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faces of change

take a good look at these faces. these are the faces of change.

photo removed for the privacy of the girls

these three girls were dedicated in their village temples as devadasis and faced a life of religiously sanctioned sexual violence and ridicule, but now they are preparing themselves to be part of a front-line attack on the devadasi system that would have enslaved them. who better to advocate for the abolishment of the devadasi system than those who have been directly affected by it!

i met the girls when i visited visthar academy of justice and peace studies in bangalore. the campus is not far from my friend ravi’s house, and when i contacted the director, david selvaraj, wanting to learn more about visthar, he graciously invited me to lunch.

visthar is a secular, non-profit organization committed to enabling women, children, and other marginalized sections realize their rights (visthar.org). it’s also a highly regarded academic institution that partners with organizations in india and around the world, training people to work for a just society.

in fact for you minnesotans, visthar partners with gustavus adolphus college and concordia college to facilitate semester-long study-abroad programs in social justice, peace, and development — so if you know anyone at gustavus or concordia, encourage them to check out this life-changing opportunity!

as i sat with david for a few minutes before lunch, he explained that the term “temple prostitute” widely used for devadasis doesn’t really describe the situation but that “temple slave” was more accurate. he said that the devadasi system is a religiously sanctioned “gross violence against women,” and even though the system has been outlawed in india since 1992, it is “still alive and kicking.”

as coordinator sham khalil later explained, visthar wanted to go beyond the academic study of social transformation and get on the ground, in the villages, and create a place for change. so they envisioned a holistic home for devadasi girls and called it bhandavi, which means friendship.

it was 2003 when they teamed up with a number of ngos in india who had a presence in many villages in karnataka and andra pradesh where the devadasi system is prevalent.

sham himself went to live in one of the 150 targeted villages. they call it capacity building, and instead of trying to change the entire village and its deeply entrenched religious practice, visthar reached out to the maaji devadasis (devadasis who have been put on the shelf) in a leadership development program. this program worked to instill the concepts of human rights to these women and empower them to say no to the system and yes to a better life for their daughters.

sham told me that the villagers didn’t want him there and didn’t like what he was doing. more than once he was chased down the street and told, “we will finish you off!”

in 2005, after much work in the villages, the mothers of a few young devadasis were brave enough and strong enough to let their daughters go to bandhavi. after many tears of parting, the two girls on the left in the photo above came to bandhavi. they were the first! they were just ten years old.

here’s what one of the girls at bandhavi wrote:

My journey to Bandhavi

Where do I begin? My grandmother had already

dedicated me to the goddess Huligamma. I am a

new sacrifice to the Jogithi, or Devadasi system.

My family is waiting with hope and dreams for

me so I can earn for them. The rich people in my

village want a new sacrifice. I had no hope of

being freed from this situation because my father

is sick, my mother is helpless and I have younger

siblings. So I had decided to accept my fate.

At this time the women’s group in my village

spoke to my family about Bandhavi but they did

not want to send me. It was very difficult for me

to leave my family. But I had to decide quickly

or the cunning people in my village would force

my parents to sacrifice me to a wicked practice.

A new life was calling me and I made the

decision. This is an important turning point in

my life. My dreams for the future can come true

because this new life is god’s reward to me.

– Renuka, 14 years old

(http://www.visthar.org/www2/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/BandhaviNewsletter1.pdf)

now bandhavi has seventy girls in the program, which nurtures individual growth, freedom, and dignity and is a “community that lives in love, respect, trust, and friendship.” the girls are creative, joyful, loving, and powerful!

and for the girls who want to build a career helping create the capacity for change in villages like their own, visthar has created a community college social work program. the girls will become trained professionals and be paid a salary to go back to the villages, instill human rights, and empower the women and girls and train them as leaders, and save more girls from the devadasi system.

HURRAH!

before the brothel…

“you’ve got to know where these girls come from!” said shyam kamble. “to rescue a few girls from the brothels, yes! ok! but what about before they are sold to the brothel in mumbai?! it’s in the villages! that’s where the problem is! what is being done to help these girls — before they ever reach the brothel?!”

i’d been wanting to meet with shyam for two and a half years, ever since my stint with freedom firm in 2009. back then shyam was the lead investigator with freedom firm. he has also done extensive investigation work with international justice mission and other ngos involved in the fight against human trafficking. investigating the forced prostitution of minors is not nice work. it’s also dangerous.

as an investigator, shyam went into the red light areas and played the role of a customer. when a young girl was offered to him, he captured photos of the girl on his hidden camera. then he went to the police with the evidence that a minor was being prostituted. if everything went right, and the police were not corrupt and did not tip of the brothel-owner, there would be a raid, the girl would be rescued, and maybe even the brothel keeper arrested and prosecuted.

in his career, shyam has investigated over three thousand brothels and helped rescue more than 1800 girls from the nightmare of the brothel. he has also served as witness in many trials against the brothel keepers and traffickers. but its not enough, because before the brothel is the violence in the village.

“let me tell you something! in my village there are fifty dalit homes. these are the untouchables,” said shyam. “and from these fifty homes, do you know that at one time there were sixty-three girls and women in the sex trade! sixty-three! from fifty homes!”

“how does something like that happen?” i asked him.

“come to my village and see,” he said.

so we went to shyam’s village, khatav, on the border between maharashtra and karnataka. one of the first things he showed me was the hindu temple on the far side of town.

hindu priest and temple in khatav

“these priests you see, they are the ones who dedicate the young girls from the dalit part of town,” he said. in the devadasi system, little girls from the untouchable castes are dedicated to the goddess yellamma. when they reach puberty, the girls’ mothers and grandmothers, who are quite often devadasis themselves, are involved in striking a deals with the upper cast men who would become their first patrons. as one person said, the girls who are untouchable in the daytime are not so at night.

the devadasis are forbidden to marry and they often bear children who are not recognized or supported by their fathers. often devadasis move to a larger city and become prostitutes. and when the devadasis are no longer young and attractive, they are left to beg from the upper caste homes in the village.

two such devadasis from shyam’s village came to talk to us when we were there.

two maaji devadasis

i found the contrast between the proud priests and the humbled devadasis striking. the priests enjoy their position of prestige in the community into their dotage, but the devadasis have been abandoned and are ridiculed.

and though the devadasi practice has been outlawed in india, this violence against lower caste girls is an integral part of the hindu belief system in thousands of villages in south india and other parts of the country.

in addition, as shyam explained, any lower caste girl who is a laborer in the fields is vulnerable to the sexual advances and sexual violence of the upper caste man who owns the field.

and with the devadasi system so entrenched in the villages, it is not such a big stretch for a father to sell his girl to the human traffickers that live in the village. after all, many of the men are alcoholics, and they see the money that their neighbor got from the sale of his daughter.

this is how girls from khatav have been abused.

but sixty-three girls out of fifty homes?! and many of them have succumbed to hiv or other diseases. in a village like shyam’s, this brutality against girls has become almost normal part of village life. that has to change.

shyam in his village

both shyam and i some how, some way, want to be part of the change.

on the goa express

last wednesday i took the goa express from madgaon to miraj. it was a short trip by india standards, only seven and a half hours. being the only female and the only english speaker in the sleeper class berth that seated eight, i brought out my guitar to pass the time and maybe break the ice with the shy fellows on the bunk across from me. i even gave them a little guitar lesson.

soon the berth had thirteen occupants, and the uninvited guest that plunked down next to me making four on a bunk that was clearly marked for three was a puffy bald guy in a shiny silver polyester track suit.

track suits are a rare sight here in india — let alone silver, and this guy thought he really had it going on. but for all that, he looked like a semi-deflated michelin man. his name was satya, he’s a building contractor, and he was only hanging out in sleeper class until his bribes convinced the porter to find him and his colleagues a place in 3rd air conditioned.

meanwhile, i was squished and thinking about bribing the conductor to give this silver fellow the heave-ho. but ultimately i’m glad he was there, because i learned a lot.

“tell me,” said satya, with a challenging air, “the difference between america and india.”

“well,” i said, not sure where to begin. “we have really nice roads. and –”

“i’ll tell you!” he said. “it is the family! the marriage! it is forever! it cannot be broken. the father and the mother and the children. we are together and cannot be broken.”

i’m single, never been married, no kids, and traveling alone on the opposite side of the world from my family. i didn’t have much to say other than, “ok.”

then one of the guys from the opposite bunk asked me how much gasoline costs in america. and i told him. he seemed very keen to continue the conversation, but didn’t have the english to do it. i suggested he might continue to learn english by finding an american movie he liked, one with subtitles, and watch it many times and to learn the dialogue backwards and forwards.

satya jumped in.

“they don’t need to learn english,” he said.

“well, it opens doors,” i said.

“they don’t have time to watch a movie many times!” then he added under his breath, “however, watching american movies is how i learned english.”

“the people who know english in this country are the ones who are getting the good jobs,” i said, and while i’m at it, “don’t you think india would be better off if the masses were educated? it seems like a great resource is not being tapped by having so many people who can’t read and write.”

“no! the masses do not need to know how to read and write! i don’t want my workers to be educated!” he said.

“educated people make better employees,” i said.

“no they don’t. if i say, ‘i will give you one hundred rupees’ to do a job, if you are educated, i have to give you one hundred rupees. if you are not, i say, ‘i will give you one hundred rupees’, and i give you fifty. see?”

“i see,” i said.

“and if you are educated, not only do i have to give you one hundred rupees, after six months you come to me and say now you want one hundred twenty rupees or you will leave!”

“well, ya, you have to treat good employees well to retain them.”

“no! if they are educated they get together and make demands! they do!”

“you’re a building contractor, right? what if you came up with a low cost house —  and you paid your employees enough to purchase one of the homes you build? you could have many more customers — your own employees would have enough money to become your customers! you would be a hero and your business would grow and grow.”

“bah!” said satya.

i felt like george bailey trying to reason with mr. potter in it’s a wonderful life.

“well, some of the most successful american companies pay their employees very well, in fact they have profit sharing.”

“profit sharing! now you are starting to sound like gandhi! you know what he said?! he said that the owner of a company should own only fifty-five percent of his own company! and that the workers should own forty-five percent. forty-five percent! it’s ridiculous! absolutely not. it would never work.”

“hmm” i said.

i closed my eyes and wished he were somewhere else.

when i opened my eyes again he said, “are you on facebook?”

“ya, but i keep it for close friends only.”

“and special friends? like me?”

i shook my head.

“i’ll give you my email address, but you have to promise me you will send me a picture of you in all the places you visit.”

“that won’t happen,” i said.

“i’ll give you my number. call me when you come to delhi, and i will show you all the special places in the city.”

“I’m not looking for a boyfriend,” i said.

he wrote his number in the back of my notebook and underlined his name twice.

“this is a very special number,” he said.

“of course it is,” i said.

his work colleagues called him. apparently the bribes had worked. he was off to 3rd air conditioned. he got up to go.

“call me,” he said.

i watched his broad shiny silver polyester backside leave the berth. i stretched out my legs on the bunk and closed my eyes. soon i was asleep from the gentle rock and steady click-clack of the train.

praying with alphonsa

my first days in bangalore were at my friend ravi’s home, which is a tile and marble giant with a sweeping staircase and nine bedrooms and six bathrooms and a rent of $400 US. plus he has a maid and a really good cook named alphonsa.

i met ravi when he visited farley house in ooty when i was there in 2009. tales of ravi’s magic preceded him. “when ravi comes we will have a party!” “when ravi comes we will have a feast!” “when ravi comes, he will bring sweets, and meat, and many good things!”

soon ravi was on his way to farley, and the fact that he was delayed and then delayed again only made everyone’s anticipation more delicious.

the moment finally arrived. ravi was here! but now it was late at night and he was tired and there was nothing wonderful being pulled out from his truck and nothing magical at all happened. i felt like i was six years old again and hiding behind the sofa playing with matches and burning my fingers when someone snuck into the room and i peeped out from behind the sofa and i saw them put a present under the christmas tree and i finally realized that my brothers were right. there is no santa claus.

the next day, however, it happened. ravi turned on his “everything’s possible” charisma and soon everyone was drawn into the vision: a barbecue! we all sprang into action, gathering wood for the fire, setting up tables, preparing food, bringing out chairs, unbending hangers to roast things on, and running to town with ravi in his beautiful car to buy ice cream and meats and sweets and wonderful things. ravi’s magic is for real.

it was so nice to pad down the marble staircase in my jet-lagged state to the kitchen to say hi to alphonsa the cook and find the fresh milk from the neighbor’s cow that she had just pasteurized for my nescafe and delicious things she had made for breakfast waiting on the table.

the thick air of bangalore air smells of two things: smoke and sewer. the smoke is from thousands of smoldering garbage fires, and anywhere is up for grabs as a toilet or urinal — except where there’s a posted sign: “DO NOT URINE HERE”.

jayaraj, ravi’s brother from the boys’ home, took me into the heart of bangalore numerous times on my frustrating but ultimately successful quest for a cell phone (i now have two! — which is very common here). we went on his motorcycle, which was like being in a two-way motocross race that includes trucks, rickshaws, busses, cars, and pedestrians.

i didn’t have a helmet, and after a thrilling trip into the city and back i was stiff and sweaty and looked like a filthy snarly 1960s country western wig had been plopped onto my head.

one day alphonsa invited me to see her house. so when she finished her work at four o’clock we set out for the bus.

as we stood by the side of the road and waited for the right bus, alphonsa said, “would you like to see st. francis xavier’s church?!”

frankly, no, i thought, but i could see how much it meant to her, so i said, “sure!”

then she said, “would you like to see st. mary’s church?!” it seemed like a lot to try to fit in two churches between bus rides and seeing her house and meeting her family and then finding my pre-arranged taxi for getting back to ravi’s house, so i said, “sure!”

“we can pray together… like that.” she said.

“like that” is a very big phrase in india, and it punctuates millions and millions of sentences a day here.

alphonsa works six days a week for six or seven hours a day and makes Rs 4500 per month. that’s less than $100. as we took our seats on the bus, i noticed a number of girls on the bus who were wearing the exact same red and yellow sari. i’ve seen thousands and thousands of saris, and they are never ever the same one twice, so i asked alphonsa about it.

“they go to om shakthi temple,” she said. “like that.”

once we got off the bus we walked through a mid-city park that had fences that lined the sidewalks and kept people off of the grass. alphonsa pointed ahead and said, “just there is st. francis xavier. we’ll go to my house and i’ll change my clothes. and then we’ll come back. ok?”

“ok,” i said.

as i thought about this, i realized that when she said she was going to change her clothes she meant she was going to put on not something more comfortable, but something more special. i looked down at the holes in the knees of my jeans. “sorry i’m not wearing something nicer,” i said.

as we walked by a number of small shops she turned to me. “i buy you new jeans?”

“oh! no… but thank you!” i said.

“four hundred fifty rupees,” she said. “like that.”

a few minutes later she offered again. this st. francis xavier church better be pretty great if you’re willing to spend more than a month’s wages so i can enter without holes in my jeans. they would just have to do, i thought.

finally we came to a doorway in the side of a three-story building. above the doorway was a carved elephant head image of ganesha, the hindu lord of success. we entered and walked along a narrow passage through the three-story building and then between two smaller buildings. we came out to a patch of daylight and her tiny house, which consisted of a string of three rooms. the first room had a blaring tv, a small table, and nothing else.

the next room was the kitchen, from which she produced a folding chair for me to sit on. one side of the kitchen held a gas stove (no oven), a black counter, and a dingy sink. on the other side stretched two long shelves that housed her collection of pots and pans. the largest pot looked like it could hold eight gallons.

beyond the kitchen was the bedroom. clothes were draped over the door. i’m not sure of the sleeping arrangements, but alphonsa has a husband and three children, ranging in age from sixteen to eleven. outside and adjacent to the house were two stalls. one held the squatty potty and the other a cold shower. each had a curtain for the door.

as i waited by the tv, alphonsa put on one her five good saris, which was a deep purple silk with gold borders. she took down her long black hair and then smoothed it back again into a bun. she was ready. i took her picture.

we walked back through the dim passage and to the street. time was running short, so we flagged down a rickshaw. it would be st. mary’s first, then st. francis xavier.

from the rickshaw alphonsa pointed out the om shakti temple where the devotees all wear the same sari. the rickshaw honked and dodged its way through a massive and crowded and noisy market, and then past another hindu temple. soon we saw the tall white spire of st. mary’s basilica.

the noise of the market was muffled by the air of quiet reverence in the courtyard of the church. as we approached the main building, a man kissed and embraced a poster of Jesus.

just as we reached the door, the muslim call to prayer rang out over the scene from the loudspeaker of a nearby mosque. we went inside the basilica and found a pew.

alphonsa kneeled on a wooden bench to pray. i sat on the pew and looked around me.

i didn’t feel at all like praying. but the muslim call to prayer echoing through the basilica tugged at my heart. i closed my eyes and bowed my head and began to pray.

i thanked God for bringing me to india and to this place at this time.

and i prayed for light on my path.

when i finished, all was quiet. the call to prayer was over. i lifted my head and opened my eyes. alphonsa was ready to go.

the kindness of strangers

ok, so the highly rated guesthouse conveniently near to the airport that i had planned to go to upon my 12:35 am arrival in bangalore was completely booked by the time i tried to make a reservation. i was in the shuttle on my way to the minneapolis airport at the time, or about 30 hours out from arrival in india, but this was far more planning than i had done for my arrival in new delhi in 1999 when i pretty much got shanghaied. so i figured i was way ahead of the game.

and the good thing about leaving my reservation to the last minute and not getting a reservation at that conveniently near guesthouse was that the airport that the guesthouse was conveniently near is no longer an airport. and the new bangalore airport is nowhere conveniently near the highly rated guesthouse at which i had planned to stay. so that all worked out great.

my problem then became where to go instead.

and here’s where the kindness of strangers comes in.

the guy sitting next to me on the plane from paris to bangalore said the obligatory hello, buckled in, looked through the air france magazine from cover to cover, and then promptly took a nap. and i’m like, you know, it isn’t every day one flies from paris to bangalore, so you could perhaps say something more than hello.

but not a word. i thought he might be quite a grump.

after he awoke from his nap, however, he came to life and we started talking.

he was an indian computer engineer heading back home from a recent business trip to milwaukee. his name was anil, and we had such a nice conversation that by the time we landed he offered to meet me in baggage claim and let me use his cell phone to contact my friend ravi, who had said earlier in the day that of course i should stay at his house.

but anil did way more than let me use his cell phone to call ravi.

anil hung out in immigration — where i told a very small little white lie about where i was staying — because at that point i had no idea what ravi’s address was. and then he waited nearby as another airport official questioned me about what was in my bags. and then he watched over my baggage cart as i went to change some money. and then we found a place to sit down and he used his laptop to connect my iphone to the airport wi-fi so i could post a safe arrival notice on facebook. and then he bought us each a coffee and paneer wrap at coffee day at 2:30 am because we were both starving. and then he shared his taxi with me and helped me find ravi’s house, which i alone with the taxi driver in the middle of the night would never ever have been able to do in a hundred million years. and then he gave me his phone number and address and said if ever needed anything, he would do his best to help.

so on those days when i’ve been overcharged, glared at, or groped, i will try to remember my flight friend anil — and the huge credit balance on the india account.

you’re going with me!

back in 1999 when I first learned about the trafficking of young girls from nepal into india, it bothered me, but i thought, i’m just me. who am i to do anything about it?

but when i started taking steps to return to india, i soon realized that it’s not just me doing this. it’s we! i’m not going it alone, because you are all part of this now.

among the first to join were the faithful women of my bethany adult bible fellowship class, who made a splash on my birthday and are always there for me.

then the fabulous tracy newman and the reinforcements volunteered to do a benefit concert for me! this was huge. huge. i first heard tracy two years ago at brad colerick’s mid-week, soul-soothing, spirit-lifting hootenanny in south pasadena (wineandsong.com). it’s every wednesday night, and it’s free, and it’s wonderful! and if you’ve never heard tracy newman and the reinforcements, “like” the band on facebook, find out where they’re playing next, and do yourself a favor and go!

before long chauncey bowers, ed tree, lisa turner, and the aforementioned brad colerick were on board for the benefit. my best so cal pal sharon printed flyers and promoted tirelessly, suzanne and keri coordinated, tracy and alexia promoted, leslie and nilo cooked a magical spaghetti dinner for the crew, john and amber brought dessert, judy and janice jumped onto clean-up detail, lois welcomed, brendan did amazing sound, church peeps brought cookies, dave hosted the delightful coffee and cookie break, and sharon and geoff managed the welcome and bank table.

all this combined with two hours of wonderful music made for a smashingly successful event that brought together my church family, my music family, my twin sister, my landlord, and many people i’d never met before, but who wanted to support my work. we raised $2700 at the event, and more money came in before and after from people who couldn’t attend. and it’s not just financial support, but awareness of the issue, readers for my blog, words of encouragement, lots of hugs, and much needed prayer support.

so for all of you who came and went and gave and helped and played and listened and hugged and read and prayed — thank you thank you thank you for joining me!!

so what are we doing first? we’re heading to bangalore, where we have friends, to set up base camp. we’ll need a cell phone with an internet plan and an indian bank account, so we don’t get charged fees right and left for transferring money or using the atm. and then we’ll need to resume our study of hindi. we want to get beyond the beginner stage in the next six months. soon we’ll be volunteering with organizations in the far reaches of india. so learn to love the suitcase. and then let’s communicate often! — on facebook, via emails, and on this blog.

next blog post: the kindness of strangers, or it’s day three — why don’t i have a cell phone or a bank account yet?, or how i didn’t get to the christmas play on time, or something like that!!

why i’m going to india

it all started back in 1999, when i spent much of the year traveling in southeast asia. it bothered me when i learned that each year hundreds of young girls from poor rural villages in nepal were given the “opportunity to get a nice domestic job with a rich family in india” only to be whisked across the border and sold to a brothel and raped twenty times a night. ya, that bothered me, but what was i to do about it? i was just me, and i had a plane ticket. time to move on to the next place.

but even when i came back to the states and got busy with graduate school it still bothered me. years later when i got an igoogle page i personalized it with a quote from ray bradbury’s farenheit 451: “we need to be really bothered once in a while. how long is it since you were really bothered? about something important, about something real?” and every time i read that quote i thought about those girls.

finally in 2008 i felt led to some how some way get involved. a few months later i was on my way to india to volunteer as communications coordinator for an organization that works for rescue, restoration, and justice for victims of sex trafficking. it was a short-term gig, but it was great to be able to use my writing to help make a difference. this time around i plan to volunteer with a number of organizations that advocate for women and girls who are survivors (i like that word better than victim, don’t you?) of human trafficking. i hope to use my writing in new ways and maybe find a place to dig in for a longer-term endeavor.

i’ve been to india three times, and believe me, india is not for sissies. and leaving california is not easy. i love my life here. i love the weather. i love the view from my apartment. i love my friends, my church, my car, my guitar, my refrigerator, my stove, my flush toilet, and my hot and cold running water. i love my green street taqueria, my nonna’s pizza, and my wednesday nights at brad colerick’s mid-week soul-southing spirit-lifting hootenanny.

i don’t know how all this is going to turn out.

and i don’t have to know. that’s part of the adventure.

**********************************************************************

to struggle used to be
to grab with both hands
and shake
and twist
and turn
and push
and shove and not give in
but wrest an answer from it all
as jacob did a blessing.

but there is another way
to struggle with an issue, a question —
simply to jump
off
into the abyss
and find ourselves
floating
falling
tumbling
being led
slowly and gently
but surely
to the answers God has for us–
to watch the answers unfold
before our eyes and still
to be a part of the unfolding.

but, oh! the trust
necessary for this new way!
not to be always reaching out
for the old hand-holds.

“a new way of struggling”
— by susan w. n. ruach

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