In India, an estimated 30 lakh women and children are trafficked each year of which 40 percent are minors. In its 2014 annual report, the Ministry of Women and Child Development stated that 12 lakh children are engaged in forced prostitution. While many succumb to their fate, very few women manage to break out of this slavery and lead a scarred but better life.
One of these women is 27-year-old Rama Devi who is now taking bold steps to ensure nobody undergoes the same harrowing experiences that she did 12 years ago.
Married off at 14
While most children enter their teenage with high hopes and dreams, Rama was married off when she was only 14-year-old. Life at her in-law’s place isn’t one even worth remembering. She faced mental and physical abuse and on top of that, she was also tortured for non-payment of dowry.
Within a few months of her marriage, Rama conceived a baby and was in dire need of care and support. But her husband’s indifference towards her didn’t change and he continued to abuse her. Hence, for proper ante-natal care, she went to her parents’ home in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh.
Rama gave birth to her daughter when he turned 15, hoping that things would change for the better. But alas! Her hopes remained hopes and her agony piled on, as her husband took her back into his house after their baby was born. In addition to the usual torments, her mother-in-law started complaining that because of the child.
Rama had to do all the household chores herself. Unable to tolerate the pain anymore, she finally left her in-laws’ house five months later and headed back to her parent’s home.
Tricked, tempted, and trafficked
On returning home, she saw that her parents were engaged as daily labourers in a brick kiln to make ends meet. This meant that she and her child were left alone after they left for work. To fill in the void, Rama befriended Pushpa, a differently-abled girl who lived nearby. Both of them soon became friends with two women and a man, who would speak to them only when Rama’s parents were away. Since the women were of her mother’s age, Rama had no issues trusting them.
One day, they convinced Rama and Pushpa to watch a movie with them and also gave the assurance that they would be back shortly. Rama, being naive, left her 5-month-old daughter and headed off for the theatre. Little did she know that this would be the beginning of a long and arduous ordeal. During the interval of the movie, Rama and Pushpa were given cool drinks, which was the last thing the two women remembered.
When they gained consciousness a few days later, they found themselves in a brothel in Bhiwandi, Maharashtra. They came to know that both of them were sold for a sum of Rs 1 lakh.
Traumatized at their predicament, they pleaded the brothel managers to let them go, but to no avail. The managers told them that Rama’s parents had agreed to sell them off and the deal was set. But the girls refused to believe the managers and kept on pleading them. Soon, they also realized that most of the other girls had gone through similar experiences as many were trafficked and forced into prostitution.
“We were beaten, kept captive and not given food… all I could think of that time was my baby and my parents. I was desperate to see them,” Rama tells a website.
Breaking the shackles
To break free from the shackles, the duo started talking to other girls into escaping the hell that they were in. But one of the workers overheard them and informed the brothel manager and their nightmare became even worse. They started torturing them more than before and even put chilli-powder paste in Rama’s eyes.
This went on for almost a year before the managers finally decided to let them go as they feared that the duo would instigate the remaining girls into being rebels as well. When Rama returned home, she found out that her parents were debt-ridden by a sum of Rs 1.25 lakh that was spent on her lookout.
On top of that, her daughter didn’t even recognize her as she was only five months old when she was trafficked.
Slowly, Rama recovered and during the process, came into contact with Rural & Environment Development Society (REDS), an Andhra Pradesh-based NGO. With its help she decided to take legal action
against her traffickers as the police initially took no cognisance of the case and the case remained unregistered.
With media alongside her, the police eventually filed a report and the court case lasted for four years. She was even offered an out-of-court settlement, but no amount of money could ever deter her from getting the traffickers punished. By 2016, the three people who sold her were convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison and charged a fine of Rs 50,000.
But Rama’s fight didn’t end there for her. With the help of REDS and the police, she went back to Bhiwandi clad in a burqa and pretended to sell a child. After sometime, when she gained their trust, she went to the brothel and along with the police, she rescued 30 women who were forced to work there.
Today, she works with 10 other women in her hometown in Kadiri of Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh to spread awareness about the dangers of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.
“The media should highlight the conditions of poverty we live in, especially agricultural families. There are few alternate employment options and no proper access to education. This forces women and children in the families to look for other means of livelihood and they often fall prey to these traffickers who falsely promise better employment,” says Rama.
Rama Devi not only had the courage to put her own adversity behind, but also stand up against injustice and help other victims rebuild their lives. This certainly requires a supernatural strength of character and that makes her the superhero that we admire and need.
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