Roma Debabrata: How a poisonous injection drove me to rescue child prostitutes

“Even if it kills me  tomorrow, there’s nothing better I can do with my life.” - Roma Debabrata

“Even if it kills me tomorrow, there’s nothing better I can do with my life.” – Roma Debabrata

Snatched from their families, sold for bread or married off to men three times their age. An estimated 1.2 million children are being forced into sex work in hovels scattered around the slums of Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai and other parts of India.

The Indian government estimates that around three million citizens are involved in sex work, most of them vulnerable women and children. Child prostitution and pornography is big business, generating around US$5bn a year. What can be done to stop girls as young as eight being forced to have sex? How can they ever escape, or rebuild their lives if they do get out?

Here we meet Future Maker Roma Debabrata, who has devoted her life to standing up for these young women. We find out why there’s nothing she’d rather do, and how a poisonous stab in the back made her decide to change their lives:

At 21, Roma was to become a prima ballerina. However, she decided almost overnight to give up dancing. “How was it possible to worry about pointe shoes, while surrounded by wretched dwellings and omnipresent hunger?”, she thought. She could not recognise what meaning an existence as a dancer could have for the daily misery in the streets of Calcutta.

Her proud parents were shocked. Roma not only rode roughshod over the possibility of an extraordinary career, she also moved away from her family, which was unusual in 1960s India.

“Somehow I always knew that I wanted to change things. Circumstances that inflict emotional and psychological pain on people especially bothered me because that is dehumanising,” she said.

The resistance from those around her did not prevent Roma from doing what she believed to be right. Her husband came from a family that was engaged in union organisation and actively supported the women’s movement. Here Roma found understanding and backing. “They stood behind me like a rock,” she recalled. In the years that followed she became more involved with the socially disadvantaged. When she looked into the streets of New Delhi she felt a deep need to give something back. But for many years she didn’t know how and where she should concentrate her efforts.

The positive effect of poison
In 1992, Roma was asked by a lawyer friend to translate the testimony of an abused 14-year-old girl. Roma later learned the lawyer feared the girl’s testimony would be falsely rendered by the court interpreter. The young Bengali woman was sold to a man at ten years old. The man had promised her parents he would give her a better life in the city. This “better life” meant being raped daily, not only by him, but also by a number of other men. Among her tormentors were police officers, which ensured the secrecy of the girl’s illegal prostitution – a tragic fact which is unfortunately no exception.

Thanks to Roma’s interpretation, the girl’s testimony could not be falsified. After the girl identified her abusers, there was a tumult in the courtroom. Roma protected the young woman by standing in front of her. Feeling a stabbing pain in her back, she fell to the floor. A poisonous injection had been rammed into her spine, apparently intended for the girl. Roma was partially paralysed and spent three months in hospital. The experience awoke something within her:

My whole life I had looked for a job that would give my life purpose. And in that moment, when I was almost poisoned because I had protected an abused child, I knew what I would do for the rest of my life.

STOP: For stopping what shouldn’t be
To fulfil her newly discovered mission, Roma founded STOP (Stop Trafficking and Oppression of Children and Women) in 1997. The organisation aims to put an end to the trafficking of women and children. As well as liberating the girls from the basements of bordello owners, STOP helps survivors to rebuild their lives – through education and vocational programmes, new homes and new work opportunities.

These children are kidnapped, sold, forced to have sex and abused for money. Now, when they are rescued, they have the right to make their own choices about what they want to do, who they want to be, for the first time. We support them in this as best we can.

One of the most important things STOP does is to procure information about the hideaways of trafficked children. With the police, they raid the hideaways to get as many girls as possible out of the hands of child abusers.

It is mainly our role to acquire information about where girls are hidden. In this we are helped by our expansive network of partner organisations, doctors, volunteers, sometimes clients and even rickshaw-drivers in the city’s neighbourhoods. In order to liberate the girls, we then organise raids that have to be carried out with almost military precision. If we are not quick, the traces of the girls are often lost forever. When you lose a child here, you’ve lost her forever.

For rescue actions, girls who have survived similar situations are best suited. They are quick and nimble, well-acquainted with hideaways and therefore find them in the shortest time. Some of the girls rescued by Roma are carefully trained to help other children.

After liberating them, we accompany the girls to the police and to medical examinations, because they are afraid they will be brought back again – unfortunately, this thought is not without justification. We make sure that the girls are treated well by the police, that their meagre possessions do not disappear, that no bribes are taken and that the girls are taken to safe locations before their cases go to trial. After that we support them through our rehabilitation programmes.

To the question of whether her plans are dangerous and whether she is sometimes afraid, she answered simply: “Even if it kills me tomorrow, there’s nothing better that I can do with my life.”

Roma’s work is more than essential. Some of the children are sold by their families under false pretences for a piece of bread or given as would-be brides to sex traffickers in disguise. Thousands of children are trafficked from Nepal to India every year.

The dream of daughters fulfilled
Forty-five women now live with Roma. She calls them “daughters”. They live in a house built with donations. There, they learn English, cooking, gardening, driving and more. The goal is for them to develop into self-confident and independent people, not to remain victims. Of the girls, 17 are already married. Speaking of her work, Roma said:

This is the life that I always wanted for myself. I always wanted to have many children, now I am surrounded by lovable girls who I can help and whose growth I watch over. I am now almost 60 years old. I work daily for the right things and there is still much to be done. Every day is a new day, not a leftover from yesterday.

This is an edited extract from The Future Makers: A Journey to People who are Changing the World – and What We Can Learn from Them by Joanna Hafenmayer Stefanska and Wolfgang Hafenmayer, Greenleaf Publishing 2013.


futuremakersThe Future Makers tells the diverse stories of people from around the world who have made a sustainable mark on the world through their careers: from Japanese environmental experts to dancers in Argentina. The Future Makers are people who make the world a better, more beautiful and livable place for current and coming generations.

The authors take you on a journey to people whose values and visions aren’t compartmentalised into corners of their lives. They live their dreams every day. This book will show you how you can do the same.

The Future Makers is out now. If you liked this story and want to discover more, head over to our website. To celebrate the book’s launch we are offering a 10% discount on the paperback. To claim, just enter code FMBE10 at the checkout. Happy reading!

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