She could have shown Bush India's other side

March 07, 2006|By G. JEFFERSON PRICE III

Last week, President Bush visited the high end of India's economic engine when he was in the city of Hyderabad, where the IT phenomenon has been so important that the city has acquired the nickname "Cyberbad."

Nothing wrong with going there to meet with young men and women who are engaged in the high-tech adventure. In fact, the president was right to say that India's success should not be viewed as bad for America.

It would have been a good thing, though, if Mr. Bush had been able to visit the other end of India's economic condition, the intense poverty that abides in Hyderabad, as it does in so many cities of India, where about 300 million people still live below the $1-a-day poverty line.

One of the unhappiest and most devastating consequences of this poverty is that many women are driven to prostitution to earn enough to feed themselves and their families. Some families, desperate for money, sell their children into the sex trade - girls mostly, but boys, too, some of them as young as 3 and 4.

When I was last in Hyderabad in 2004, an estimated 20,000 women were working as prostitutes.

The person Mr. Bush might have visited to learn about this is a tiny woman, less than 5 feet, with a chirpy voice - a former Hindu holy woman, now married, who has been fighting the sex trade in India for a decade and helping its victims toward a better life.

Her name is Sunitha Krishnan. Her project is called Prajwala, which means "eternal flame." The president might have taken some pride in the fact that Prajwala receives assistance from the U.S. government and from American private humanitarian groups, among others.

The Prajwala story is astonishing.

Ten years ago, the authorities in Hyderabad tore down the city's teeming red-light district. It was not a morality issue. The area was wanted for development as a valuable piece of real estate.

This left thousands of prostitutes literally on the street. Ms. Krishnan, then in her early 20s, joined with a local member of the clergy, Brother Jose Vetticattil, and went to ask the women what she and Brother Vetticattil could do for them. The answer: Build schools for our children so they won't have to do this work.

Ms. Krishnan and Brother Vetticattil built a school system that now has more than 2,500 students, all children of prostitutes.

Then they began the more difficult and dangerous task of rescuing children from the sex traffickers and opening schools for them. The younger "rescued" girls are placed in a normal curriculum. The older ones are placed in vocational training. With the passage of time, these youngsters have gone on to obtain higher education, or to livelihoods that are meaningful and constructive and bring dignity to their lives.

Some of them have married, helped by dowries put together by Prajwala, with Ms. Krishnan and Brother Vetticattil signing off as parents. Some of them do not make it at all. Girls as young as 3 are HIV-positive when they come to Prajwala, and they do not survive.

The notes from a conversation Ms. Krishnan had with someone else on the telephone while I was with her in 2004 reveal the other end of India's economic spectrum. She was discussing the case of some women arrested for soliciting on a roadside.

"Our whole bloody social, political system is at fault," she said. "These women standing on the street is an indication of how inadequate, how deficient you are, that you have been so incapable of providing absolute minimum, sustainable, viable livelihoods for them, that a woman has to become a prostitute.

"Society victimizes the victims and gives them no choice."

Ms. Krishnan was wrong about only one thing, so far as I could tell.

Toward the end of our encounter, she said to me, "I am not a hero."

If not her, who, then? The wizards of Cyberbad? Her mission seemed more important.

"I'm brought to this world for a purpose," she told me. "That is the need to create a system which believes women and children are not commodities that can be sold in the marketplace."

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun. His e-mail is gjeffersonprice@yahoo.com.

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