out names of around a dozen persons including three females in her statement. All the accused are on the run even as the police are conducting raids to nab them. Chunar police station in-charge Inspector Manoj Kumar Singh said that the relevant sections have been added to the previous FIR registered on July 21, 2020. Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act has also been imposed (Hindustan Times, August 27, 2020).
Varanasi is considered as one of the holiest cities in India. In this city Ajeet Singh, his wife Santwana Manju and their team operate a non-profit organization named Guria, meaning ‘doll’ in Hindi. It is both dedicated to fighting child prostitution, second generation prostitution, and sex trafficking in Northern India, and to achieving freedom worldwide. Guria's mission is to liberate and empower women in prostitution and eliminate child prostitution. For nearly three decades, Guria has been waging a war against trafficking by rescuing minors and second-generation prostitutes from trafficking, rehabilitating them and fighting cases against pimps and brokers so they do not integrate back into society as repeat offenders.
When Singh decided to tackle trafficking in Varanasi, there was hardly any name associated with reformation in this sector. At the age of 18 he attended a marriage in Uttar Pradesh where he was distraught to witness a sex worker dance all night to lewd comments. “The way people were looking at her and treating her was something that shocked and deeply saddened me. It was then and there that I decided to do something to free girls like her from such a profession,” recalls Ajeet.
He spontaneously proposed adopting her three children to save them from exposure to this market. He did manage to adopt them after two years, but faced social ostracism for integrating children of those deemed pariahs into mainstream society.
In addition, he started going to the red-light areas of Varanasi to teach the children of the women who worked there. But he soon realised that the problem was much more complex than he had thought. Ajeet prepared himself to take on the racket. He got a few hidden cameras in his pen, shirt button, watch, etc. and started to pose as a customer, only to track the locations of red-light areas and the number of minor girls there. Once he had done the mapping, he collected a large number of volunteers and raided the Shivdaspur red-light area of Varanasi. They managed to rescue 15 girls in one day. Since then, he has conducted raids on all the red-light areas of Varanasi and rescued over 1,000 girls. Once the girls are rescued, they are sent to government shelters and homes and, after counselling, sent back to their parents. A close track is kept of their activities to make sure they do not end up back in the same situation again.
In India, prostitution is approximately 10 billion US dollar market targeting three million individuals. Stakeholders in the prostitution industry consist of pimps, brothel keepers, police, policy makers, customers, and social workers, with the latter tackling high-risk operations of rescue against closely woven others. “Rescuing and rehabilitating victims of prostitution and sexual exploitation needs a lot of risk, determination and patience,” describes Singh and he is right; cross-border and inter-state border missions are high-risk intricate procedures executed uniformly with cooperative agencies.
At Guria, the process is divided into three steps: pre-rescue, rescue and post-rescue. Pre-rescue involves identification of place of rescue, victim identity verification, attaining legal warrants, entry/exit and escape points, formation of rescue team, and allocation of a shelter home. The next step, rescue, involves execution of pre-rescue plans including conducting rescue operation in cooperation with authorities, collecting evidence, and identifying children and belongings to avoid blackmailing from offenders. Post-rescue operation accounts rehabilitation and preventive measures – filing a police complaint, shifting victims who live in shelter homes or with family, mock trials with victim, witness protection, submission of charge sheet after investigation, and opposing bail of traffickers. Guria’s legal team comprising senior advocates from district courts, High Courts and Supreme Court assist Singh and his team with legal proceedings to ensure support to the victim and maximum sentencing of offenders. “Often, these traffickers who get bail come out quickly and start doing what they did earlier. We make sure they stay in jail for a long time. Some of them have been in jail for about four to five years now,” says Ajeet.
Almost 1,400 traffickers have had cases filed against them and many are rotting in jail, thanks to Ajeet Singh who has been waging a war to free minor girls from their clutches. What may appear to be a simple success story was not easy to implement at all. Ajeet had to face challenges from all sides - from family members who went against him for choosing to work in this field to brothel keepers who would go to extreme lengths to make sure Ajeet did not succeed in his mission. “I have been attacked so many times and given death threats. Even my family did not support me. A lot of people raised question about my work but I was determined to save the lives of these girls,” says Ajeet.
“I see very young girls coming into brothels. They are not straightaway brought to the red-light district. They are kept in a transit place where they are gangraped, tortured and given electric shocks. I see even new-born babies being trafficked from hospitals. Even as young as few months. And they are grooming up these children through drugs, hormonal injections and some tablets for them to grow” said Ajeet in a media interview. A documentary called ‘Gudiya’ is out and it talks about how child trafficking is one of the best kept secrets of God’s own city Varanasi. Women recall some horrifying experiences and murky details of how they were brought into business and it will scar your soul. This needs to be watched and shared.
Guria’s areas of interventions are: Rescue, Legal intervention, Bal Kendra, Campaigns in schools, Community mobilization and Advocacy campaigns. Guria maintains rescue of minors and second-generation prostitutes as their prime focus. Within the red-light areas of Varanasi and Mau, another centre of operation for Guria, the organization has installed non-formal education and vocational training centres that bridge a smooth transition for survivors into mainstream culture. “Social reintegration is the ultimate aim of all rehabilitation programs. This reintegration is with the family and with the society. Many girls also opt for marriage as a further development,” points Singh.
Ishita (name changed), a 17-year-old minor girl was kidnapped from near her house in Varanasi in 2009. She was taken to New Delhi by the traffickers and was raped repeatedly by numerous men inside a locked room. She was then taken to Surat and was gang raped for several days. Ishita’s horror did not end here. She was then taken to Mumbai where traffickers planned to sell her to a third party. This is when the Guria team intervened and rescued the girl from the claws of the traffickers. They did not just bring Ishita back to her family but also got the lead trafficker arrested and made sure his bail was rejected. The case is under trial in district court.
Looking at the magnitude of sex trafficking cases during this tough period of Covid-19 pandemic and delays in the related trials, Guria filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Honourable High Court of Allahabad to establish special courts for speedy hearings of cases under Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act 1956 in each district of Uttar Pradesh state. After accepting the PIL and fixing a date in January 2021, the court has called for a report from the state government on this issue. As Singh reflects upon the journey, the ups and downs, challenges and struggles, he cements assurance for those skeptical of social change. “28 years back in 1988 I had not heard of any one working focussed specially against sex trafficking. Today people, civil society organisations and governments are talking about the issue – this is a major victory. I strongly feel talking about a problem is basically the beginning of a solution.” said Ajeet (Source: Reports by Garima Goswami and Shreya Pareek, Journalists).
Varanasi is the constituency of the Prime Minister Modi. Neither the Central government nor the State government seem to have initiated any specific program on the issues of child trafficking and child prostitution. "Who will bell the cat?" has remained an unanswered question. Lethargy, apathy, passiveness and insensitivity have been the "speed-breakers".
In such a situation, Guria has really lived the age-old proverb - "It is better to light a candle than cursing the darkness". If Ajeet Singh and his committed team could bring light to the vulnerable girls living in darkness, then, why not we do in a small way?