A few weeks ago as I was walking home from work, I spotted a small group of men crowded around a cow, which was lying on the ground immobile. As I passed I heard the word “accident” amidst Oriya that I could not decipher. One man was holding the cow’s leg tenderly, which stuck out at an odd angle, while another patted the cow’s side. I never did find out what had happened to the cow or what the men ultimately did. Maybe they
had hit the cow with their motor bike. Maybe they eventually walked away and went on with their lives. All I know is in that in that moment, among those men and that animal, I saw a display of pure compassion. For a country where the cow is considered sacred, this emotion was understandable; yet it left me puzzled, and it took me until now to understand why.
My final weeks at Solidarity for Developing Communities (SFDC) were buzzing with action, as we pushed to finalize the proposal for our new project on human trafficking and violence against women. In Orissa, human trafficking of women for domestic labor, especially those women and girls from poor, mountainous, rural areas, is a particular concern. Our work included field visits to conduct surveys and interviews with survivors of trafficking, analysis of the data collected, and a community planning workshop with field staff and villagers from the field site.
Most of the work was detached from the emotions of the problems; making action plans and goals and budgets were pretty cut and dry processes. Still it was work exciting for me, to not only apply the project planning skills I had learned the past year in my graduate program, but also to see the communities coming together to work for a common goal. During our planning workshop, two survivors of human trafficking were invited to participate and share their stories. The emotion and pain of the women and girls who have been oppressed at the hands of fellow Indians came out with their words. Beyond the clear exploitation from human trafficking, the stories told of the injustice that women face across so many aspects of their lives—childhood, education, work, marriage, and everything in between. Here is one of these stories.
This is the story of a girl named Basanti. As a young girl, Basanti was unable to study at the village school due to her family’s poverty. She spent her days helping with household work and doing labor for her family. After a long wait, her parents decided to send her to a nearby village school. Finally, at age seven, Basanti was able to study just like the other children! Yet her hopes came crashing down when she lost both of her parents. At the young age of 14, Basanti was left in charge of herself and her sick younger brother. But with no family and only seven years of schooling, she had no means to support herself or her brother. She turned to the other villagers in her community for help, and within some time one of the villagers responded. If she needed money, she should go to Kerala. There, she could earn Rs.10,000 per month! So, with no other choices and prospects of a good income, Basanti left for Kerala in order to save her brother and herself. She had not yet finished her studies.
At her employer’s home, Basanti worked long days with little break. To make matters worse, after months of work Basanti had not been paid her salary; a broker had been taking all of her money. Frustrated and vulnerable, Basanti contacted the villagers from her home community, begging them to send her money. With just enough money for her journey, she returned back to her village with empty pockets, as powerless and when she had left. The other villagers paid her no attention, a common response to those women and girls who had left the village. She was not pure anymore, having gone far away for a long time. Who knew what she had done while she was away? At the same time as her return, Basanti’s brother passed away. Basanti had no one and nothing. She was helpless and became angry.
A few years passed, with Basanti barely able to get by, something wonderful happened: she fell in love and married a boy from the village. With her husband’s modest earnings, they were able to live their lives. Another few years passed, and Basanti gave birth to her first child. But as fate always seemed to have it, Basanti’s husband became very sick and within six months he had died. It was a terrible and troubling situation for Basanti, yet this time Basanti had somewhere to turn. She became involved in the Village Peace and Development Committee. At the present, Basanti is alone with her child, but she has a determination that did not exist before. She believes that women are strongly mistreated in society and she is dedicated to helping women and girls lead the happy, healthy lives that they deserve.
Reflecting back on the incident with the cow and our project, it suddenly struck me as odd that a culture which can display such respect and reverence for a cow could show such disregard and outright abuse to its own womankind. I could not find logic in this treatment, only unfairness and inequality.
Thankfully, there are organizations and even some institutions that are striving to even the playing field for women in India. While it was thoroughly disheartening to hear the abuses that these women have undergone, it’s encouraging to know that SFDC is so dedicated to providing services for female survivors of human trafficking and violence against women. This project, Empowering Women and Communities to End Human Trafficking and Violence Against Women in the Gajapati District of Odisha, India, is only a small step to help women gain the rights they deserve, but it is a step nonetheless. This project is one small way to demonstrate the compassion that all Indians are capable of displaying, in hopes that someday there will be no more stories like that of Basanti.
I have now returned to the US, leaving SFDC to move this project forward on its own watch. I am confident that this will happen, and hopeful for the positive impacts that will result.
*If you are interested in supporting this project, please contact Jessica Friedman at email@example.com.