When she first started working as a social activist more than a decade ago, Rakhi Gope earned just Rs 1500 a month. Working in rural India can be particularly hard, and more so if one’s job is to navigate the dangerous terrain of trafficking on a daily basis. That she belonged to a socially backward family didn’t bode particularly well for the activist either. But Gope still strove on, driven by a strong desire to affect change and impact people’s lives.
11 years later, the 31-year-old activist has come a long way, leading the fight against child-marriage and human trafficking in her community. Employed as a district resource person at Child In Need Institute (CINI) now, she works with 22 gram panchayats in Alipurduar district of West Bengal to sensitise communities about child marriage, human trafficking, HIV/AIDS, and other STDs. Besides developing curative and preventive measures at the community level to tackle these problems, she has been part of various rescue operations and helped victims of trafficking and child marriage to access safe government shelter homes, linking them to state-sponsored vocational and livelihood programmes.
Her decade old fight against trafficking hasn’t been easy, and there have been times the young activist has even received death threats. But she remains courageous and resolute, and at such a young age, is already an inspiration to many young girls and women in her community.
For her bold fight against human trafficking, Gope was awarded the Martha Farrell Award for ‘Excellence in Women’s Empowerment’ at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library on April 7. Like Martha, Gope continues to lead by example, and remains undeterred in her mission to eliminate trafficking.
YKA caught up with Gope to ask her more about the work she does, what keeps her going, the challenges she faces, and her plans for the future. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Excerpts:
Abhishek Jha (AJ): What inspired you to take up social work?
Rakhi Gope (RG): When I was about eight or nine years old, my grandmother told me that four people in my family, three of whom were my uncles, died due to dehydration just because we lacked awareness. No one in the family apparently knew about Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS). So after 2-3 days, they died. They were really young – 4, 17, and 18 respectively. Learning about that story made me realise just how important awareness is.
AJ: What is your work like on a normal day?
RG: Right now I work at the administrative level. I meet with the SP, block development officer, panchayat, and organise programmes. We form voluntary groups of adolescent girls, who meet the community on Sundays and raise awareness about child-marriage.
AJ: What is your understanding about the issue of child marriage? How is it linked to other areas of a woman’s life?
RG: When a girl is married at an early age, it is a child who becomes the mother of a baby. Sometimes someone sells her after marrying her or sometimes she is put to work. It’s like this. Today, she is a child and she is known by her own name. After marriage, in her in-laws’ home, the child will be called ‘this person’s wife’, ‘that person’s aunt’, ‘this child’s mother’. She even loses her identity. We work in a child-friendly-community-mode and ensure that children not only get an education, but also other facilities they are entitled to.
Our efforts don’t stop at preventing child marriage. We also ensure that a mother delivers the child at a government facility, that the child is vaccinated. We spread awareness about educating female children, so that they are not married until they are 18.
A number of girls are also being trafficked in the community. Through awareness programmes, we tell parents that they should not send their children outside, that they should educate girls too. If somebody has already left for work outside, we bring them back, and link them to livelihood programmes.
AJ: What kind of challenges do you face?
RG: The biggest challenge is that places aren’t connected well. In Madarihat in Alipurduar district, there is a place called Totopara where one of the most ancient tribes in the country live. Only two vehicles go to that place in a day. It’s a task to even go that place.
Then, there is the sheer reluctance of families to send their girls to school. They say, ‘You come here and talk to us but these girls are our source of income. We eat only because they earn’. There is of course a reason behind this. I work with families in North Bengal’s tea estates, where out of 2500 people, 700 work in the estates. Unemployment is a major problem, with tea estates shutting down. The families are poor anyways. So when traffickers come here flaunting their mobile-phones, most people don’t even understand what we are trying to explain to them. That can be frustrating.
AJ: Are there any social factors also driving this?
RG: Not everybody is aware of family planning. Things have improved quite a bit now, of course. But if a girl’s mother was married as a child, she says, ‘I got married at the age of 14 and nothing happened to me’. And that’s how the practice perpetuates. This is a social problem.
Look, in Delhi, you have got so many streams to choose from for your higher education. We have only arts and commerce. Science is there but it’s not for everybody. The situation is very different. And the economic situation isn’t good either. When you can’t even get food to eat, how will you think about education? So yeah, in rural areas, we need some help.
AJ: While trying to save this girls from trafficking or child marriage, there have been times you have received death threats too. Can you tell us a bit more about that. Who threatened you and why?
RG: Yes, there were times when the people in the village misunderstood what we were doing and they threatened us. They said, ‘The girls are our source of income and you are ending our livelihood’. So, they weren’t happy. But through meetings with the officials and police, as well as advocacy and awareness programmes, we talked to them and made them see sense, and the matter was resolved.
AJ: Do you receive threats from traffickers often?
RG: Yes, but it hasn’t happened off late. Not in the last one and a half or two months at least. But yes, they did threaten to kill me over the phone. These things happen. We didn’t file a complaint because we neither had any proof or resource to fight the case. But things are better now.
AJ: Despite threats to your life, you still carry on. Clearly, there has to be a very strong motivation to do this. When are you most satisfied with your work?
RG: When I see that because of conversations I had with somebody or because I linked someone to a government system, their life has changed. I feel very happy after making people aware, because it was due to the lack of awareness that four people in my family died. This shouldn’t happen with anybody else.
AJ: You have been recognised for your work now. Tell us about your plan for the future.
RG: I still want to do community-based work and I want to work for women. I want to work on gender discrimination, especially awareness programmes, because I am a woman who has had to learn everything from childhood on her own to reach here.
This is part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s coverage of the Martha Farrell Award for ‘Excellence in Women’s Empowerment’.