By Steve Cunliffe
Padmavathi, a woman in her twenties, stood in a huge, noisy railway station feeling overwhelmed and lost. With her baby son, she had left her village to come to one of India’s biggest cities, Hyderabad. As she wandered around, she was approached by a man who offered her dinner and a place to stay.
“He seemed nice and I was beyond desperate, so I accepted.”
Padmavathi had left her husband because of dowry harassment. “My family could not afford to pay my bridal price.” That meant her husband’s family could make her life a torment. After six years of this, “I sold my only possessions of value – anklets and a necklace – for money to travel to Hyderabad in search of work.” With two sons to consider, this was not an easy decision to make. But, finally, she left the elder son with her family and absconded with the baby.
Now in the city, she was an easy target for con artists and traffickers. For the first three days, the man who had approached her was kind and generous, but on the fourth day everything changed. The man said he had found her a job cooking at a big function, but it turned out to be a hoax. “Two men were waiting for me when I arrived at the place and they set about trying to rape me. I fought and kicked and screamed. When I broke down in tears, the one fellow left, but the other man said he had paid for me and refused to leave unsatisfied. He beat and raped me. That was how my nightmare began.”
From that day forth, the pimp used Padmavathi’s baby son as leverage, forcing her to go out every night as a prositute. If she refused to go with a man, he would hurt her. She had a tiny room and some food, but he kept all the money. Padmavathi found herself a victim of human trafficking, bonded into sexual slavery with seemingly no hope of escape. This became her wretched existence for the next two and ahalf years.
Returning exhausted from work one morning, she was met by her pimp with the news that her son was dead. During a drunken binge the previous night, the man and his friends had plied the child with so much liquor that they had killed him: the body was buried in a shallow unmarked grave across the road.
After one night off, he told her to get back to work. She refused saying, “No. All these times I went with many men, I did it out of love for my son. Now he is gone and I have no reason to go anymore. I am done.” But while Padmavathi plotted her escape, the pimp took her, along with another girl, to Goa where they were sold to a brothel keeper for 20,000 rupees ($440) each. Further from home than ever before, Padmavathi continued to plan her getaway. When Padmavathi shared her escape ideas with the second girl, the terrified young woman told the brothel keeper and Padmavathi was mercilessly beaten.
Undeterred, she scrounged a little money together, found some inconspicuous clothes and bought a bus ticket to Hubli. “Without enough money to get all the way back to Hyderabad, I begged an auto-rickshaw driver to give me a lift to the local train station, but instead of taking me to the station the fellow picked up a friend and took me into the jungle. For two days they used me in the forest, but when they were done, they bought me a ticket back to Hyderabad.”
After suffering innumerable trials along the way, Padmavathi eventually found herself back at her village. After three long years away, she was reunited with her oldest boy.
Because of the stigma attached to sex trafficking, she was unable to tell her family the truth about her ordeal and pretended everything was all right and that she had a good job to go back to in Hyderabad.
In order to provide for her son and his future, Padmavathi decided they would return to Hyderabad where she would continue to work as a prostitute but without a pimp, saving all the money she earned for her child’s education. “I enrolled my son in a good school, rented us a new room and decided to go myself for this work to help my son.
“But, one day, on my way home after working at the bus stop, I was stopped by the Prajwala people. They took me to the police station and counseled me that I could quit this horrible work; I had another option.”
Prajwala, an anti-trafficking organization supported by Catholic Relief Services, reaches out to women who have been exploited and sold. They offered Padmavathi a chance to work in their print and bookbinding shop.
At first, the large printing presses and other complex machinery terrified her, but “I was so desperate for a real job that I forced myself to overcome my fear,” she says. “There and then I made a decision that I wanted to learn all the trades on offer and how to work the technical things.”
With a trainee’s salary of 1,500 rupees ($33) a month, she wasn’t earning much money, but it was honest work that taught her valuable vocational skills. She was on the road to recovery and a normal life.
Padmavathi has now been at Prajwala for more than five years. She has mastered every trade on offer and gained valuable vocational training in a variety of fields. Planning for the future, Padmavathi has saved and bought some land back in her village, where she is constructing a modest house as a legacy for her son.
Padmavathi has successfully turned her life around and built a bright future for herself and her son. “After two years at Prajwala, my fear receded and my confidence returned,” she says, with a twinkle of optimism in her eye. “I invited my parents to come and visit me in the city, to see that I was living a dignified life.”
Steve Cunliffe is a freelance writer working in India.
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