This is the story of a village called Madhusudanpur, located 100 kilometres from Kolkata. Sitting on the fringe of the Sunderbans, Madhusudanpur is a small dot on the map of West Bengal but a huge black spot on the trafficking map of the state. A study by authors PM Nair and Sankar Sen (published in Trafficking in Women and Children in India) said that the village was home to about 450 families, where every second family depended on trafficking as a source of income even until 2002. But this village was declared 'trafficking-free' due to the concerted effort of the women here, who are still fighting evils like child-marriage and domestic violence.
Saktipada Mondal, a man of short stature but a magnanimous heart, first contacted Kolkata-based NGO, Sanlaap in 2003.
"Trafficking was so common in Madhusudanpur that it had become socially acceptable. Generations of women from the same families would be sold off to agents in return for payments ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 70,000. The women would land up in brothels across the country, but mostly in Kolkata's notorious red-light area called Sonagachi," Mondal said.
Unable to bear the situation in his neighbouring village, Mondal took help from Sanlaap to first set up camp here. What he discovered was forbidding.
"Traffickers operated through a tight nexus that started with the parents giving birth to girls to only sell them to agents operating from Sonagachi. The tradition in this village was to marry off the daughters before they were 18 and then bring them back to their maiden homes after a verbal separation. Following this, the families would build pressure on the daughters to make a living until they voluntarily agreed to go to Sonagachi. Some even went as far as Mumbai and Kashmir," Mondal explained.
Take, for example, Ashima (name changed) Mondal's family. Three generations of women from this family left this village to work at Sonagachi. However, this inimical trend stopped with her.
"My aunt in Sonagachi coaxes me till now to go there. She says that I will be able to afford a phone and new sarees if I worked with her. But now, I know better. I want to finish my studies and get a job here until I want to marry myself," the 14-year-old Ashima said.
Things in this village took a turn for the good in 2010 when Mondal and Sanlaap managed to trace 145 women back to Sonagachi. Though most of them flatly refused to return, it was clear to Mondal that the future generations needed to be saved. Mondal started sensitising the women in the village with the agenda of saving the younger generations. Following this, the women in the village themselves stood up for their own rights.
Sonali (name changed) Haldar, 37, resisted pressure from her family and refused to go to Sonagachi.
"I got raped for my refusal and then the perpetrator refused to marry me when I got pregnant. There was immense pressure from my family to go make a living at Sonagachi. But I refused. I took a job here and brought up my kid alone," Sonali said.
She earns a meagre Rs 4,000 and recently managed to complete her graduation. Her 21-year-old son is now following in his mother's footsteps and wants to get a job soon.
But things were not as simple as it sounds. To break what had become tradition, women had to break the three-pronged evil comprising child-marriage, trafficking and patriarchy.
"With the help of Sanlaap and Sakti da's Koikhali Somadaan Society, the women in this village were exposed to awareness, education and independence. Women were taught vocational courses and self-defence. We had seminars, we had camps set up in houses where some families were particularly difficult to convince," Sonali explained.
The 2,000-odd women managed to lend power to Mondal's solo voice and finally managed to declare Madhusudanpur 'trafficking-free' last year. "It is not true that we did not get any help from the police but initially, their inaction surprised me. Don't you think it's odd that at one time so many girls got trafficked from here and the cops did nothing?" Mondal questioned.
However, the fight does not stop here as according to Mondal, 146 minor girls were married off in 2016 and 7-8 have already been married off this year.
"The women of our organisation managed to save one girl recently who was severely injured while fighting with her brothers so that they did not get her married. She is 16. She now works with us to save more women like her," Sonali said.
While Mondal and his female brigade are proud of their endeavours that saved generations of women from meeting the same fate as their predecessors, they are acutely aware that the path ahead is long and winding. But despite the obstacles, their courage remains aplenty as Ashima said, "We have come so far with little help from the government. It's all been us. Our next agenda is to make Madhusudanpur child-marriage-free soon. And we will."
Updated Date: Feb 24, 2017 09:08 AM