M.L. PARSHURAM

India,

Parshuram M.L. is fighting against the heinous problem of child trafficking in India, exposing trafficking networks, informing the rural public on traffickers' tactics, and building watchdog groups to help recover trafficked girls and women.

This profile below was prepared when M.L. Parshuram was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.

INTRODUCTION

Parshuram M.L. is fighting against the heinous problem of child trafficking in India, exposing trafficking networks, informing the rural public on traffickers' tactics, and building watchdog groups to help recover trafficked girls and women.




THE NEW IDEA

Parshuram is attacking the problem of child trafficking from both the supply and demand sides. To fight supply, he informs rural families about the methods and practices of traffickers so that families can avoid being easy targets. To weaken demand, Parshuram enlists the media to expose trafficking rings and their supporters. Parshuram has engaged the media, judiciary, police, academics, and business circles in his campaign against child trafficking, and he provides training to these groups on gender issues associated with forced prostitution. His organization, Odanadi, serves as a residential school and rehabilitation center for trafficked girls and women who have been recovered.




THE PROBLEM

"Trafficking" refers to all acts involved in the recruitment, transportation, forced movement, selling, and buying of people within or across borders by deceptive, coercive, threatening, or abusive means. The purpose generally is to place a person, usually a child, against her will in exploitative or abusive situations, including forced prostitution, forced marriage, bonded labor, begging, or organ trade.

Child trafficking is widely seen as a profitable business not only among underworld figures but also among urban professionals. The traffickers are often teachers, doctors, policemen, priests, and nurses. They are the very people who are responsible for the safety of others in the community, thus making it impossible to trace them without proper networks. The criminal networks are highly sophisticated and interlinked between states and countries.

More than 90 percent of the women and children trapped in prostitution are from rural India. Rural villagers are easy targets for traffickers, and ignorant parents often mistakenly lead their daughters to fall victim to trafficking. Traffickers use a variety of tactics for recruitment. Sometimes, they settle in villages as couples or families for a few months, establishing neighborly relationships. After collecting information on their possible targets, they move away, returning later to abduct the girls under the ruse of taking them to visit the rest of their family. In almost all cases, the abductor is well known to the victim–a distant relative, a friend, or even a potential husband. Agents are known to marry women legitimately before abducting them to be sold. Parents often sign contracts thinking that it is legal to hand over their youngsters. More and more often, female relatives or acquaintances are used for recruitment since they are less likely to be suspected. Frequently, these "Madams" have their own price to pay: as prostitutes or bonded laborers who will be set free only if they recruit a replacement.




THE STRATEGY

With only 12 staff members (two full-time) and three trustees, Parshuram and Odanadi have worked over the last decade to rescue as many as 400 girls, and that have exposed 12 trafficking rackets–four interstate and one international. Its power is in its network of over 500 sympathizers: lawyers providing pro bono legal work, doctors giving free treatment to victims, professors educating students on the problems, writers and painters who have taken the issue as their subject, merchants who provide financial support, and citizen organizations who incorporate the fight against trafficking into their own movements. Support for Odanadi ranges from student research volunteers around the world, to theatrical plays staged to raise funds, to 1 km long paintings addressing prostitution.

Parshuram is translating his knowledge of child trafficking networks to rural India. Working at the local panchayat (village government) level, he is influencing policies to support a system that will be a watchdog network for recovering missing girls. He is teaching rural villagers how to protect themselves from predatory traffickers and training Indian police officers, policymakers, and the media on issues associated with child and women trafficking. Odanadi also works with the legislative assembly and cabinet of ministers and serves as a resource to the Women and Child Welfare Department of the Karnataka government.

Parshuram has been effective in launching large-scale publicity campaigns through major press and media outlets for each achievement, whether it is a policy change, recovery, or exposure of another trafficking network. This use of media has publicly identified ex-servicemen, teachers, actresses, government workers, hotel managers, doctors, and lawyers as perpetrators. This exposure has illustrated the nuances of the flesh trade to the general public. Odanadi has also used the media to reduce the social stigma prostituted women face. As many as 22 women have been married at widely publicized ceremonies in the presence of leading personalities in the social sector.

Recovered girls and women can receive help and rehabilitation at Odanadi's Prayoga Patha home and counseling center. Located on a special land allotment from the Karnataka government in Mysore, the center provides shelter, education, and counseling to trafficking victims. Thirty percent of their students who had never received rudimentary education have passed the public education exam to be eligible to enter the mainstream school system. Many older victims are now leading independent, self-reliant lives as beauticians, tailors, and weavers. The center also rehabilitates trafficked boys who receive the same care and services. The National Rehabilitation Center for Children has recognized Prayoga Patha as a best practice and is replicating its model throughout the country.

As his work has spread to various cities of Karnataka, Parshuram has gained national recognition. He is leveraging this by collaborating with other child-trafficking organizations in the country and is working with rural-based organizations to reach more people and further the cause.




THE PERSON

Parshuram grew up as the son of an alcoholic and a victim of childhood sexual abuse. In college he encountered a situation that changed his perspective on life. Upon witnessing the abuse of a fellow female classmate, Parshuram angrily confronted the culprit and reported the incident to the college principal. The perpetrator's expulsion from the college was a turning point for Parshuram, helping him to think more optimistically.

During his postgraduate studies, Parshuram made his first moves in the social justice arena by mobilizing a student organization as an alternative to the caste-based student groups of the time. His organization staged plays and led issue-based campaigns, like one on saving a lake in Mysore.

As a freelance journalist, Parshuram met Radhamma, a trafficked street prostitute. She opened his eyes to the miserable plight of prostituted women and became his mentor, inspiring him to take up his cause. Parshuram and a graduate school classmate undertook a 10-month pilot study–"Body for a Meal"–on socioeconomic conditions of prostituted women. In his fight against forced prostitution, Parshuram and his colleagues regularly face physical danger from their opponents. Radhamma was beaten to death in 1997; Parshuram has been hospitalized many times, but he is never deterred.