As I hold the fragile baby named Khushi in my arms, I smile. She looks healthier than she has in the past few weeks. Her life was almost over before it began. She is four months old but the size of a newborn. Born at home to a family of six siblings, her mother was struggling to keep her fed. She almost died of disease until Priyanka and Monika, two staff members of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, came and convinced the mother to take her to a hospital.
Last fall, there was another baby boy the same age as Khushi. He too was born at home to a family of nine siblings. When he got very sick with a high temperature, we pleaded with the mother to take him to the hospital. He was treated by the “village doctor” instead of being taken to the hospital. He died the next day after the “village doctor” said he would be fine. To most people, taking a dying child to a hospital seems like normal behaviour but these mothers, feared being ridiculed, refused many times. The mothers of both Khushi and the little boy are prostitutes.
Khushi’s mother belongs to a community in India that traditionally engages in intergenerational prostitution–the Pernas. Although two years younger than me-in her mid-twenties-her face looks tired and her eyes, though beautiful, are hardened with pain. She was married at a young age (the average age of marriage in India is 14) and after their first child, her husband started driving her to clients’ homes to begin the “family business” of prostitution. At night, it is not uncommon for husbands to drive their wives to highways, client homes, or more populated areas of the city where they can get business. The women then sleep for several hours during the day while the children do the household duties.
When I first came in contact with this community almost two years ago I couldn’t understand why families would do this. After working with this community, I’ve learned that there is only one logical conclusion–survival. Prostitution is not a choice but the absence of choice. The sex trafficking industry takes advantage of women and girls who lack meaningful options due to gender, caste, class discrimination and economic policies that fail to ensure universal access to education, sustainable livelihoods and human rights.
Since 2010, Apne Aap has worked in a centre located next to the communities where forced prostitution is common. At the centre, we create a space where women and girls immediately feel loved. We have programs that provide women and girls with alternative livelihoods to prostitution. At the centre, we provide computer, English, art, karate, and informal education classes along with vocational training such as sewing and tailoring. We have health nutrition camps and legal sessions for the girls. Our centre is a safe space for them to come and receive support.
Our staff also works to organize women and girls in self-empowerment groups to build a movement to end sex trafficking. We help them connect with government organizations in order to provide them access to the education, ID cards, financial and other assistance in which they are eligible.
Khushi is going to be a very beautiful girl; she has beautiful eyes, which is a good thing in her community. Also, in her community, being a girl means that beauty is one’s most powerful asset. Khushi’s mother acted very boldly by taking her daughter to the hospital. She shares with us everyday how she wants a better future for her daughters and we want to be there to support her. The word Khushi means happiness in Hindi. Our goal is to ensure Khushi’s life is indeed happy.
Kristin Braddock began working in India in anti-trafficking focused roles three years ago. She joined Apne Aap August 2011. Currently, Kristin runs the Sewing New Futures an income generation program for the Perna community, which she hopes will give them an alternative livelihood outside of prostitution.