Enough! Shaheen Organizes Old City Women to Protest Sexual Exploitation

 

Enough! Shaheen Organizes Old City Women to Protest Sexual Exploitation

August 20, 2009

On Thursday, July 30, AJWS grantee Shaheen Resource Center for Women organized a conference on rape, violence and compensation in Hyderabad, India. The event convened more than 200 members from women's groups around the region to discuss solutions to the city's scourge of sexual violence against women and girls. Speakers, including activists and survivors, underscored the crippling impact of poverty and sexual abuse, and motivated the community to reject the culture of silence, to report rapes and advocate for financial support for victims.

AJWS funds Shaheen's work in the slums of Hyderabad's Old City to help women and girls combat gender discrimination and violence. In addition to rape and sexual abuse, young women in the Old City are extremely vulnerable to the flourishing human trafficking industry that preys on the city's poor female youth.

Shaheen's founder and secretary, Jameela Nishat, explains that poverty is at the root of this devastating form of exploitation. "Many families are so poor that they will sell their daughters, many under the age of 18, to wealthy men from India or Gulf states," she says. "The girls are taken to the Gulf and exploited. They are cut off from communication with their families, made to do labor and to satisfy the man. But when the man loses interest in the woman, he deserts her. The girl is married off to many people, one after the other. In this way, some women are sold 10, 15, 20 times."

Sex trafficking is particularly common in the Old City, where women and girls are treated as subordinates and given little freedom to make choices. Coupled with poverty, these conditions make females susceptible to deception, coercion and debt bondage.

"When I was very young, I saw my own cousins sold off," says Nishat. "I didn't understand what was happening—I didn't understand that it was because of poverty. Finally I said: enough!"

Nishat founded Shaheen a decade ago. Now, the organization provides opportunities for women in 20 of Hyderabad's slums to improve their social status and exercise their rights. "We organize meetings with these girls, we provide a resource center, we help them talk about the issues," says Nishat. "We discuss how exploitation is wrong, we provide education about HIV/AIDS and we offer counseling." If a girl chooses, Shaheen will help her go to the police to lodge a complaint.

Shaheen's staff members are a mix of Hindus and Muslims who come from the Old City and are themselves survivors of domestic violence and/or trafficking. They make regular home visits to encourage women to come to Shaheen and receive the support that they need.

"Girls and women who have experienced or are at risk for sexual violence and trafficking deserve to live a peaceful, happy life, with an education and three meals a day," says Nishat. "Once these girls are educated, they know how to say—'My body is my body, it's my property.'"

Unfortunately, sexual exploitation is not unique to Hyderabad, nor to India. An end to the sex trade—and to sexual violence in general—will require a global change in the landscape of poverty, women's rights and human rights. One by one, Shaheen is working to ensure that the women of Hyderabad understand their freedoms, earn their own incomes and defend themselves against abuse. This will open many doors for women's futures—and firmly shut the door on exploitation.