This IPS officer is helping children from the Bedia community escape sex work through education
Veerendra Mishra, an IPS officer from Madhya Pradesh, and his non-profit Samvedna, are providing education to more than 5,500 children of the Bedia community, traditionally engaged in inter-generational sex work.
In 2007, IPS officer Veerendra Mishra was posted at Narsinghgarh, a town in the Raigarh district of Madhya Pradesh. His life was soon about to take a turn when he visited a village where people of the Bedia community lived.
The Bedia community has traditionally and historically engaged in sex work, and young girls entered the profession with the consent of their community. It’s not uncommon for three generations of a family to become sex workers. For Mishra, it was an insight into how the whole community was stigmatised, with little access to education or better living for children.
He recalls, “Three women were sitting on a cot—a grandmother, a mother, and a girl of about 14 years of age. All of them had engaged in sex work, and the young girl was a recent entrant. And she had no reservations or inhibitions talking about her work. I was both shocked and sad to hear it.”
Mishra prompted the professor from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), whom he had taken along, to ask if she was aware of contraceptives.
“Hearing this query, the young girl stood up on the cot, waved a packet of condoms in the air, and asked if this was what I was alluding to. It came as a huge cultural shock to me—a girl of 14 talking about condoms and sex in front of her mother and grandmother,” he adds.
This incident smashed “all his beliefs regarding the world being a good place”.
Moved by this interaction, and as a parent, Mishra’s first reaction was to ask the girl whether he could adopt her and take her home. This could enable her to move out of sex work, have an education, and also land a job in the future.
“She rejected my proposal outright and said what she earned by entertaining 10-15 customers in a day, she wouldn’t do so, even after she went to school for 10 years,” Mishra says.
Education brings change
Sex work is deep-rooted, and a lack of education and the backwardness of the community did nothing to change it.
On a later visit, Mishra found that while children of the Gujjar community were enrolled in school, only three to four children from the Bedia community attended, and that too, enrolled as children of Gujjars—not using their original name or identity.
This was rooted in rampant caste discrimination—they were not allowed to sit with other students or drink water from the same place, and Bedis (women of the Bedia community) were only associated with sex work.
Around 40 children started attending school within a year of Mishra working with the community.
In 2002, he started Samvedna—a non-profit that worked with children in the Bhopal slums. The NGO has since shifted its attention to the Bedia community.
The year 2010 saw the rumblings of change when the younger sister of the 14-year-old girl Mishra had first met insisted on going to school.
He had to fight with the family, and they relented on the condition that 12 other children——either of sex workers or were involved in sex work at some time in their lives—from the community should also be taken to Bhopal for their education.
“I brought 13 children from the community to Bhopal, though only seven stayed on in the first year. They were housed in government hostels and studied in government schools. This is how our work started. Now, we have over 70 children from different villages studying here,” he says.
Beaming with pride, Mishra recollects that the first girl to enroll in the programme completed her BTech and MTech and reached the final interview in the UPSC selection.
Mishra, along with Samvedna, has worked with 5,500 children in 60 villages in six districts of Madhya Pradesh—Bhopal, Rajgarh, Guna, Raisen, Vidisha, and Sagar—tackling issues at the grassroots level, ensuring continuing education in nearby schools and colleges.
Providing opportunities for betterment
It was a hard task to rehabilitate a vulnerable population that has only known sex work for generations.
“The biggest challenge is the trust deficit towards government institutions. For example, if a male government officer goes to a village, the women in his family would question him on his intentions,” Mishra says.
He adds, “Also, most children did not have a record of their biological father because they would have been fathered by one of their mother’s customers. These things really shook me.”
However, he does not associate the word “rescue” with any of this work. He believes Samvedna has given the children opportunities for a better life. “I have never rescued anyone. Education is making an impact, and moving out of their villages to cities boosts their confidence.”
While part of two United Nations missions in Kosovo and Bosnia, Mishra learned about human trafficking and its impact on communities and nations.
As a Hubert Humphrey Fellow in Public Policy and Trafficking at the University of Minnesota, the US, he learned the many dimensions of human trafficking. He also wrote a book, Combating Human Trafficking – Gaps in Policy and Law, and made more than 40 presentations on the subject.
“Human trafficking is rampant in India as it is a place of origin, transit, and destination. But, India followed the UN’s Palermo Protocol definition to introduce it under IPC Section 370 as Trafficking Victims Protection Act. We could have come up with a better definition,” he says.
Palermo Protocol is a UN protocol to prevent, suppress, and punish trafficking in human beings, especially women and children, supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime and its Protocols.
Combating human trafficking
Mishra points out a lot of people avoid the subject of human trafficking in India. Very few CSR funds are allocated for it, which means we are compromising the lives of lakhs of people.
“While we have to stop trafficking, we need to focus more on prevention, reintegration, and rehabilitation. The factors of vulnerability that led to them being trafficked needs to be addressed,” he says.
To ensure human trafficking is seen and addressed by a social justice system, Mishra launched the RACE (Research, Advocacy, and Capacity Building against Exploitation) Lab.
A vertical of Samvedna, RACE is India’s first anti-human trafficking lab. As a think-tank, it focuses on evidence-based research, advocates for policy and system changes, and builds the capacities of stakeholders to create an ecosystem to prevent and counter human trafficking.
“I call it the CCS model—conceptual literacy of masses in human trafficking through awareness programmes, clarity of the people who work in this field, and the development of a specific skillset to work on it,” he adds.
An IPS officer of the Madhya Pradesh cadre, Mishra holds a PhD in psychology from Barkatullah University.
The work with the Bedia community continues with heartening results. Education and livelihood programmes have created an amazing shift in mindsets.
“I want to see a day when children are not forced into prostitution by their own family members. I want to see them dream big and fly high. I would love to see the Rai, the folk dance of the Bediyas, regain its old stature and not in the seductive way in which it is portrayed today,” Mishra says.
Edited by Suman Singh