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Sharon Lobo

IWB Blogger

IWB Talks To Vulnerable Women Who Got A New Lease Of Free Life Through Prayas

  • IWB Post
  •  August 8, 2019

Haven’t we all at some point in our lives, prayed for a second chance – at whatever age, level, social, political or even familial settings, willing to bait anything in lieu of that one chance in life? We at IWB are all about second chances and to celebrate the spirit of true independence this year, we bring to you the stories of women who were fortunate enough to get a second chance at life by Prayas.

A TISS Field Action Project dedicated to transforming the lives of vulnerable groups coming in contact with the criminal justice system, Prayas came into existence 28 years ago in 1990. Since then, they have been relentlessly working towards the betterment and rehabilitation of women prisoners, women rescued from Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE), children of women prisoners and women rescued from CSE, children in conflict with the law and male youth offenders.

When we reached out to Prof. Vijay Raghavan, the person who leads Prayas, our head was a hazy mix of apprehension and awe. The apprehension dissipated soon after our detailed discussion on Prayas and all that was left was a deep feeling of regard and appreciation for all that Prayas has achieved in the last 28 years and strives to achieve in the years to follow.

Not only did he give us a glance into the workings of Prayas but was kind enough to direct us to some social workers and also orchestrated a meeting between Team IWB and Prayas’ clients.

We thus got the opportunity to meet a group of 10 women who have been through prison life as an undertrial or currently have their husbands in prison. While some spoke about their struggles, some cried recalling the incidents, and almost everyone laughed while sharing their episodes of naivety.

As we entered the TISS Mumbai premises for our interaction with these women, we were greeted with a sight slightly contrary to what we were anticipating. The confidence that Prayas and its efforts have infused in these women was palpable. Here are excerpts from an interaction that our team had with them (names changed to ensure confidentiality):

It is integral to our conversation that we begin with the circumstances that lead to your current predicament. Would any one of you be comfortable sharing the reasons behind your arrest?

Ramika: I was in desperate need of Rs 700 to buy a gas cylinder for my house, and about the same time came across a group of women who told me I would get Rs 1000 a day for sitting in a car. I thought it was one of those protests where they wanted to increase the count of people, so I agreed. In the evening I sat on the bus with 28 other women, and we were taken to an unknown temple. After quite some time we realized, a group of men had vandalized the temple and we were being used as pawns because apparently, “it’s easier for women to get out of jail.”

I didn’t even fathom that I would be tainted for life just because I wanted a gas cylinder. Once anyone in the society knows you’ve been to jail, they start treating you like an outcast. I have lived in the same colony for years, and yet their behaviour changed drastically after all this transpired.

Especially when people find out I don’t have a husband, they start saying things like, “We know where you’ve been all night.” They never consider that have I do a day and night shift because I have a family to feed. Anyone who goes to the prison is instantly brandished as a criminal. That’s not how it should be though, some of us fall prey to our circumstances.

What was your time in the jail like?

Ramika: A lot of fights took place there. Jail felt like a hostel. Everything has to be done at a specific time. It was like we were dead from the inside. Our names had been associated with shame.

Does the absence of a male member in the family add to the hardships especially after coming out of the jail?

Shrishti: The rules of our society are different for men and women. In our home, it’s my children, mom and me, so there is no male member and owing to the lack of a male member we have paid a lot. My mom had fought a lot for me. If we didn’t have support from Prayas, we wouldn’t have been alive. For a man, it’s easy to shut people up, but that’s not possible for a woman. I have faced this personally.

Aneeta: My husband is serving life imprisonment, and I am facing the brunt of it. I was married at the age of 12 and was forced to have children at the age of 14. Today at 22, I have two children and no husband. The society looks down on me. Even if I step out to buy vegetables, everyone around me showers me with taunts. If I come home a little late, my neighbors ask me which man’s house I am returning from. Even today, my father has come with me and is waiting for me downstairs.

How difficult was it to cope once you were out of prison?

Dhara: I was in the jail for almost a year and a half. During that span, my family had taken my kids to the village and sadly kept them in two different places. When I went to my Mumbai house, everything had fallen apart. There was no electricity, the room was a mess, and all the food had gone bad, creating a bad odor. I had to start everything from scratch. I also went to the village alone for the first time to get my kids back.

Bhavika: When I went inside I never thought I’ll ever be able to escape this darkness. When I came out of the jail, I took up a tailoring course with the help of Prayas and today I can stitch all types of clothes. I also make toys for kids. I really regret my past, but because of Prayas, I have the confidence to move ahead in life.

It is rather commendable that you all are striving to move ahead in life and leaving the past behind. How do the people around you react to this change?

Rama: My neighbors have been giving me a really hard time. There is no electricity in my house because somebody stole the meter. My mom is handicapped, and she can’t sleep without a fan. Sometimes I feel like running away but it’s my own house.

Aneeta: It’s not just us, they trouble our families too. My sister-in-law stays close to my house, they have been bothering her as well. When I first returned from the jail and went home, some of them even threw stones at my window.

Did you consider raising your problems to the police?

Rama: The police do not listen to us at all. When I got an electric shock at my workplace because of some accident, the manager promised to provide reimbursement for medical expenses. It’s been over six months, and they haven’t given me a penny. When I went to the police, they refused to register my case. When I warned them about going to a union or their DCP, they started making fun of me. Some of them even told me, “Should we come with our cars to drop you at the DCP’s house.”

Savitri: Police officers hurl horrible abuses at us. I was falsely accused of my husband’s murder. The police officer that had arrested me was even questioned by the judge for arresting me sans any proof. The officer was furious since I did not confess to the crime and every time he sees me either on the road or in court, he simply starts abusing me.

Any other problems that you have been facing?

Ramika: I have been keeping up a strong front but falling apart internally. Even if we want to move ahead in life, the society does not allow us. It’s not just about us, our children also get consumed in the same. When I was doing my social worker’s course, relatives and neighbors kept asking where I go every day.  Everybody keeps saying the same thing that once you’ve been to the jail so now, you can keep going. Most of them think we’ve slept with the police officers for our bail.

Jaya: I have been so depressed. I didn’t have chappals for two months because nobody knew I was inside. Then the Prayas team approached me, and they gave me a sewing machine to make some money. I attempted suicide as well, but I survived. It has been months that I haven’t seen my kids. I used to cry over the fact that I haven’t done anything and yet I am accused.

What has been your one source of confidence?

Rama: Definitely the Prayas team and my mother. Other have just pushed us down.

How did Prayas become your savior and support you in your journey?

Shrishti: If I am alive today, it is only because of Prayas. I am very thankful to them. They have taught me so many things and I can finally make my own living just because of that. Today I love stitching, the machine feels like a toy car (laughs). I also make toys for children.

Jaya: I just knew that I wanted to work in the social sector, so I asked one of the Prayas team members to help me with it. They told me I had to do a Paraprofessional course. They were the ones who helped me with admissions. Through my fieldwork, I have seen that in rural areas NGOs are registered just for funding but in Mumbai, there are actual vocational courses.

Aneeta: I did a parlor course and a yoga course too. I was very active in all the games as well. Today I can make a living from everything I learned.

Let’s conclude on a hopeful note. What do you hope for the future?

Meenakshi: My situation has improved. Today I don’t have hopes for me but for my children. I am looking to build a future for them. In some years, I want my children to be completely independent. I am actually really interested in studies. I really want to complete my 10th std, and my son sometimes laughs at me when I sit with his books. I also want to start a business, I have looked at some places, and with the help of Prayas I am hoping to start something soon.

Sometimes one mistake is all it takes to condemn you for life. But everyone deserves a second chance in life, especially when he/she is willing to mend their ways and live a life of dignity. We at IWB strongly believe that.

Thus, this Independence day, IWB is joining hands with Prayas in their fight for women prisoners where we are striving to reverse the mire of their mistakes and the stigma that has followed them and to help them live a life of dignity, where they embrace their independence, with their heads held high. 

Image for representation only.

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