Yesterday Nikhil, our guide for the morning, took us to the centre of Mysore and the gates to the famous Palace, as well as the huge Market. Here traders sell a huge range of fruit, vegetables, spices and flowers as well as everything else in the world you can imagine. It’s a frenetic, noisy, colourful, smelly (in a good and bad way!) place that overwhelms the senses.
Especially prominent are the long, dark aisles devoted to bananas. Nikhil explained that there were over 300 varieties of banana, and many of them must have been on sale here. Every part of the banana plant is used, and he showed us the stacks of shiny green leaves that people use as plates. They are not only bio-degradable (no washing up!), but they apparently give off a substance that enhances the flavour of the food. Little did we know that, less than 24 hours later, we would be eating from banana leaves ourselves.
Today we had arranged to visit Stanly and Parashu, who between them run the Seva Odanadi Trust, an Indian charity that works with girls and boys who have been victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. This morning we drove to the girls house in Mysore and were welcomed by Stanly, who showed us to his office where Parashu greeted us too.
These two ‘men on a mission’ began their activities together when, as young journalists, they chanced upon a young prostituted woman who asked “Do you think any woman would choose this life?” They discovered that many women were trading sex for a bowl of rice to feed their children. They helped her, lifting her out of prostitution to become a woman’s rights campaigner, before she sadly died of AIDS. However the roots for Odanadi had been formed and the organisation has grown over nearly three decades to its current form.
That form encompasses a girls home and a separate boys home with a range of facilities and projects linked to them. What we hadn’t realised is that Stanly and his team are actively involved in trying to stop the traffickers by raiding their lodges, houses and brothels to release girls who have been lured or kidnapped into a world of sexual exploitation. Stanly’s team showed us videos of raids on properties in Mysore and elsewhere, all carefully planned to be able to capture and convict underworld bosses and ringleaders to take them out of circulation. They showed us the meticulous lengths to which criminals go to avoid capture and to protect their ‘stock’ of girls, by creating almost invisible ‘caves’ behind walls and wardrobes, above toilet cisterns, and in drains in which people can be hidden during such a raid. This is dangerous work, and Stanly showed pictures of a ledger from one of the brothels that had been raided detailing payments to police officers as bribes, equivalent to a months salary each time. They can’t always rely on support from the authorities.
A main focus of the work of Odanadi is to rehabilitate, train and educate girls who have been through these experiences. Most are traumatised, often under 16, and without education or qualifications. It is a sad fact that, having been torn from their families, these girls are often rejected by their parents on being subsequently freed because of the stigma attached to them, whilst for others their families are themselves the perpetrators. Odanadi provides a safe place for them to live where they can regain confidence, go to school and rebuild their lives.
The home has a range of facilities built into it, which have been expanded over the years. We were taken on a tour of the building by some of the staff and residents, visiting the library, gymnasium, art room, and meeting rooms. They also proudly showed us the beauty parlour training area, where girls can receive training in becoming a beautician, and work in the separate beauty parlour adjacent to the main building which is also open to the public, providing valuable training experience as well as a service to the community. There is also a bakery which also provides training and experience in cakemaking and cooking skills, and we were given mouth-watering slices of cake that they had made for us.
It was clear that the Odanadi girls house was not only a safe place, but also a happy one. Everyone was pleased to show us around, and to share their enthusiasm for this special place. We couldn’t fail to be impressed by the work they are doing here.
After lots of photos we followed Stanly and Parashu across town to the boys house. On arrival, Stanly explained that some of the boys who live here are themselves victims of trafficking or sexual exploitation, or they are the children of girls who are involved. One boy came at the age of 3 months when his mother was rescued in an operation, and has lived at Odanadi ever since.
The boys presented us with a delightful flower bouquet that they had made, and then we sat down for lunch on long steel tables in the large, open building that doubles as their canteen. We received our banana leaf, and enjoyed a delightful meal of fish, chicken, rice and bread with the boys. We were a bit unsure about Indian dining etiquette in the absence of the cutlery we’re used to, but we followed the lead of our hosts and soon felt at home.
After lunch the boys started to open up to us, and their warmth and sense of fun started to shine through. We were taken by the hand on a tour of their house, and proudly shown their dormitories, the gym that they obviously enjoyed using, their library and offices. The ‘house mother’ was on hand to guide us and the boys, and we had a lovely time getting to know them better.
One of the boys wanted to show us his dancing skills, and we were treated to an impromptu cabaret as his breakdance routine, all to lively Indian music, stole the show.
Later, Stanly took us a few yards in to the grounds to show us the new building that will house their mechanics workshop. He explained that they expect to get under way in January, offering basic training in carpentry and cycle and motorcycle maintenance. The aim is to be able to offer boys a qualification in these skills, and to be able to offer a repair and servicing facility for the local community in order to bring in revenue.
Adventure Ashram has played a huge part in the construction of the new boys house and the workshop building, and there are details on their website. We are delighted that some of the funds that we have raised on behalf of the Ted Jervis Fund will be used to provide toolkits for the students, which will help them in their training and to be able to gain a trade thereafter.
As we leave the boys home and travel back to our hotel, we both confess to having a huge range of thoughts and mixed emotions. Our experience visiting the two Odanadi houses, meeting their residents and staff, and hearing about their history, work, and future aspirations has been humbling, inspiring and saddening in equal measure. Our sadness is due to the reality of the need for this type of project in today’s modern world, and the cruel, avaricious attitudes of the people who can inflict such suffering on others in the name of financial gain. Our inspiration is that people like Stanly and Parashu are prepared to make a stand against such evil, and to create such loving places as the Odanadi houses as a sanctuary for the victims of such heinous crimes.
There is so much we can do to help, from simple items to make the lives of the residents easier, to bigger ideas like developing the sites further and helping to improve the facilities that they enjoy. We’ll be liaising with Stanly and Adventure Ashram to come up with a list of ideas.
You’ll be hearing more from us about Odanadi soon!