Asked how she became an activist, Triveni Acharya relates a story dating back to 1993: “There was one incident that changed my life.” She was working as a journalist. She had been invited to a press meeting in Kamathipura, a district in Mumbai that is Asia’s second-biggest red light district. Full of curiosity, Acharya was walking through the narrow streets crammed with brothels when she came upon a young girl in tears. “Is your mother a sex worker?” Acharya asked the girl, who was barely nine years old. “No, I am a sex worker,” came the reply. Acharya was herself moved to tears. “I came to the conclusion that the two of us standing there crying wasn’t going to help anyone,” explained Acharya. “But if I fought for the rights of these poor girls, then they would be able to get justice.”
Ever since this experience, Triveni Acharya and her husband Balkrishna have been dedicated to the fight against sexual slavery. Their organization, called the Rescue Foundation, identifies human traffickers in Mumbai’s red light district and frees women who are being held against their will in the brothels there. They rescue more than 500 women and girls a year. Most of them have experienced truly awful things: They may have been kidnapped, or sold by their family. They have been forced to have unprotected sex with strange men. Many of them end up pregnant, some are HIV positive and others catch sexually transmitted diseases.
In the early years Triveni Acharya and her husband used to take the women into their own home. Later their Rescue Foundation received some generous donations, which enabled them to build residential hostels. Today the organization runs four hostels – in Kandivali, Thane, Pune and Delhi. They provide rescued women with a new home and the chance to recover from the terrible things they have been through. They receive medical treatment and psychological counseling. They can attend courses and workshops to keep themselves busy, acquire new skills and rebuild their confidence: from voice training, self-defense and acting to gardening, sewing and jewelry making. The women usually stay at the Rescue Foundation for about three years. At that point they’re ready to stand on their own two feet and to look for a job and a place to live.
But their dedication has earned Triveni Acharya and her husband Balkrishna more than just friends. When their organization frees women, it can mean fines of up to 45,000 dollars for the brothel operators. Many of the human traffickers and brothel owners are now in prison – thanks to the Rescue Foundation uncovering their illegal activities. The Acharyas have had numerous death threats as a result. Balkrishna Achraya, who used to be the head of the Rescue Foundation, died in 2005 – officially in a traffic accident. His wife says: “I was certain it wasn’t just an accident.”
Triveni Acharya herself still gets death threats to this day. But she doesn’t let them get to her. She took over the management of the Rescue Foundation after her husband’s death. “I don’t fear threats, nor do I worry about being attacked when raiding a brothel,” says Triveni Acharya. “The mission will continue with or without me. I’ve prepared my staff to take over. We have lit the torch for a better tomorrow and we will keep it burning.”
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