She was drugged and sold for Rs 1 lakh to a brothel in Bhiwandi. But Rama Devi escaped and fought her way to become a change agent who eventually rescued other women from the brothel.
Hers is no ordinary life, but one filled with extraordinary circumstances.
Hers is a world that was turned upside down, but still she found in herself the strength to stand up, pick up the pieces and be the change she wished to see.
As I stepped into a workshop on commercial sexual exploitation of children, organised by Change.org, Change Mantras and The News Minute, a million questions kept running in my head.
For one, the subject of child trafficking and sexual abuse is painful. And to have a 27-year-old narrate her experiences from the age of 16 is really heart wrenching.
Rama Devi stood strong as she narrated her ordeal of being a child bride, and how she was tricked and trafficked to become a commercial sex worker.
She began: “I am here telling my story because I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else. People should be aware about this, and be careful. Traffickers can be anyone - even women.”
In India an estimated three million women and children are trafficked each year of which 40 percent are minors. In its 2014 annual report, the Ministry of Women and Child Development stated that 1.2 million children engaged in forced prostitution.
Rama Devi was one of these hundreds of vulnerable children who are trafficked into commercial sex work. Today she works with 10 other women in her hometown in Kadiri, a town in the Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh, to spread awareness about the dangers of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.
Rama was barely fourteen when her parents got her married and within a year she gave birth to a daughter. Life after marriage was one fraught with struggles; she faced constant abuse and was tortured by her in-laws for dowry. Her husband neither supported her nor did he take care of her during the pregnancy.
After she conceived, she went back to her parents’ home to get better natal care. After her daughter was born, her husband came to her home to bring her back. The abuse continued.
Her mother-in-law constantly complained that because of Rama and the child she was forced to do the household chores. Unable to tolerate the abuse, she went back to her own home within five months.
By this time, her parents had started working as a daily wage labourers in a brick kiln in Kadapa district. This meant that Rama and the infant were left alone at home. Soon she struck a friendship with Pushpa, a specially-abled young girl, who lived near by.
The duo was then befriended by two women and a man.
“They would speak to us when my parents were away working. The two women were my mother’s age and I trusted them. One day they asked us to go for a movie with them. We were assured that we would be back shortly. I had left my baby at home,” Rama, who was then about 15-years-old, recalls.
Little did she know that this was the beginning of a long ordeal and separation from her family.
During the interval, they drank the “cool drinks” given to them. This was the last memory the young women had. The duo gained consciousness a few days later and woke up in a brothel in Bhiwandi, in Thane district in Maharashtra.
“I later came to know that both Pushpa and I had been sold for Rs 1,00,000,” Rama adds.
Shocked, Rama and Pushpa pleaded with the brothel managers to let them go home. They were told that Rama’s parents had sold them and, “the deal was set.”
The girls refused to believe the brothel managers. They continued to demand to be sent back home. Soon, they found out that many girls in brothel had similar stories. Most of them were trafficked and forced into prostitution.
“We were beaten, kept captive and not given food… all I could think of that time was my baby and my parents. I was desperate to see them,” Rama narrates.
The brothel managers tried to break Rama and Pushpa’s spirit and tortured them. Yet, they refused to give in.The duo even started to talk to other girls into leaving and escaping the place. When one of the girls overheard their plan, she complained to the brother manager.
“They put some chilli paste into my eyes. They tortured me,” she remembers.
Rama’s nightmare went for a year, and eventually, their relentless fight forced the brothel managers to send the girls back to their hometown Anantapur. They were scared that the duo would influence other girls into rebelling as well.
Rama returned home to find her parents saddled with a debt of over Rs 1.25 lakh and a daughter who didn’t recognise her.
“My parents borrowed a lot of money to search for me. When I met my daughter she asked me who I was,” Rama chokes and she retails her ordeal. Her daughter was just five months old when she was trafficked.
Slowly, Rama recovered and during the process, came into contact with Rural & Environment Development Society (REDS), an Andhra Pradesh-based NGO, with whose help she decided to take legal action against her traffickers. The police initially took no cognisance of the case and the case remained unregistered.
“There are many other girls like me who are trafficked in my region. Some are lured by the promise of a better lifestyle, money and job; and are forced into commercial sex work and are even trafficked abroad,” Rama explains.
She approached TV9, a regional news channel for an interview. With media support, the police eventually filed a report. The court case lasted for four years and she was even offered an out-of-court settlement.
She refused to accept the money.
“I didn’t want more women to fall into this trap. I wanted justice and the traffickers punished.”
By 2016, the three were convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison and charged a fine of Rs 50,000.
Rama’s fight did not end here. With the help of C Bhanuja, the Chief Functionary Officer of Reds and the police, she went back to Bhiwandi to rescue 30 other girls.
“I wore a burqa and went to the brothel with Bhanuja madam (from Reds).I told them that I want to sell a child and we started to talk to them. Slowly we gained their trust. We went to the brothel, along with the police, and managed to rescue 30 women who were forced to work there,” Rama says.
She says that the poor are especially vulnerable because of lack of proper education and less employment opportunities. Her mission in life, is to empower other women and create awareness about the dangers of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.
More power to her and her cause.