The NGO Prajwala, which rehabilitates women in prostitution and their children, is in danger of having a fatwa issued against it.
Ah, Hyderabad, the city of paradoxes. Beneath the veneer of development lies much that the sanitized eye cannot see and that the defiant self cannot come to accept.
It's not just that Hyderabad's underbelly is ugly, what with the drugs and the land mafia - the question is, is the city even ready to clean up?
Sunitha Krishnan, a social activist who rescues women from prostitution, might choose to disagree. She was in the news recently for allegations against her NGO, of siphoning foreign funds and defaming women of a certain community.
Here's her take.
The only red-light area in Hyderabad, "Mehboob Ki Mehendi", was evacuated in 1996. After that, prostitution has become decentralized, and spread across the city. Over the years, newer forms such as "quick time-pass" prostitution, which essentially means sexual acts without any penetration, and which can be indulged in in areas like parks and theaters, have become a common occurrence. Women and girls from several parts of the city have been found in these acts. A good number of them, irrespective of their religious origin, have used the burkha to protect their identity, as these acts take place in broad daylight.
Within the Old City, there is a prevalence of Sheikh marriages (which is another form of prostitution) and home-based prostitution.
In order to prevent second-generation prostitution, we started several centres inside the Old City. The areas were identified by women in prostitution themselves.
These centres are called "transition centres", and cater largely to children of women in prostitution. The centres aim to prepare children for mainstream education by providing them with quality scholastic and psychological skills.
These centres have been run for over 10 year. 7 of them are run in the Old City, confidentially - we restrict admissions to ensure that the targeted audience get the most benefit.
On the 12th Jan 2012, one Masood, who claimed to be an RTI activist (who had, in the last 2 years, sought information about our organization thrice), led an attack on our centre in Kalapather. A mob of young boys with posters and printouts of our website staged a dharna in front of our school. The local politician/councilor also came with the media.
I was travelling then, so my core team members dealt with the issue. The attacking party demanded that we show the admission registers and the background information of the women. My team requested them to come to the Head Office the following day and take all the information in my presence. We thought the matter had ended there, but unfortunately, the media picked up the story, presenting one-sided information and defaming the organization, insinuating that we have been defaming Muslim women in order to access foreign funds.
This was quite demoralizing for the team, and in a core committee meeting, we decided to request the women to give their background in writing.
In hindsight, this was the greatest blunder we committed.
We spoke to the women, who agreed to our request. The first centre where this process began is in a place called M M Pahadi. 95% of the women there had already signed the background note / undertaking, which essentially stated where the woman had been in prostitution, and an undertaking that she is committed to prevent her child from being inducted into prostitution by providing education in a normal school, and that our school is just a preparatory centre.
2 of the women refused to sign the undertaking, and informed the community that "women are being made to sign some papers". In a few hours, an announcement was being made in the local mosque. We heard it at night, and decided to resolve the matter the next morning.
The next day was a nightmare, to say the least.
Hundreds of men came to attack the centre with swords, chains and stones. I rushed to meet the so-called leaders of this place. Before I started my meeting I insisted that the women should be there, too, and in the presence of these women, I explained to the leaders the work we were doing.
The leaders then asked whether prostitution occurs in that area, and I replied that I would not answer the question.
To this, the main leader declared loudly that he would kill me and "cut me into pieces". He also threatened to close all my other centres.
I responded that they must kill me there and then, and take my funeral from that place.
The women, who were silent until then, retaliated, and told the leaders, "She is the one who saved us and our children, we want this centre".
This was quite a blow to the leaders. They were silenced for a moment, but then they asked us to leave the area, and threatened the women of dire
consequences. They refused to let me even intervene.
As I returned with my team, someone called me on my mobile, saying that our centre would be burnt down that night, and also that our caretaker's son would be harmed. I rushed to the police, and sought safety for the centre and my people.
Yet, 6 of the women were badly beaten by the local men. But no complaint could be lodged, as the women would not speak up. All the women were threatened to silence.
The police intervened on our behalf in the community meeting the following day in the presence of the local MIM corporater, Azis. The men of the community came together and took a decision that the centre must be closed down, and that the background undertaking notes be returned or destroyed.
Interestingly, the local corporater (politician) had come with someone who wanted to start a school in the same premises.
In the meantime, I desperately tried to meet the Owaisi brothers, who are the leaders of the MIM party, that rules the Old City. They avoided me completely when I had tried to meet them through various sources.
Finally through the kind intervention of Mrs. Renuka Choudary, former Union Minsiter for Women & Children, I managed to get an appointment with Akbaruddin Owaisi for the following day, 10 Feb 2012, at 8:30am.
I reached his house at 8am, and was made stand outside his main gate for over 3 hours. Repeated calls to his mobile were of no use. I did not budge from my position outside his house.
Meanwhile, I got in touch with Mrs. Choudary, who also tried to reach him. Finally, at 11.20am, he called me on my mobile. I informed him that I had been standing outside his gate for over 3 hours.
He ignored that sentence, and asked me "what the problem was". I explained the whole situation to him. He told me he would find out "the other side of the story" and get back to me. He apologized for making me wait as he was in great pain (he was himself attacked because of a land deal few months back).
With absolutely no assurances, I came back to my office. Then we received information that another of our centres would be attacked that afternoon after the afternoon prayers. Apparently, this was being discussed in the local mosque. We were able to avert the attack through police support.
In the evening, I went for a final meeting with the community members, which was held in Inspector Jayaram's office.
We were asked to close the centre, destroy the undertakings and hand over the registers to the private school - Mohammad Memorial School. I agreed to all this, and in the presence of the Inspector, I burnt all the papers and handed over the admission registers to the owner of Mohammad Memorial School.
There was comic relief when, after all this, the local leaders requested us to leave our things for at least 3 months for the sake of the children. I refused, and told them that henceforth, the children are their responsibility. We shifted all our belongings by midnight.
There has been no immediate news from any centres. But now, all our centres are in grave risk.
I have also heard that there is an attempt to issue a Fatwa against our work, as information has been passed on in writing to Jamia Nizamia.
This is a complicated and delicate issue, and in the process of clearing my name I don't want to jeopardize the lives of my women and children. In addition, my life is in danger, as I have been framed as the "mastermind" for all this.
At this juncture, I want to point out to some coincidences:
- In the last 7 months, our rescues have become very strong, and in the last one month, through proactive judicial intervention we have been able to retain victims for rehabilitation in our home for over a year. This is a new development, as previously, the traffickers could get access to the victims by making false claims.
- Strong cases are being booked against traffickers, many of whom are from the Old City.
- All the centres are located in prime properties in the Old City, which has been a target for the land mafia for some time now.
Without sounding melodramatic I want to place on record my heartfelt gratitude to the following officers, without whose support there would have been great damage to our institution:
-Mr. Jayaram, Inspector, Rajendranagar Police Station
-Mr. Muthyam Reddy, ACP, Rajendranagar
-Mr. Sudheer Babu, DCP, Shamshabad
-Mr. Manish, DCP South
-Mr. Mahesh Bhagwat, Jt CP
-Mr. Amit Garg, Addl CP
-Mr. Ramnamurthy, ADGP
-Mrs. Kalpana Nayak, SP, WPC
-Mrs. Chaya Ratan, Spl Chief Secretary
Sunitha Krishnan is a social activist, and founded Prajwala, an NGO that works for the rehabilitation of sex workers and their children. She writes at sunithakrishnan.blogspot.com.