FOR NINE years, she was one of the many girls who went missing. Born to Adivasi parents in a village in tribal-dominated Jashpur district, where trafficking has always been a problem, she left home at the age of 13. There was no money at home, and a local middlemen had promised a steady income to the girl and her parents.
They had thought their daughter would be paid, and would visit them often. But she found herself working in homes where she was constantly abused, paid very little, with no contact with the outside world. Until one day, in the beginning of 2017, she found a way to escape. A year-and-a-half later, she stands beaming almost as brightly as her red uniform, a proud member of a self-help group of victims of human trafficking who now run their own self-sustaining bakery in a small town in Jashpur district.
“I wasn’t allowed to go out of the house where I found myself working in Dehradun. There was lots of abuse, and no way to get in touch with my family. The only entertainment was that I was allowed to watch television sometimes. One day I watched a show called ‘Savdhaan India’, where someone said that if you dial the number 100, the police come. I took someone’s phone, and dialled the number, and told them about how I was mistreated and abused. I was rescued. And now I’m here,” said the 22-year-old.
In early-2017, 20 such victims of trafficking, from in and around Jashpur district, had been rescued. Some like the 22-year-old had worked in homes, others found themselves in prostitution rings. They were all sent to a government-run Vigyan Ashram in Pune, where they did a two-month course in baking. And on August 15, 2017, they stood proudly in front of the “Beti Zindabad Bakery” in Kansabel, all co-owners under the Jeevan Swasahayata Samuh. From trafficking victims, they had become businesswomen.
“We needed to find a way to give them gainful employment, so that they were rehabilitated. The message was important and two-fold. First, for the girls and their families, that you can earn your money here, and there is no reason to send your children to places where you do not know if you will see them again. Second, to ensure that these girls, once rescued, become symbols of success so that they can inspire others,” said Ignatia Toppo, District Programme Officer of the Women and Child Development Department.
The journey was not easy. “We provide free accommodation at Kansabel. But it wasn’t always easy to bring them to this point. Their parents weren’t convinced that this was a viable future. But we brought them here, showed them how their daughters were working in a lovely environment. Slowly, they came around,” said Prabha Tigga, of Jeevan Jharna, an NGO.
At Kansabel, from 7 am every day, the shop is bustling. One room has a counter displaying cakes, bread, cream rolls and chocolates. Another room houses the equipment, bought with loans from the state government. “We didn’t want them to be completely dependent on us. So the state government helped set them up with loans,” said Toppo. While the Zilla Vyapar Udyog gave them a Rs 5 lakh loan, the Women and Child Development Department gave Rs 1.5 lakh.
According to the 21-year-old president of the Jeevan Swasahayata Samuh, the shop makes at least Rs 1,500 daily. “During weddings etc, it goes up to Rs 2,500. We pay back Rs 8,800 of the loan every month, Rs 4,000 as monthly rent, and Rs 5,250 as electricity bill. Then there are expenses for supplies etc. At the moment, we are not taking our salaries, because we want to pay off the loans, which we are close to doing. So we keep the money for the future of the shop,” she said.
The group of 20 girls who started the venture is now down to 10, with many of them now married. But even after leaving the bakery, the others have become anti-trafficking ambassadors for a district that needs such inspiration.
“Some of the girls who left now come to us to buy their supplies, and run shops in their own villages. Besides, whenever there is a function across the state, the bakery puts up stalls and girls get to know our story. Even in our villages, they say we have become big women now. More rescued girls are joining us,” said another victim.
“Being a lady collector, it has always been my dream to see each girl of Jashpur stand on her own feet. Given their special circumstances, I was very keen to see this happen as soon as possible so that apart from being self-sufficient, they can be an inspiration for all the girls of the district. In fact, that was the thought behind finalising the name of the ‘Beti Zindabad Bakery’,” said Priyanka Shukla, District Magistrate, Jashpur.
On March 3 this year, the president of the Jeevan Swasahayata Samuh met the President of India, who awarded her and the organisation as one of the recipients of the “Naari Shakti Awards” for 2017 in New Delhi. When she returned home to her village, she asked her father if he had watched her on television. “He was crying. He told me he kept looking at the television and my face on it. He kept saying the same thing to the other villagers. Vo haman bitiya hai (that is my daughter),” she said.