x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The Men Who Stop Traffic

An unlikely pair in Mysore, India, have taken up the fight against human traffickers and abusers.

As dinner time approaches, residents and staff at Madilu gather around the kitchen.
As dinner time approaches, residents and staff at Madilu gather around the kitchen.

Sitting across a table from these two softly-spoken, unassuming middle-aged men it's hard to imagine them picking fights with pimps or collecting court summonses with a shrug of the shoulders; but Stanly KV and Parashu ML have been raiding brothels and private homes to rescue girls, boys and women for the past 20 years. Sometimes with the aid of the police, sometimes in spite of the police, these two quiet men of Mysore have kicked in doors and traded blows with traffickers to help free more than 2,000 victims across southern India.

The pair run Odanadi - meaning "soul mate" - an organisation that provides refuge, counselling, education and rehabilitation for up to 85 victims of trafficking at a time. They have taken in scores of domestic slaves and bonded labourers. They've raided 60 brothels and secured the convictions of 137 sex traffickers.

Impressive figures. But then the problem is on a massive scale. The Indian government's own figures put the amount of people in some way involved in human trafficking - the illegal trade in people for the purposes of slavery, commercial sexual exploitation or forced labour - at around 100 million. Of those, 1.2 million are children.

But this fight did not start as a crusade against seemingly insurmountable odds; instead, they were shamed into it.

In the late 1980s, the two young friends worked together as newspaper journalists so closely their byline read simply 'Stanly Parashu'. It was while conducting interviews for a piece on Dalits - members of India's strict hierarchical system born below even the lowest caste - that they were challenged by a woman in the street.

"Her name was Radhamma," Stanly says. "She was a prostitute, lower in social standing than even Dalits.

"She asked us: 'What do you do with the story of these poor people? You write about them, get yourselves a good name, but these people get nothing in return. They think you are a saviour but you don't come back.' That really pricked our egos," says Stanly.

Stung by the criticism, the men turned their attention towards one of India's greatest taboos - prostitution - starting with Radhamma herself.

"Radhamma had been a housewife," Stanly says. "But her husband took her to Bombay and sold her to a brothel. When he returned home without her he explained to her family she had run off with another man. He then married his wife's sister."

After two years Radhamma managed to escape the brothel and return to her village, now with a child fathered by a client. But her family believed her husband's story and she was cast out, ending up living on the street working as a prostitute, depending on 10 clients a day to earn enough money to live on and send her son to school.

Radhamma had been working the streets for 10 years when Stanly and Parashu met her.

"We wanted to help, to give her financial support, and look after the boy's education," says Stanly.

Although they gave her a little cash and arranged for local restaurants to feed her son, Nanjumda, Radhamma found resistance to her change in circumstances too much to bear.

"When we returned a fortnight later, we found her again on the street in the same filthy condition," Stanly says. "She said: 'You gave me money but money is not changing my life. No one is accepting me, people are bothering me, police are harassing me.' "

Prostitutes coming under the police spotlight are treated with little sympathy.

"Women were dragged by their hair; there were no policewomen in those days," Parashu says. "The male officers would drag them to the police station half-nude. "No one would ask the authorities about this violation of their human rights. We told the police that these ladies are citizens, human beings. We asked them to treat them humanely.

"We started questioning this ill-treatment and dragged chairs into the offices for the women to sit on instead of being forced to stand in the corner of the police station," says Parashu. "This started the gap to open between the police and us."

Now viewed with suspicion and resentment, Stanly and Parashu found no support from the authorities and so decided to take matters into their own hands with a novel approach.

"We thought we should cook something at least once a week, to invite the prostitutes to our place," Stanly says.

"We collected 25 women from the street and said: 'Look we are different, we are like your brothers, that's the only relationship we have with you. Please come to our house and we will feed you, we will spend some time with you'.

"That was a big change in their lives. Some would walk 10 miles to get to us."

The idea's success led the two men to launch a study programme into the scale of the problems facing women working in prostitution. It was named "Bodies for a Meal" after they discovered the women sold sex for the price of a midday meal.

"The programme was a real eye-opener for us," Stanly says. "For instance, we met an old woman, maybe 70 years old, standing near the bus station in the darkness so men could not make out her age.

"Sometimes, they'd kick her, beat her, and refuse to pay when they realised she was old," Stanly says. "We also found a schoolgirl living on the street in her uniform, having sex with clients then back to school in the morning."

Disturbing trends also emerged from the 10-month investigation, including the increasing number of prostitutes' children - some as young six years old - being forced by brothel owners to pimp their mothers.

"We started Odanadi because of this: the second generation, the children, should be protected," says Stanly.

Odanadi's first incarnation was a modest home on the hilly outskirts of Mysore. As the ambitions of the two men grew so did Odanadi; after 10 years, the Madilu Rehabilitation Centre towered over its village neighbours, offering classrooms, a library, administration offices, mediation rooms and, above all, safety.

At any one time, its dormitories can cater for 85 women and children during short or long stays depending whether they can be reintegrated with families.

New residents are immediately offered medical treatment and counselling on arrival. In time they are encouraged to get involved with activities such as yoga, dancing, drama and meditation.

International volunteers are also on hand to provide classes in acupuncture, arts and karate, while Stanly and Parashu work alongside other counsellors to help the women and girls cope with the trauma of the life they have left behind. Many of the rescued girls now attend university while others take part in business classes; one group of women has set up a successful taxi service.

And yet outside the compound's walls, trafficking continues on a massive scale and the traffickers are so confident of police ambivalence that they pursue Stanly and Parashu through the courts, accusing the pair of trespass while rescuing girls from brothels or freeing domestic slaves from private homes.

The number of those taking the fight to the traffickers appears low - Andhra Pradesh state leads the way with 2,000 dedicated officers in a country of 1.1 million police officers - but it is a change in attitude rather than statistics that is the key to the problem.

In Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, police inspector Sattaru Umapathi is India's new hope in its war on trafficking. Hailed as a hero in a US state department report last year, Umapathi has devoted the past five years to the problem after working alongside the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

"Trafficking is basically organised crime and that is how we started looking at it," says Inspector Umapathi. "We soon started to arrest traffickers and treated victims as victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking; earlier, victims were being arrested as the accused."

After an appeal by Umapathi, prosecutors unearthed previously unused laws.

"Only after the UNODC training did we realise these sections of law were very important weapons; they were like guided missiles. They can hit the targets very well," says Umapathi. "After that there was no looking back: we started getting convictions of traffickers from four to 14 years."

Umapathi began using other ways of changing the perception within the judiciary.

"I started to bring in some of the victims, the girls, to speak to the judges; many have daughters of the same age," he says.

While Stanly and Parashu welcome the work of Umapathi, they fear the issue goes deeper than policing.

"Things are changing: training on a higher level is given to new officers," Stanly says. "But it is not only police training, it is the attitude of society that looks at women and children as sexual objects."

Crucial to the work of Odanadi has been its network of informers. Bharathi, a 50-year-old mother, has worked with Odanadi for four years, initially reporting back any suspicious activity in her area.

Lately, however, Bharathi has played a greater role in taking on the traffickers by posing as one of them, with a recent undercover encounter with an international trafficker ending in high drama.

"The police had been after him for a long time but couldn't get him," says Bharathi. "I knew this man through his wife. I pretended to be a brothel keeper and I asked him to bring me two girls. He picked me up in a car, the girls were in the back," she says.

"When we went round the corner he saw the police and people from Odanadi there waiting for him so he put the car into reverse and we drove backwards for a kilometre. An activist from Odanadi jumped on to the bonnet and was seriously hurt," she says.

"But that man and his wife are now in custody. We got them."

Despite high-profile successes, Stanly and Parashu still believe prevention is better than cure, and have set up their own form of "social policing" by creating "vigilance" committees across their home state of Karnataka.

Each of the 80 committees monitors local security, offers protection schemes, distributes educational materials and holds anti-trafficking rallies.

Most importantly they are Stanly and Parashu's eyes and ears in far-off places, and a link to Odanadi for people worried about missing relatives or kidnapped mothers or daughters.

One such case is Jency's, a 17-year-old resident at Madilu. Three years ago her courtship with Mahesh started the usual way; he would come round to the house and ask for her, they'd hang out in the dusty streets together. A local woman shopkeeper had introduced them and encouraged the relationship by giving Mahesh food to pass on to Jency's grandparents - everybody knew they were struggling to bring up Jency and her sister after the death of the girls' father and disappearance of their mother.

Mahesh assured Jency's guardians that he was someone they could trust. So when 14-year-old Jency went missing the police dismissed the case as a couple of young lovers running away to the big city, Bangalore.

But Jency's grandparents were unimpressed with the police explanation and approached Stanly and Parashu for help. Immediately they went in search of Mahesh, finding him back home but without Jency. Bundled into the back of a car, Mahesh directed Stanly and Parashu to a huge slum in Bangalore where they found the same shopkeeper, and eventually Jency, traumatised and confused.

The shopkeeper was a trafficker. For months she'd watched as an elderly couple with no money struggled to feed two young girls. Perfect pickings. She had groomed Mahesh to play his part, and when the time was right the trap was sprung.

Usually this type of scam pays off; scores of girls across India supposedly run off with "boyfriends", never to be seen again. But Stanly and Parashu had seen it all before.

Stanly and Parashu's ideas on rescue and rehabilitation are now highly regarded across India, but with the continued threat of violence against them and the constant pressure of fundraising, would they ever give up? As building work gets underway on a boys' refuge 15km from Madilu, the answer seems to be no.

"We will always do this work," Stanly says. "We are haunted by Radhamma's words."

 

Radhamma died six years ago, at the age of 45. Her son, Nanjumda, now 29, lives in Bangalore. He is a qualified lawyer. For more information about Odanadi please go to www.odanadi.org