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An Unexpected Journey into 2019

At the start of the Christmas break, my schedule was written. First, I would go to India with my boys, then meet my husband in Dubai for a quick holiday, and finally, come back to London to begin 2019 with renewed purpose and energy. I was so well prepared that I even had a blog topic in mind for January! My goals for 2019 were set. It quickly became apparent, however, that despite my preparations, the universe had other things in store for me.

A week before leaving for India, I broke my big toe. Not only was I in pain, but I was told that I had to wear – what I can only describe as – a big, ugly boot for the whole time that I was away. I couldn’t really walk, and I definitely couldn’t swim – the next six weeks were basically ruined. Waiting at the airport to fly to India, rather than being excited, I just felt disheartened. Although the wheelchair access was quite handy!

Gandhi Ashram

The first stop on our trip was a place called Gandhi Ashram (Mahatma Gandhi’s former home), which is situated by the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad. This Ashram has always been my happy place and the minute I reached it, the frustrations that I had been feeling over my toe began to fade away. It is a place where I can just ‘be’ and where I always seem to feel Gandhi’s presence. The Ashram also holds great meaning in my life; it is where I was first introduced to the concept of service, which led me to found the NGO, Connect India, and it is also where I got married.

The 758th Katha:

Back in my happy place, the days whizzed by. Then in the middle of the trip, something life changing happened. Morari Bapu (Bapu) – whose religious discourses I have been listening to since childhood – began his 758th katha (recital), which he dedicated to the sex workers of India (from now on, I’ll call them Didis, which means ‘older sister’). On a recent visit to Kamathipura, Mumbai’s largest red-light district, Bapu was overwhelmed by all that he saw there. As a community shunned by Indian society, he wanted to reach out and raise the profile of the Didis and sought to use his forthcoming 9-day recital to raise much needed funds for these women and girls.

For various reasons, including my affiliation with this work over the years, I became involved in this movement. So after a few quick days in Dubai, the boys left with my husband for London and I hobbled off to the golden city of Ayodhya to help in whatever way I could. It was an honour of course, the significance of which I would not realise until a few weeks later, but it was also one of the hardest things I have ever done. As the city where Lord Ram was born, I imagined that Ayodhya would at least resemble just a little from the stories that I had read about as a child. What I found instead – as with most sacred places in India – was utter chaos. Feeling God’s presence in this city was going to be difficult.

Bapu had invited hundreds of sex workers to the recital and people all over the world were already beginning to donate to the cause. In light of this, I was given the task of working with other NGOs and activists to find efficient ways of dispersing the donations to the right people. Thus began a few weeks of conversations with relevant organisations and with many Didis, some of whom I had known for years, but there were also many women that I had never met before. As I reached out to different stakeholders and local leaders, I kept being asked the same questions, which just highlighted how little people understood about what it means to be a sex worker in India and how widespread the industry is. Of course, no one can be entirely blamed for this ignorance as it is a very complex issue, which does not get any ‘real’ coverage in India. Nevertheless, it was still shocking to see that many were so clearly surprised by the staggering and gruesome reality in India and the world.

The Statistics:

According to a Zero Traffik Report (2013), there are around 20 million commercial sex workers in India, with an estimated 80% (16 million women) victims of sex trafficking. This means that they have either been kidnapped, or lured from their homes, and then forced to become sex slaves through a combination of coercion, torture, starvation and rape. Minors make up 40% of this figure, with some as young as nine years old.1 However, this is not just an Indian problem, but an international phenomenon. Globally, there are 40 to 42 million sex workers, 75% of which are between the ages of 13 and 25, and 80% are female.[2] Sex trafficking is a hugely, lucrative industry worth an estimated $99 billion a year. At least 20.9 million adults and children are bought and sold worldwide into commercial sexual servitude, forced labour and bonded labour. Women and girls make up 96% of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation.[3]

Ayodhya:

Back in India, I saw the worst of humanity in the stories shared by the Didis and for the first time, I experienced the worst too. Wrapped up from head to toe in the freezing cold in Ayodhya, standing with my friends from ‘Kranti’ (a charity that supports and empowers girls and women from the red-light district in Mumbai), I was mistaken as a Didi. I was shooed away like a dog by several people, asked to stand in a different line for food and shouted at for not giving up my seat in the middle of my meal for a ‘normal’ person. Even though Bapu had reached out to these women and girls with hospitality and love, some of the locals and those attending the recital, still could not help but look at these women with disgust.

Sadly, Bapu was also being slammed left, right and centre by the right-wing press and conservative Hindus for making Ayodhya ‘impure’ by publicly inviting sex workers to attend his recital. They completely opposed his attempts to shine a light on the plight of millions of Didis who have been disrespected and disregarded by society because of their ‘dirty’ work. I have to be honest, I genuinely laughed as I read some of the criticism. Ayodhya has been at war several times over the years and killed so many in the name of religion. Surely, this should have been viewed an opportunity to elevate the position of the sacred city in a positive way. Even more absurd (or hypocritical) is that I am sure that many of the people criticising Bapu are – or at the very least – have been clients of various brothels at some point! In the face of such backlash, I was amazed to see that Bapu simply carried on, unafraid and standing strong in his belief and mission. The recital ended and I went back to London on a high.

Bapu’s Hometown:

Through Bapu’s unwavering commitment to the cause, he managed to raise INR 6.92cr (£770,000) for the NGOs fighting for these women and girls daily. On the day that the donations were to be given to the chosen organisations, I returned to India to visit Mahua (Bapu’s hometown in India). In the presence of the Didis, organisation leaders and the press, Bapu gave an amazing speech. He said in the humblest way that he understood the Didis, he accepted them and when they cannot find another place to call home, they can count on his home, Talgajarda, always. Tears streamed down the faces of the Didis for hours – almost as if years of trauma were being released in one moment of love.

By showering love on a community that has never been accepted or acknowledged by a religious leader, Bapu showed India the true meaning of religion and spirituality. By placing humanity above all else, he has paved the way for a real shift to occur – just like Gandhi did for the untouchables. It is important to remember though that shifts and changes like these take lifetimes. So, I hope that when the excitement of the last month dies down, those people – whose awareness has increased on this issue – do not suddenly forget what they have learned and actually take some of their learnings back into their normal, daily lives to influence their peers.

Reflections:

As I write this, I am on my way back home. Reflecting on my experiences in Ahmedabad, Dubai, Ayodhya and London, (including falling ill, returning to work and going back and forth to India – all in one month!), I can say with complete conviction that January 2019 was unexpectedly transformational. My involvement in this project was relatively small, but the experience shook me to the core. Helping this community was entirely different when doing so from the frontline. Firstly I made new friends (with the NGOs Kranti, Kat Katha and New Light) Working alongside them reignited my internal fire for the cause, and for each of these women and girls that have their own individual dreams, hopes and desires. My resolve and commitment to serve survivors and victims of human violations, deepened – not at the pace I choose though, but at their call.