The serene hinterlands of West Bengal hide within their vast expanse a secret so dark, so terrible, that people hesitate to talk about it. It concerns their daughters. It also concerns unscrupulous men who tempt parents into sending their young girls from their homes to a dream life of fashionable clothes and good salaries — and disaster. What they don’t say is another story.
Anoyara Khatun knows that story well.
What immediately transfixes you about the 17-year-old Khatun is the sparkling pair of eyes, full of hope and grit. Trafficked at the tender age of 12, the girl from one of the remotest village of Bengal, Chhoto Askara, does not intend to look back at the dark days of the past.
She has rebuilt her life from the ashes of her past and is now an activist who leads a battalion of children fighting trafficking, child marriage and child labour in their own meaningful ways. She requests me not to ask her questions about her past, about her trauma and how she was rescued.
Khatun is one of the “Girl Heroes” from across the world that the Malala Yousafzai Fund recently celebrated for 30 days — from October 11 to November 9 — as beacons of “exemplary courage and leadership”. So far, Khatun has foiled about 50 child marriages and 85 trafficking attempts. She has also successfully managed to get around 200 dropouts back to school.
The young girl is the head of as many as 80 children’s groups across 55 villages in Sandeshkhali. These groups were formed by the Dhagagia Social Welfare Society, or DSWS, and Save the Children Trust (a donor organisation) in the effort to rid the villages of the problem of child trafficking. “I had decided very early on that I shall not just remain an activist. I wanted to take up a leadership position,” smiles the teenager whose hobbies are to write poetry and songs.
Once she led a group of children at night to save a girl from the clutches of traffickers. “People in the villages go to bed by eight and children are not allowed to go out after that, but I sneaked out,” she recounts. “I took along some friends and chased the traffickers across the village, jumped canals and finally caught them. It was a huge risk. But we succeeded in saving the girl.”
Sandeshkhali is around two hours’ drive from Kolkata. Here DSWS and Save the Children Trust have worked relentlessly for years. “The work has been tough,” says Hriday Chand Ghosh, secretary of DSWS. “When we started, the main impediment was the acute lack of awareness among parents.”
Ghosh narrates the ghastly incident of how a girl from the village was trafficked to Delhi and how her body was burnt using hot iron rods. The girl was rescued by DSWS. He also mentions another incident where a trafficker had approached some parents with a photo album that had pictures showing well-dressed girls sharing a place at the dining table with their employers. “What we have seen in most cases is that these children are paid the promised salary in the first couple of months of employment, and then the salaries stop,” says Ghosh.
I get an insight into the magnitude of the problem when, during my conversation with Ghosh, the hapless parents of two missing girls come knocking on his door.
To stop the children of the villages from falling into the traffickers’ trap, Ghosh and his co-workers took up extensive sensitisation programmes. Apart from parents, the panchayat members, police and the schools were involved in the awareness programmes. “We have formed children’s groups in the various villages in and around Sandeshkhali. These groups have children from the mainstream as well as children who have been rescued from traffickers, children who worked as domestic helps and others who have survived abuse,” says Ghosh.
Khatun is one of the ‘Girl Heroes’ from across the world that the Malala Yousafzai Fund recently celebrated for 30 days—from October 11 to November 9—as beacons of ‘exemplary courage and leadership’
There is also the Child Protection Committee (CPC), comprising panchayat members, police officers, village elders, teachers, parents and welfare workers. Whenever a stranger is sighted in the locality, members of the children’s groups follow them to find out what their intentions are. If that person is trying to take a girl away from her home, they try coaxing the girl not to leave. They then try to reason it out with the parents. If the situation gets out of hand, the youngsters approach CPC for help.
Children, explains Khatun, are the first ones who know what is happening in their localities. “When an unknown person enters the villages, most of the children are out playing. One informs another to convey to the other children that he should be followed,” says Khatun. “After the information has reached everybody, we congregate at a chosen place, decide the course of action and get to work.”
Back from a tour of Delhi where she met Minorities Affairs Minister Najma Heptulla, this fighter of a girl, who is pursuing her graduation studies at Humayun Kabir Mahavidyalaya, believes that it is society that makes a distinction between a son and daughter. Nominated for the International Peace Prize, 2012, and recently felicitated by West Bengal Minister of State for Women and Child Welfare Shashi Panja, this reticent girl does not care much for the limelight.
“Earlier, I never gave interviews. If you had come a year or two back, I would have refused to talk. I feared the media attention might spoil my work. I always thought it better to be a nameless, faceless force that brings about changes in the system. The work is important, not me,” she declares with maturity beyond her years.
Her warm nature is what endears her to the village elders and children alike. A drive down the narrow lanes to one of the Multi-Activity Centres, where school dropouts are oriented to education, gives you a fair idea of her popularity. When she reaches the place, the children there circle their “Didi”.
“Eto din ashoni keno (Why did you not visit us for so long?),” they ask.
At these centres, school dropouts and rescued children are trained for schooling for three or four months and then enrolled in the nearby schools. “Apart from these centres, we also have six vocational training centres, where slightly older rescued girls who have had primary education and are hesitant about going back to primary classes are tutored in tailoring and knitting,” says Ghosh, who adds that poverty is a driving force behind the child abuse.
Apart from children, the trust has also tried to involve mothers in various self-help schemes. Many women now work with small groups providing mid-day meals to schools. After the destruction wreaked by cyclone Aila in 2009, many women were given the chance to earn a living at nurseries when social organisations took up the initiative to plant mangrove trees.
“We can proudly say that even after a disaster like Aila, there hasn’t been a single case of child migration in the 50 villages that we worked in,” say Khatun and Ghosh almost simultaneously.
From what it was around a decade back, the situation has become relatively better in these villages. But there is still a long way to go. “Strengthening the community-based child-protection mechanism by forming children’s committees under the government’s Integrated Child Protection Scheme will be our action plan,” says Jatin Mondar, programme manager, Save the Children, West Bengal State unit.
“The involvement of children in this exercise should be stressed with the objective of including their voice in developing a strong social safety and protection network against child trafficking.”
For every Malala, there are thousands of Khatuns who have turned their pain into their greatest strength. Transforming themselves from victim to victor, these children and child rights activists have silently and tirelessly worked to tell the world, as Khatun wrote in one of her poems, that they might be children but they are humans too: “Sishu hole o manush amra”.