Gov. Greg Abbott’s historic visit to India last month turned Texans’ attention back to the Asian nation. Though separated by an ocean and a continent, Texas and India have formed a strong bond over shared interests in business, technology, energy and even military defense and counterterrorism. Yet, for as many positive things Texas and India have in common, they also share a dark reality: modern-day slavery.
India is home to the highest number of modern-day slaves in the world. Texas has the second most reported cases of human trafficking in America. Whether in Texas or India, modern-day slavery is a reality we cannot ignore.
For our organization, World Help, fighting modern-day slavery has meant going deep into the heart of India and confronting it face-to-face. Sometimes, doing so has led us to find unexpected solutions to this issue, as was the case with the Banchara people.
For 500 years, this tribal group in northern India has relied on the prostitution of its eldest daughters as a key source of income. I’ve writtenabout the Banchara before, and explained how families, driven by poverty, have perpetuated the ancient tradition behind this practice. Mothers groom their daughters for the sex industry, fathers peddle their services to locals and brothers use their sisters’ earnings to pay their own dowries — the entire family benefits from the prostitution scheme.
What I didn’t mention, though, was that the Banchara belong to India’s greater Dalit community, which brings us to water.
Nearly 76 million Indians don’t have access to safe water — the highest number of people in the world. Of these, the majority are Dalits, and there’s a reason for that. According to the age-old caste system, which ranks people by level of purity, Dalits are born impure and, therefore, belong at the bottom of the social order. For centuries, they were called “untouchables,” and were treated as such. Even now, Dalits are relegated to perform demeaning jobs such as cleaning human waste, forced to sit separately in school and denied access to basic human rights including health care and clean water. And clean water, in particular, has special significance.
As in most cultures, water is a symbol of purity in India. For the Dalits, whose touch is considered tainted, this means they’re barred from drawing water from a clean well for fear they will contaminate it. In fact, in nearly five out of 10 villages, Dalits are forbidden access to clean-water sources. If they use one anyway, they risk being beaten — which happened to a 13-year-old girl and her father in Uttar Pradesh in 2016.
Deprivation of clean water is directly linked to an increase in child mortality and a reduction in the life expectancy of women. India accounts for a staggering 20 percent of global child deaths due to diarrhea, largely caused by inadequate access to clean water. For women, clean water can determine how long they live.
This past February, the United Nations released a report on gender equality that stated Dalit women die on average 14.6 years younger than women from higher castes. Poor sanitation and inadequate water supplies are two key factors driving the mortality rate. It’s estimated that only 10 percent of Dalit households have access to proper sanitation systems.
This is the reality our team encountered when we arrived at the Banchara community. We quickly realized that freedom wasn’t the only thing the Banchara women had lacked for centuries — they also had lacked clean water, probably for just as long. In this community, water and freedom went hand-in-hand.
Barred from collecting water from the nearest well, Banchara girls like Muskan would miss school walking to and from another water source located miles away. For Muskan, the only other option was collecting dirty water from ponds, which made her and her family sick. Sadly, fetching water was preventing Muskan from receiving an education that would unlock the door to a future that didn’t include the sex industry.
On April 2012, a team of engineers contracted by our organization bore a well in the heart of the Banchara community. Words are not enough to describe what happened next. Families — especially children — who once suffered from waterborne diseases, now had a clean water source nearby. Women had hours returned to their days and health returned to their bodies. And we gained the community’s trust, which allowed us to do what we had come for in the first place: intervene in the lives of girls who otherwise were destined to become prostitutes.
Our partner in India estimates that our programs, many bolstered by wells we’ve built in the area since 2012, have impacted about 35,000 people. That’s more than we ever planned for or imagined.
By the way, Muskan is enrolled in a school near her village and stays at a home for at-risk children. The school and home provide a safe environment, where she receives meals and can earn an education — so she doesn’t ever have to worry about being forced into prostitution. When she has to collect water, the new well is only a short walk away.
Yeatts is an advocate for social justice and humanitarian needs around the world with more than 20 years of experience in humanitarian work. She is an author, speaker, and the president of World Help, an international, Christian humanitarian organization. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @NoelYeatts.