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