The New Life Society (Part 1): A faith-based response to supporting survivors of human trafficking in Rajahmundry
Nehemiah Bathula PhD
New Life Society, India
Rajahmundry, which is also known as Rajamahendravaram, is a city with a population of around 650,000, known as the cultural capital of Andhra Pradesh, in the South East coastal region of India It is also known for sex work, with sex workers usually residing in working-class settlements or slum areas. The commercial sex trade is widely practiced and differentiated into various types such as ‘brothel-based, home-based, street-based, lodge-based, dhaba-based (roadside restaurant), highway-based, agriculture-based, phone-based, and venue-based (e.g., massage parlours, bars)’. Like in other parts of India, the victims of sex trafficking have been recognized as ‘fisher folks, weavers, tribals, beedi workers (rolling cigars and mini cigars), migrant labourers, domestic servants, rural artisans, and homeless people.’ Rajamahendravaram is one of the transportation spots for human trafficking to the neighboring cities and abroad, including countries in the Middle East, such as Dubai (NDTV 2010). In 2007, the director of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in India discovered that young girls (reported to be mostly between 12-17 years old) were being sold for as little as 12,000 rupees ($168).
Supporting trafficked women and girls in Rajamahendravaram
As you see in the above paragraph, sex trafficking if prevalent in my hometown Rajamahendravaram . In response to this situation, my father, Venu Babu Bathula (Noah) who was a pastor, developed a deep compassion toward survivors of sex trafficking, people with HIV/AIDS, and vulnerable population groups. During my teenage years, my father used to take me by bicycle to visit the communities where these people lived and taught me how to serve marginalized people. He told me several times, “Nehemiah, we are called to serve the exploited ones; and offer care and provide a sense of belonging and hope to the hopeless ones.” I believe that the words of my father, scripture and education helped me to see and understand the importance of serving the survivors of sex trafficking and marginalized groups in my home city. As I became an adult, together with my brother Ezra, I worked with my father through the Church that he set up in 2009, Blessed Prayer House, providing for some of the basic needs of trafficked women and their children, as well as empowerment and work opportunities. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, with India experiencing a massive death toll, making people’s lives miserable, we could see that lives of survivors of sex trafficking were even more at risk.
This was the motivation to set up the New Life Society in 2021, during the peak of the crisis, to support survivors, but also others including orphans and the elderly.
The New Life Society is a faith-based organization driven by the Nazareth Manifesto in Luke 4:18-19 and by the time we set up the society we were already supporting 23 women and their children. Some of these had previously left Rajahmundry to escape local stigma and had started building lives elsewhere. However, following COVID and the government’s lockdown restrictions, they had been forced to return, facing renewed stigma and a lack of employment, alongside the challenges of contracting COVID.
‘Nazareth Manifesto’: Luke 4:18-19 (NRSV)
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
The research from my PhD study, which I completed in 2020, Photovoice Empowerment of Young Women Rescued from Child Sex Trafficking in India: A Holistic Needs Analysis, also played a role in the setting up of the New Life Society. My research findings illustrated that the survivors of trafficking faced many challenges, including a lack of basic needs (food, clothes, shelter, and medical), stigma, poor employment opportunities, broken family connections, no action from law enforcement, and problems reintegrating into their communities and family. These stories of the survivors of sex trafficking encouraged me to start the New Life Society. The goal of this society is to offer holistic support and to empower survivors to become a source of blessing to their families and communities.
The majority of the survivors in Rajahmundry come from the Hindu religion and often attribute their pain, sorrows, and negativity to the sins in their past life. Moreover, they belong to the lower caste known as Dalits. People who are born in this caste often face discrimination and fewer opportunities to thrive. Usually, they are impoverished economically and socially. They are known as untouchables, the dirt of society. Therefore, the survivors’ perception about their sufferings is often interwoven with their understanding of their place within the caste system, their past life and karma.
The survivors of sex trafficking choose to be silent and to endure accusations, negativity, and humiliation from the community. However, we, the New Life Society, are continuously educating and raising awareness by sharing the stories of survivors in the community. As a result, a gradual change is taking place in the mindset of the community as they become more aware of the issues and challenges of the survivors. We are not concerned only with their physical, psychological, and social well-being but also with their spiritual well-being. Senior Pastor Blessed (Devika) of the Blessed Prayer House, and Associate Pastor Ezra Bathula invite survivors to the church services on Sundays and special occasions like festivals to offer prayers and to provide healing sermons to them. The church encourages survivors to move forward with the understanding of God’s unconditional love and grace towards them. The body of Christ continuously assures them that they belong to the family of God despite what happened to them in the past. The church assures them that no matter what happened, we, the church, will continuously walk with them through the road of healing and complete recovery. In fact, the church has intentionally given opportunities for survivors to take part in Sunday service activities like singing songs, reading scripture, sharing testimonies, etc. One of the beauties of the church service is that even Hindu survivors enthusiastically participate in the Sunday service activities. Some have accepted Jesus as their person survivor but are in no way forced or coerced to do so. In sum, the survivors have felt a sense of belonging, care, affection, and love from the church.
This is the first a two-part series about the work of The New Life Society. Read the second blog by Nehemiah Bathula here.
We, the New Life Society, continuously provide aftercare services to the survivors of sex trafficking. Our goal is to see survivors of sex trafficking and other marginalized people be transformed holistically and, if they choose, to embrace the gift of life given by God so they can thrive in the fullest and become a source of blessing to their communities. The New Life Society representatives have joined with anti-human trafficking organizations to learn better strategies to address the needs of survivors of trafficking. However, for the past few months, New Life Society has been going through some funding problems due to the COVID pandemic, the economic recession, a declining employment rate, etc. As a result, some of the projects have been put on hold, such as buying thirty sewing machines for survivors, distribution of basic needs (food, clothes, and medicine) to survivors, and provision of school supplies for survivors’ children and HIV/AIDS infected children. We look forward to having partners and donors to offer support for these projects. If you are interested in joining with us, kindly contact me at nehemiahbathula [at] gmail [dot] com . I would be happy to provide more information about the projects and ministries for survivors of sex trafficking in Rajahmundry, India.