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‘We Own You Because We Bought You’: The Reality Of Fighting Bride-Trafficking In India

Ms. Savithri Subramanian is a sociologist and researcher. She has an extensive experience of working in the development sector with NGOs and UN agencies. She is particularly committed to resolving gender issues and the interrelations between gender and poverty. She has been a member of Empower People and has overseen their work for years.

In an interview, she talks about her experience with Empower People.

Q: How did you first get to know about Empower People?

A: I have encountered the issue of trafficking a few times during the course of my work over the years. However, it is my introduction to Empower People which prompted me to get involved in a sustainable way. I do assessment visits for different agencies. On a similar assignment, I visited Empower People. Not every NGO I visit for assessment inspires me, but Empower People did.

Q: How did you get involved in the cause?

A: I am not directly involved in Empower People’s grassroot-level activities, but I have constantly been a part of their think-tank. I keep exchanging my thoughts and ideas with Mr. Shafiq ur Rahman Khan (the founder of Empower People) and the team. My approach towards the issue of trafficking is more holistic – as directed by my training as a sociologist and my experience in dealing with gender issues.

Furthermore, I advocated the cause to draw limited financial support through corporate social responsibility for Empower People’s interventions such as the setting up of sewing centres for rehabilitation of the survivors. Currently, Empower People is gearing up for a march against bride trafficking. This march will help create awareness in communities. It will also help understand and deal with more than 60% of the trafficking activities happening in India, including those activities stemming from its neighbouring countries.

Q: Would you like to talk about how Empower People works for the rehabilitation of survivors?

A: I have visited their centre in Mewat, Haryana. When I met the survivors, I found them to be confident and self-made. They have good knowledge about sewing and embroidery. Since Empower People works towards sustenance, they have developed sewing centres for the women. The volunteers get orders for weddings or company uniforms. Some of the women are really creative and make beautiful bags (among other things) and sell them.

All said and done, Empower People helps these women meet and form groups and develop confidence. After a while, they become leaders, and an example for the others. They also have a better control over their lives. It does make a difference when a ‘survival leader’, and not just any outsider, talks to the newly-rescued girls. The leaders are very strong, psychologically, after having gone through all the trials and tribulations. I look at them as symbols of independence, boldness and confidence.

Q: How was your experience while interacting with the ‘survival leaders’?

A: While there are great perils in generalising too much on social and developmental issues, it cannot be denied that ‘survival leaders’ are exceptional when it comes to their confidence, skills of articulation and their proactive nature. They exemplify stakeholder involvement in sustainable interventions.

Q: How did your association with Empower People change your perception about the world?

A: My association and interactions with Empower People have enriched my experience in the field of bride-trafficking a lot. Since it is an extremely complex issue and involves a number of social institutions, cultural beliefs and practices, and economic factors, working on bride-trafficking brings a rich experience which is useful in my other responsibilities, even outside the organisation. Furthermore, the structure of Empower People is admirably fluid, flexible, reflexive and has intense stakeholders involvement. I believe that, in itself, this is the best practice that even other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community-based organisations (CBOs) can adopt.

Q: What are the five things that each individual could do to fight the evil of bride-trafficking?

A: 1. Be aware and alert. Take note of any possible case of trafficking in your social circles and report that case.

2. Always emphasise on and actively contribute to the education of girls.

3. Support the cause through financial resources, to whatever extent possible.

4. Give time and effort for initiatives that prevent bride-trafficking and/or for rescuing trafficked women, to whatever extent possible.

5. Raise awareness about the issue through social media and other means of communication.

Q: Would you like to share any particular anecdote?

A: One of my chief research interests and even my own Ph. D. is on women’s property rights. I consider access to property as an index of women’s decision-making authority and autonomy.

In this context, I was really reassured to meet a particular trafficked woman called Sanam (name changed) in Mewat, Haryana. Sanam was brought to Haryana 20 years ago with her sister, when she was 11 years old. She didn’t see her sister after they arrived. She was sold to Zakir (name changed), a widower and a father of six children, who was 20 years older than Sanam. She told me that she was beaten by her husband and his family. She said, “They wanted me to obey them, and if I objected, they always taunted me saying: ‘We own you because we have bought you.’ ”

Sanam was visited by the activists from Empower People who informed her about the rights she had, as a wife and a mother. The Empower People team worked with her father-in-law and the other men of the family, who agreed to transfer some property in her name. Then, the ownership of the land (with the house) was transferred in her name. This indicates that in case Zakir dies, she and her children will remain secure.

Q: What would you like to say to conclude this interview?

A: From the years of my experience on gender-related issues, I can vouch that of all, gender-based violence is the most challenging and complex issue – the reason being its deep entrenchment in exploitative gender norms and practices, and in many cases, in poverty.

Trafficking is an even more challenging issue, which requires sustained efforts on the part of all concerned agencies (both government and non-government) to be controlled. MABT2018 is an initiative to raise awareness, build networks and advocates taking a stand against bride-trafficking. It symbolises a peaceful, cooperative and highly-committed means of NGO-CBO involvement in creating a better world.

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