When I** met Renuka*, she was almost invisible - standing in line, waiting to be treated at one of our medical camps which was being held in a remote village in the southern Indian state of Telangana. Diminutive, shy and embarrassed, she stood waiting to receive medical help. Something about her caught my attention and drew me to her. I picked up a conversation with her and listened to Renuka’s heart-rending story.
As a child, instead of being sent to school, Renuka worked at a beedi factory. Beedi is a cheap substitute for cigarettes, locally produced by rolling tobacco in a leaf which is then secured with cotton thread. Beedi rolling is extremely labour intensive, strenuous work, but women and children continue in this employment for a meagre pay, in the absence of other sources of livelihood.
Renuka was only 12 years old, when she was singled out by one of the bosses at the factory, and sexually assaulted. Although her parents were able to file a First Information Report (FIR) with the police about the crime, by the time the case came to court, the young girl and the family were coerced into saying that Renuka could not identify her rapist. The whole village knew that this young girl had been raped but justice was not served and Renuka lived with this shadow hanging over her life.
Shortly afterwards, Renuka’s father died and her widowed mother turned to her brother for help. He suggested that since no one would now marry Renuka, the only honourable thing to do was to dedicate Renuka to a god as a Jogini, condemned to a lifetime of exploitation and abuse in ritual sex slavery. As you can imagine this was all extremely overwhelming for Renuka but she accepted it as her fate. She became the ‘property of the village’ and was used and abused sexually by men from the local community. Renuka lost not only her innocence, but anything remotely like a childhood.
Things took a turn for the worse when she discovered that she was pregnant. To exacerbate things, Renuka gave birth to a girl. She felt like she was cursed! Her dignity had been completely stripped from her through no fault of her own. Now she was filled with dread that her daughter would meet the same fate. Keeping the young child cooped up at home seemed the only way to keep her safe.
When I asked her about her daughter, Renuka burst into tears saying she never let her go out anywhere, lest she be disgraced like her! I asked her if she would like her daughter to be educated but she was understandably concerned for her safety. I told her about the safe place we have for such girls and within a week she accompanied her daughter and placed her in our children's shelter.
Little Stuthi*, at 9 years of age but looking much younger, did not even know how to hold a pencil properly. Painfully shy and timid from the start, she made no conversation or eye contact with anyone. It has been two months since she began school and she has made great progress – she’s already writing the letters of the alphabet, singing and reciting poems. Renuka, her grateful mother, is now filled with hope and says that what she once thought was a curse has now become a blessing! She cannot wait for the day when she can take Stuthi back to the village as an educated confident young girl and show her off as her daughter!
With our help Stuthi now has every opportunity to avoid being forced into a lifetime of exploitation and abuse. You can help us give the same opportunity to more at-risk girls by giving to our Children’s Shelter Expansion Fund, or by sponsoring the education of child in one of our schools.