Tensions Rise in Bihar12 Dec 2007, by Uncategorized in
December 10, 2007
Before traveling to Bihar, India’s poorest state, I had heard stories of its backwardness, lawlessness, and utter poverty. Sounded exciting to me, and indeed it was.
Forbesganj is a main commercial city in Bihar, situated near the Nepalese border. About ten minutes from the main bizarre is a side street of little huts – the "red light district." Apne Aap runs a Community Center amidst these huts, which serves as a day school for young children and a meeting space for the women in prostitution, or those who have come out.
To my great surprise, 10 women have successfully left prostitution, against overwhelming obstacles, like daily beatings from their husbands, fathers, and brothers for the loss of family income. Moreover, these women have committed to NOT putting their daughters in prostitution, instead sending them to school. These women are forming a Self Help Group and will be the core workers at the production unit, making products for Made by Survivors. I got to meet each of them, go to their houses, and ask some general questions about what they were interested in learning/making. They all said they were just so excited for the opportunity to learn and earn that they are willing to learn any skill. I couldn’t talk with the women much on the streets as we were drawing quite a crowd. I am perhaps the first white person to visit, plus these women are in constant threat from the community. We went with two women back to the Apne Aap community center to talk in depth, and even then a "spy" came to listen through the window and we had to shoo her away.
Nearby the bizarre, Apne Aap runs a residential school for 50 adolescent girls from families affected by forced prostitution. This school is truly a beacon of hope, and the girls are all so cheery and joyous to be there. The mothers, some still trapped in prostitution, are welcome to visit their children, and have really taken an interest in their girls’ education. While I was visiting, the girls were practicing for a drama performance to be given this week to American Women’s Rights Activist, Ms. Gloria Steinem. The play is about a police raid on a brothel in their town, and how the brothel owner pays off the police and the girls to keep quiet about the exploitation. I was asked to help give direction to the girls, and was faced with one of the most challenging tasks in my lifetime: directing ten-year old girls how to play the part of a trafficker, brothel owner, or prostitute. But, as the Warden of the school explained, these girls grew up in a red light district, so for them it is something they were accustomed to seeing. If we don’t talk about it, and pretend it doesn’t happen, they may feel ashamed by their background and be more at risk of falling into the same cycle of exploitation. So, despite my initial apprehension, I understood the importance of giving these girls the opportunity to speak against the prostitution that hurt so many of their mothers, grandmothers, and sisters.