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An Update on the Raids and Rescues, Meena Seshu, Sangram

An update from Meena Seshu, Sangram san_meena@sancharnet.in

Raids, rescues, and unseen realities On 24 October 2005, hundreds of women in prostitution in Sangli, a town in the western state of Maharashtra, marched to the collector’s office to protest against Restore International, an international NGO, for harassing and terrorizing them.

Restore International rescues and rehabilitates children forced into prostitution and seeks prosecution of the perpetrators.

Its website says that the organization is motivated by “Christ's mandate to care for the widow and orphan, heal the sick and bring justice for the oppressed. Living out these commands shapes our lives and actions.” The organization typically works with the local police to initiate raids, rescue girls, and arrest brothel keepers in red-light districts.

In their memorandum, the protesting women demanded that the government of India investigate the presence of Restore International in the country. They also demanded that action be taken against two key officials of Restore - Greg Malstead and Bob Goff – for creating a law and order situation in Sangli. They said these two officials had initiated a smear campaign against a vulnerable and marginalized community of women in prostitution, which has collectively been fighting a heroic battle against the HIV/AIDS epidemic for almost 15 years.

The face-off between Restore International and this small community in Sangli started on 20 May 2005, when Restore raided a red-light area – with 60 policemen, 17 female police constables, and eight police officers. The raids, which were conducted with missionary zeal and thug-like brutality, spared no one: 2 school girls visiting their families were picked up as part of the 35 women and girls and 13 brothel-keepers who were arrested.

According to the law, only minors in prostitution may be rescued, not adult women. An initial medical report showed that only 4 out of the 35 were minors. Based on this, when SANGRAM (which has collectivized women in prostitution in this community) intervened to secure the release of adult women in prostitution – and the 2 school children, it was accused of "thwarting the raids". The two girls were actually school girls on an ordinary visit to their relatives; but the ‘raiders’ saw them only as trafficked minors. They were released after being in remand for 15 days.

In the following months, a vicious online campaign was launched against SANGRAM accusing the organization of trafficking minor girls. One such article said that USAID had stopped funding SANGRAM for thwarting rescue efforts – even though the US Embassy in Delhi confirmed in writing on 6 October 2005 that “United States funding for activities carried out by SANGRAM, was terminated by mutual consent of the Avert Society and SANGRAM.”

Fueled by a frenzied moral climate of raids and rescues, the media dropped the plain truth for a more sensational story. Never mind that it wasn’t true.

posted in April 2006