On Children’s Day this year, actor Mallika Sherawat penned a heartfelt open letter where she highlighted some pertinent points on child trafficking and prostitution in India.
She also presented some alarming statistics on the subject along with an appeal to help protect the rights of these children and free them of the burdens of a dysfunctional society.
She said, “My heart goes out to the 1.2 million girls held in many corners and cages of India’s brothels. If this is not shocking enough, it is shameful that all of them are way underage to even understand where they are and what they’ve landed into.”
“Every eight minutes a child goes missing in our country and a vast majority of them end up as victims of commercial sexual exploitation. India, our country, has the maximum number of underage sex workers in the world,” she added.
The actor has always been vocal about the exploitation of women and children, and this is a cause after her own heart. She is the brand ambassador of Free a Girl India, an initiative of Free a Girl, an international organisation. Free a Girl India is dedicated to sensitising the masses about forced prostitution of young girls. The organisation also launched the School for Justice (SFJ), an initiative that educates girls rescued from child prostitution to become lawyers and public prosecutors, with an aim to counteract the injustice of impunity.
In an interview with , Mallika speaks about Free a Girl’s mission, initiatives, and why she chose to be its brand ambassador.
HS: How does Free a Girl educate the masses on sexual exploitation and change perceptions?
MS: In our country, traditions based on gender roles increase the risk of sexual exploitation. Poverty, among other factors, has resulted in an increase in crimes against women. Being a patriarchal society, traditions like dowry and child marriage make having a girl in the family seem like a liability, thereby making them susceptible to physical or sexual abuse in the form of forced prostitution. These young girls who are forced into prostitution are frowned upon by the society and are perceived to be from a lower caste having some kind of job to do. However, not many know that these girls are either trafficked or sold by their own families.
To empower these survivors through education, Free a Girl launched its pilot project, the School for Justice in India. The School for Justice supports girls who are rescued from forced prostitution to become lawyers and bring a positive change in the society. The campaign aims to educate and sensitise the society towards the survivors and fight the social stigma that these young girls face post-rescue and rehabilitation. The major stigma that the School for Justice aims to tackle is the prejudice and unacceptance faced by the survivors from their own families and society.
Thus, the programme aims at educating the society at large (urban and rural) by creating awareness about the issue and also imparting education to the survivors (irrespective of their background) to empower them.
HerStory: What steps is Free a Girl taking to prevent girl child prostitution?
Mallika Sherawat: Free a Girl has been working extensively in Asia. Girls and women have been primary targets of trafficking and forced prostitution. In India itself, there are around 1.2 million children stuck in the abyss of child prostitution. Despite the magnitude of the problem, there were only 55 convictions that took place in 2015. Hence, one of the important pillars of the work Free a Girl does is to fight the culture of impunity surrounding the problem of forced child prostitution. It aims to tackle this through the School for Justice programme wherein girls who will become lawyers and public prosecutors will fight for justice for those who have suffered the same fate as them. Apart from this, Free a Girl is also actively involved in spreading awareness around the issue of commercial sexual exploitation in children by sensitising communities and authorities in this space.
HS: How and when did you become aware of child trafficking?
MS: While I was growing up in Delhi, we would often drive through the red-light district. Every time I passed by, I saw these young girls standing there dressed and making gestures. One could easily figure out that they were underage. I often used to ponder whether they had willingly consented to this or were forced into it. But, when I saw the film by Mira Nair, all was clear. The film was an honest portrayal of the problem of child trafficking in India.
HS: Did you have any second thoughts when you were approached to be the brand ambassador?
MS: Absolutely not! I didn’t have any second thoughts, not even for a minute. I have always been vocal about educating the girl child and stand up for crimes that have been taking place against women in India. Commercial sexual exploitation in India is a gruesome crime that needs to be focused on. While trafficking and prostitution have been linked to sexual exploitation, there hasn’t been enough focus on the problem in itself. I believe that a social change is required in the outlook towards women and that will happen only through empowering our women. That’s what Free a Girl works towards.
HS: What are the success stories from Free a Girl India?
MS: Free a Girl has been working closely with local NGO partners by supporting grassroots-level teams to rescue young girls from brothels. In India, we have been able to successfully liberate over 4,149 girls from child prostitution. Among the first batch of girls who have been enrolled in the School for Justice initiative, seven have secured admission in reputed law colleges in India under the three- and five-year programmes.
HS: How is School for Justice designed for India?
MS: In 2016, Free a Girl identified 19 girls who aspired to become lawyers to bring about a positive change in the judicial system. The School for Justice supports girls that have been rescued from brothels to lead the way in changing the system. It provides education, training, and support to rescued girls to become lawyers and work within the judicial system.
The School for Justice helps survivors become lawyers by covering the cost of school fees, housing, food, and transport as they pursue their degrees. The survivors all live in the same house, where they take English classes, basic law classes, and get assistance applying to and attending university.
To provide a first-rate education and an opportunity to become successful lawyers, Free a Girl India has been collaborating with some of the best law universities in India. This way the girls can themselves be the driving force in putting the offenders behind bars and ensuring that justice can be served.
HS: How is School for Justice attempting to prevent child marriage?
MS: In India, girls and women are often seen as inferior and a liability to their families. Girls are forced to marry at a very young age and are often exploited by their husbands. Many times, the husband actually turns into her pimp and exploits her. Through the School for Justice, Free a Girl is supporting girls who are aspiring to become criminal lawyers and public prosecutors. The girls at the School for Justice wish to study and practise criminal law, which gives them opportunities to fight against multiple crimes against women like child marriage, trafficking, forced prostitution, and dowry.
HS: What is your message to Indian parents?
MS: We need to invest in the education of the girl child and that will help bring about a positive change in how the society perceives women. This will only happen through empowering our women and our girls with programmes aimed at educating them and that’s where the support of organisations like the School for Justice is invaluable.