Published: 07th March 2018
Despite brain surgeries and a lost voice, Pranitha Timothy has helped thousands of bonded labourers and kin of convicts
Pranitha is the founder of Justice and Hope, a Chennai-based organisation established in 2013. The ordeal that she went through personally to get there is quite a stirring tale of hope
After two brain tumour surgeries, Pranitha Timothy lost most of her voice. But that hasn't stopped her from being the voice of thousands of individuals who don't have a voice in our country. From working with mentally challenged people and families of prisoners, to rescuing victims of trafficking and bonded labourers, Pranitha has helped bring dignity and purpose to many who have otherwise lost the will to survive.
After working with several organisations, Pranitha started Justice and Hope in 2013, mainly to cater to the loopholes that she found in other organisations. But the seeds of her passion for justice were planted during her childhood. Born to doctors in a little village in North Karnataka, Pranitha was often reminded by her grandparents and relatives that she belonged to a higher status. Her best friend was a nurse's daughter and her neighbours were the driver's kids, but she wasn't allowed to play with them. She never understood why and always questioned it. The other thing that really bothered her was how her people would call her brother a curse because he was dark-skinned, while the rest of the family was fair-skinned. These were the two things that got her thinking, she says, "Why should my status or skin colour make me more important than someone else?"
Fair play: Pranitha had always questioned injustice, right from her childhood
She decided to pursue her master’s in Social Work. But trouble struck soon. She narrates, "While I was studying, I was diagnosed with a brain tumour. The only thing that kept me going was my faith. There is a part of the scripture that says ‘Set the captives free’. That encouraged me and gave me more purpose to live."
Though she lost her voice completely after the surgeries, she managed to land a job. She worked with prisoners for a year, met those on a life sentence, found out where their children were and brought them from the village. Even after marriage, she continued working in villages where children didn't have access to education. She then joined a team that pioneered the fight against bonded labour in India. "What surprised me was that in a social work programme, they teach you about every other social issue except bonded labour. Somehow it wasn't seen as something wrong. It took me back to my childhood. I never realised that all those people I grew up with were bonded. I didn't understand why they couldn't come out. It was because they were bonded, they couldn't leave. And now I realise that there are millions of families who are bonded in India. Since we were the first to deal with the issue, everything was a struggle — to go to the police, to file reports, everything. We would spend months convincing revenue officials to come with us to see for themselves," she says. But times have changed. Today, things are much easier. After ten years, we had rescued about 7,000 people as a team," she says proudly.
After working with all these organisations, what Pranitha found was that every organisation has a narrow scope. There are many loopholes. "For example, children who have nowhere to go end up in orphanages. In one such orphanage, I found that two of the caretakers were sexually exploiting the kids. And it was painful to think that children who have absolutely no hope come here thinking someone will take care of them, and then they end up getting abused. It's just tragic and traumatic," she says.
Safe haven: Pranitha, with children of prisoners
These loopholes are what pushed Pranitha to start Justice and Hope. "We started thinking about how we can make our schools and communities safer. Schools have to have constant safety checks for all the staff and volunteers," she says. They work with girls and boys who have been trafficked, rescue them and show them that there's life ahead of them. Her team also works with the traffickers. "A majority of traffickers are women, who probably have been trafficked themselves. We show them alternative means to earn a living so that they don't go back to that life. We call it Project Diya, which means light," she says.
Another area of focus is domestic violence. The team stands with the victims, goes with them to police stations and helps them file reports. "Our community is not for divorce, but what I've found is that violence can be so life-threatening that it's important to separate them. Safety comes first,” says Pranitha.
Infanticide is another issue that they are trying to counter. Women who have unwanted pregnancies or who are victims of rape are asked to given a home in their facility. They give birth anonymously and decide whether to keep the child or not. Pranitha says, "We hope that every mother can keep their child for their own sake. But if not, we hand the child over for legal adoption. It's a place where women can feel loved and safe."
Greener pastures: With Manjusha and Sneha, volunteers at Justice and Hope
Talking about child sexual abuse, Pranitha says, "According to government statistics, 53.02% children are sexually abused in India. Any number of NGOs can work for child sexual abuse and it still wouldn't be enough." She adds, "I'd say girls and women begin from a very disadvantaged point, especially in India. Right from birth, women are told that they're not equal. Somehow, women have been taught to think that it's okay and so they adapt their lives. Even mothers choose to educate their sons over their daughters. A woman is central to the community. The saying ‘When you train a man, you train just the man, but when you train a woman, you train the whole community’ is true."
But would Pranitha call herself a feminist? "I completely believe in empowering women, but feminism has taken a different meaning which I don't subscribe to," says Pranitha. She believes that the only way this can happen is through education; women need to be educated to be independent and have control over their own lives. When asked about the lawsthat protectt women in India, she says, "The domestic violence act is very pro-woman, but has a lot of loopholes. There's no act that ensures complete protection. If someone wants to do something, they can make sure that they do it without being found guilty, through several hacks. Marital rape is another law that needs immediate amendment." And we sure hope that we head in that direction.