Trafficked children find love, protection at Indian shelter
She has a reason to smile now. She's learning to read, to sew, to sing and laugh. She doesn't go to bed hungry, and she knows somebody cares whether she lives or dies.
It wasn't always so.
Fatima's father, a Muslim, pulls a rickshaw in Calcutta. She never went to school. When she reached the age of 6, her abusive stepmother forced her to start cooking and cleaning for the rest of the family. She also worked every day cutting rubber to make sandals -- one rupee (about 2 cents) for 12 straps.
When she was 14, her stepmother took her to a "youth hostel" and left her there. It turned out to be a brothel.
'ANGRY AND CRYING'
"I was angry and crying," Fatima says. "Another girl told me to run away. 'I am in this place, but I don't want you to suffer the same fate,' she told me."
When her first customer came to her room, Fatima hit him on the head with a hard-sole shoe and fled. She walked 20 kilometers to the main train station in Calcutta. A private child protective agency found her and sent her by train to the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. She was brought to the Society of Underprivileged People, a "house of love and care for children" run by Joy and Grace Zaidi, Christian leaders in Allahabad.
"She was very tense and afraid," Joy recalls. "She shouted, 'Leave me alone!' She thought she was being brought to another brothel."
That was more than a year ago. Her family's treatment of her still hurts deeply, but Fatima now knows she is among friends who love her. The world of education is opening up to her. She recites the Lord's Prayer by heart and is learning more each day about the One who taught it.
Her plans? "I want to work and earn a living," she replies. At the shelter she is learning sewing and other skills along with about 20 other children and young women.
Another girl at the shelter, 16-year-old Sunita, was given poisoned food by an aunt along with her five brothers and sisters after her parents died. The poison killed her siblings, but Sunita refused to eat. Enraged relatives broke her hand and drove her away from her village. She worked for years as a virtual kitchen slave for several families, suffering terrible beatings until she ran away.
Joy and his workers eventually rescued her from the street, bleeding and hungry. "When we found her, she began to curse us in the best abusive language possible," he recounts with a rueful chuckle. It took her weeks to begin to trust shelter workers, but now she hugs Joy and calls him Papa.
"They're just children," says "Chai," a Southern Baptist who visits the shelter. "So it's good to see them be children again after all they've been through."
THE TIE THAT BINDS
Violence is a tragic tie that binds together countless Indian girls and women -- Hindu and Muslim -- whether or not they are forced into the sex market. That's true for the girls at the shelter in Allahabad. It's true in nearby Varanasi, where Joy's workers help at a community center that trains Muslim women in sewing and other vocations.
"Violence is the common factor in all families here," says the Muslim woman who runs the community program. "The women become immune to it. They think its part of life."
Even some of Joy's volunteers endure it. Sumitra, a gentle and dignified mother of seven, often comes with bruises. She is beaten four or five times a month by her alcoholic husband and her father-in-law. It gives her an automatic bond with the prostitutes she meets. They tell her about their own hardships then listen as she advises them about AIDS, immunizations, education -- and getting out of the flesh trade.
Will the abuse ever end? Sumitra takes the long view: "Our mothers suffered more. We suffer. Our daughters may suffer less."
That's a dream shared by Chai, the Southern Baptist worker. And he hopes to help make it a reality sooner than the next generation. Jesus Christ inspired a despised Samaritan woman to start a spiritual revolution in her town. His friend, Mary Magdalene, a former prostitute, became a fearless public witness to His resurrection when the disciples were still cowering in the shadows.
Maybe He has something similar in mind for the multitudes in Uttar Pradesh.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: BEGINNING TO TRUST, LESSENING THE SUFFERING, RESCUED and NOW ABLE TO SMILE.