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#IWD2024: 'The Women of the Dawn: Trafficking in rural India'

To mark International Women's Day, Sr Sherly Thomas (Arise India Coordinator) discusses prejudice against rural women in India, and the steps her and her congregation are taking to create change.

Above: Anti-trafficking sisters in India. Sr. Sherly and the sisters of St. Joseph are those in pink.

'Unfortunately, rural women in our country are often overlooked, both economically and socially. Despite this, they play a vital role in various occupations - including agriculture, livestock management, processing of agricultural products, and trading. However, there is still a prevalent vulnerability and inequality across the public sphere – in economic power, social status, political influence, education levels, healthcare access, nutrition, and in the justice system.

According to estimates, women make up 50% of the population, but only represent 30% of the official labour force. They perform 60% of all working hours but receive only 10% of the world income. Additionally, women own less than 1% of the world's property. This economic profile certainly applies to rural women in India.

It is crucial to empower these women to improve their safety and economic security. It is also important to remind others that rural women are not passive recipients of welfare, but rather productive and hardworking adults who have faced immense challenges from a young age. Their active participation in the development process is increasingly necessary.

Women of the Dawn

The sisters of St. Joseph are actively engaged at the forefront of civil society, working to restore dignity to those less fortunate and exemplify the compassionate values of Jesus. The exceptional participation of our sisters in AMRAT, one of the largest networks of religious sisters for combating human trafficking (part of the wider Talitha Kum network), is truly remarkable. We extend our support and compassion to those living on the outskirts of the society, by reaching out to them and offering assistance, aiming to bring warmth and dignity.

We embrace our mission of liberation, and engage with the world, addressing the social, political, economic, and cultural realities, and empathising with the joys, hopes, sorrows, and suffering of people today, particularly those who are disadvantaged and impoverished. We serve those on the periphery, the deprived especially, often focusing on women and children in rural areas, bringing new life and hope to them. Even today, the words of Yahweh to Moses resonate strongly. The Lord wants us to recognise the struggles of his people, to listen to their calls for liberation, and to be the modern-day “Moses”, sharing love with all those who are victimised, vulnerable, and abandoned.

I feel grateful for the opportunities I have had to make a difference in the lives of trans people and women living in slums, witnessing the realities of the wider world. This engagement with at-risk LGBTQ individuals and homeless women drives me to be dedicated, creative, and fulfilling our mission for the marginalised.

One case study

Ramya (name changed) is a transgender individual with a graduate degree. In addition to pursuing her passion for club dancing, she had to resort to soliciting money from people at traffic signals and engaging in sex work to meet her daily expenses.

We sisters used to visit the hub very often and talk to Ramya and others, sharing snacks and developing a friendly rapport with them. During our conversations, we have delicately addressed their reasons for resorting to such means of income, expressing concern over the safety of their situation. As a result of that dialogue, Ramya has reached out for assistance in starting a small business, specifically in flour grinding, to earn a more sustainable income.

Our founder's love, zeal, dedication, and commitment towards the cause of the rural poor, particularly in empowering women, inspires our sisters. We find meaning in our work, seeing the face of Jesus in the downtrodden. The poor become our teachers, reminding us that a person's value is not measured by their profession or wealth, but rather by their inherent dignity. Joining forces with like-minded individuals, we strive to combat the prevalent issue of human trafficking in society. These field experiences have strengthened our convictions in life and have made us courageous and willing to take risks for the betterment of the poor.

Turning values into action

Over recent years, through training and capacity building, Arise has provided me with the information, skills, and knowledge to protect families from human trafficking. We aim to work more diligently in combating exploitation, trafficking, unsafe migration, and cases of missing children or child labour, particularly in the tea garden areas, slum areas, in rural villages and with the trans community.

We have learned the need for awareness-based intervention amongst women, youth, and children who are particularly vulnerable. We help school dropouts find local job opportunities, provide them with training and safe migration routes, and secure them placements. Additionally, we aim to connect them with various schemes and benefits offered by different sources.

Through special awareness creation programs at the village and school levels, we effectively disseminate the message among our target groups about the importance of safeguarding oneself, and friends and families, from human traffickers. Ultimately, our goal is to enhance the skills and capacity of various target groups, such as VVCs (Village Vigilance Committees, who safeguard migrants by assigning contacts and guardians in destination towns), women’s guilds, and youth projects, to effectively address local exploitation threats.

Our sisters raise awareness about discrimination, rights, and opportunities to promote gender equality. We empower women in rural areas through income-generating activities. Sadly, abuse and harassment of women frequently occurs within the family. Domestic violence is not limited to poor or illiterate families alone. In certain communities, female children are subject to pervasive neglect. Their contributions often go unnoticed by both their families and society, and their work remains largely invisible.

The Sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph will always support ministries, organisations, and initiatives that educate and serve women while advocating for systemic change around issues that disproportionately affect women.'

Arise's work in India can be supported here.

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