Known as “Mami” to hundreds of girls, Triveni Balkrishna Acharya, president of India’s Rescue Foundation, has only one biological child, a son.
The girls, who were at one time victims of human trafficking from India, Nepal and Bangladesh before being rescued by the foundation, are now like daughters to her.
Freed from enslavement and abuse by pimps, some of the girls have integrated well society, while others struggle to return to a normal life.
The Rescue Foundation, established in 2000 by Triveni’s husband Balkrishna Acharya, is the only non-governmental organization in India that assists victims of forced prostitution through rescue, rehabilitation, repatriation and reintegration efforts.
Triveni was elected president of the foundation in 2005. Before that, she was a senior journalist with the Mumbai Samachar newspaper from 1991 to 2005.
Her decision to change her career and bring succor to exploited and underprivileged girls occurred in 1993 when she came across a 10-year-old girl crying in desperation at a brothel.
“I affectionately asked the girl the reason she was so sad,” Triveni said. “She narrated the terrible inhuman torture she had to undergo. Her narration touched my heart and I realized that so many girls were being trafficked and their human rights denied.”
Triveni was in Taipei to receive this year’s Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award from the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy in recognition of her efforts to rescue girls trafficked between countries and forced into prostitution in Mumbai and neighboring cities.
Asked during an interview with the Taipei Times on Friday to comment on the Social Maintenance Act (社會秩序維護法), Triveni said “it was very wrong” for the legal system in Taiwan to arrest and fine sex workers while their clients are untouchable.
“In India, we never punish prostitutes, voluntarily or forcefully. They all are victims,” she said.
Triveni was also skeptical about a policy under consideration in Taiwan whereby the government would set up red-light zones where the sex industry would be decriminalized.
“If the sex trade is legal in Taiwan, will it be able to rescue immigrant workers forced into the sex industry?” she asked. “Will police have the right to raid brothels and rescue immigrant girls coming from India to Taiwan if prostitution is legalized?”
Whether prostitution is legalized or not, human trafficking in the sex industry will continue as it is a profitable business, much like drugs and arms smuggling, she said.
However, the decision to legalize or decriminalize prostitution — one of the root causes of trafficking for the sex industry — would “complicate efforts to combat the crime,” she said, adding that “the policy should be stopped” in its tracks.
India had its own debate on whether to decriminalize prostitution, Triveni said, but it never made it through parliament.
“It will be girls suffering if the sex trade is legalized,” she said.
Nisha Malwat, manager of department and resources at the Mumbai-based foundation, said that every year, about 2,000 girls from Nepal, 1,000 from Bangladesh and 6,000 from within India were trafficked and sent to red-light districts in Indian cities.
The Rescue Foundation rescues about 300 girls annually and has a rehab center in a suburban area of Mumbai where various services, from treatment for drug addiction, HIV/AIDS checkups, basic education, psychological counseling and vocational training are provided to help victims recover mentally and spiritually.