I’ll warn you in advance: the situation I’m about to share with you is difficult to hear. At the very best, it’s gut wrenching.
I’ve just returned from the incredible and beautiful country of India, where Food for the Hungry has partnered with a local organization on a project that is equal parts rescue, rehabilitation and long term development.
The state of Madhya Pradesh in central India is home to the Bancha people who, for over 500 years have have fallen into a cycle of prostitution as a means of livelihood. This alarming tradition has taken root and integrated throughout their entire family units. Their daughters are dedicated to sex work as early as 11 and 12 years old. It’s a family business. While the women and childrens bodies are sold to men of a higher caste, the fathers and teenage boys act as pimps, seeking out new clientele. The headline is the sex work, but the indoctrination of the impressionable young men to follow in the footsteps of their fathers — and their fathers before them— is unthinkable to me.
This is not a choice to be made by each child. It is a mandate given to each new generation.
There is a burden of great shame that these people carry. Prostitution is illegal in India, and police raids are commonplace. Never in my life did I expect to hear of young girls serving time in a juvenile detention center for the crime of prostitution. This industry of prostitution earns families nearly double the income as other means of work in this area, yet still they are living in severe poverty. The next most lucrative career in this area is opium farming. The cycle of poverty in this area is debilitating.
The most common story of how this tradition began is that women were trafficked into the area to serve soldiers during wartime and/or men in the higher caste. What began as oppression against a group of women has evolved into a heartbreaking enterprise, where this injustice is normalized. These children are cursed from birth into a life of objectification.
If you’re anything like me, these words have already left you angry and bewildered. There are no words. This is unacceptable. How can this happen?
Walking these villages, feeling the gravity that each person you encounter is involved in the trade is next to impossible to process. Like you and me, these people hunger for genuine human connection. What they need is love – but, in their experience, love has been corrupted. Their value is measured by their bodies, which are violated continually. As much as 50 percent of these populations are infected with HIV/AIDS.
On one hand, I’ve walked away with an updated perspective. I’ve taken inventory of my own life and diminished the challenges I face. I hold my children tighter and I’m instantly more grateful. The trap, though, is that if we walk away from this information with only a new perspective, we’ve missed it entirely.
The truth is that there is something tangible that we can do. Food for the Hungry is partnered with Friends of the Poor, which operates a girl’s home, called House of Palms, in the Bancha community. Friends of the Poor rescues girls from this situation and provides full time care, and raise the girls in a healthy and nurturing environment. House of Palms is an oasis amidst a morally barren area. The staff instill and restore hope to these children whose future had seemingly been stolen from them.
House of Palms has been operational for about 3 years, and has a capacity for 50 girls. Most of the girls in the home were enrolled by their mothers still involved in the work, because they wanted a better life for their daughters. They are currently at full capacity. In addition to facilitating after-school programs at House of Palms, we have committed to raise financial support for the construction of future homes like the House of Palms with schools at each location. We are also implementing long-term development strategies in the community through women’s savings groups, youth clubs, livelihoods training and much more.
In the months to come, we will be sharing more details of this trip and stories of the Bancha people. There is much work to be done, but we are energized by this challenge. There is such opportunity to give life and hope to this community and many others around the world facing injustice of the greatest degree.
If you’d like to see a glimpse of some of the stories we’ve encountered on this trip, check out the hashtag #FHIndia on Instagram.
At Food for the Hungry, we often speak about going into the hard places and working with the world’s most vulnerable people. It’s not a joke. It’s not exaggeration, nor hyperbole. The extreme hardships faced by these marginalized and forgotten people are solvable, and I’ve seen it in action through Food for the Hungry. I urge you to join us as a partner and advocate in this fight against extreme poverty and injustice.