Sr. Annie Jesus Mary’s fight against sexual slavery is her ‘crusade’

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New Delhi: 16 and 19 respectively, two sisters from Chhattisgarh, were sold into sexual slavery for a few hundred dollars to serve customers in Pune and Goa. Sister Annie Jesus Mary, a nun with the Franciscan missionaries of Mary, liberated them.

Nicknamed the “crusader nun” for her fight against human trafficking since the early 2000, she has worked especially among disadvantaged tribal groups.

The Franciscan Sister founded Jeevan Jharna Vikas Sanstha (Foundation for the progress of life stream, JJVS), in 2003, an NGO that saves trafficked women and victims of violence, minors and the poor.

Based in Kansabel, Jashpur District (Chhattisgarh), the association’s work also extends into Jharkhand and Orissa.

The two sisters she saved are ethnic Bhil, a tribal group; and hail from Kerasa, a village in Surguja district.

Traffickers “exploit extreme tribal poverty,” she explains, “and know how to entice and blackmail naïve girls.”

This is what Kaleshwar Paingra, who hails from the village of Sahibavna, did to convince the sisters with the promise of money and gifts.

On 6 September — 2019, he influenced them to leave their home around midnight, asking them to meet his agents.

Finally, he took them into the forest, raped them; and separately took them by trains to Goa and Maharashtra where they were sold to two brothels for 27,000 (US$ 380) and 18,000 rupees (US$ 255) individually.

The kidnapping was supposed to remain secret but the self-help network created Sr. Annie’s association alerted them about the sisters’ disappearance.

The association in turn educated the village committees in Kerasa and Sahibavna; and facilitated the parents of the young women to file a missing person report at the Kansabel police station.

Ultimately the sex traffickers were caught and forced to bring the girls home by 13 October — 2019.

After they were unbound, the sisters went to a half-way house for initial counseling and retrieval. The dedicated facility aided the sisters begin coping with the violence and trauma they suffered.

“Now they are home with their parents and will go back to study,” Sr. Annie said, and “have been enrolled in tailoring and embroidery at the JJVS campus.”

The JJVS has rescued and rehabilitated 143 girls and 68 boys over the years.

In the last five years, it has organized programs, courses and seminars in 180 villages in 71 districts (panchayat), raising awareness among students and teachers in 63 schools.

For her work, Sr. Annie received this year’s Jijabai Achievers Award, a prize given by the University of Delhi, for achieving a feasible impact among the poor.

Earlier, in March — 2018, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind had presented her with the Women Empowerment — Award by the — Union Ministry for Women’s and Child Development.

For the nun though, her work will go on. Miserably, “traffickers will continue to target tribal communities in Chhattisgarh unless their economic condition is improved.”