Empowering People w/Mahhan Shafiq

Today, O dear fellow mates on Earth,

We shall delve into the world of Trafficking. It may be a new term for some of you as it was for me when it first jolted me out of my wits. Trafficking by itself means, dealing or trading in something illegal- Hmm. Not as bad as to have evoked such horror. BUT. Add RIGHT before it, another term i.e. 'girl' or 'bride' or 'woman' or even 'child' for that matter and 'human' essentially, it takes on a whole different swaroopa immediatelyHUMAN Trafficking exists. Selling girls exists. Marrying a woman only to sell her off only to perhaps be sold off AGAIN!?? EXISTS.

The day I became aware of this atrocity, I couldn't think of a worse thing that we could have so blatantly allowed on Earth to have continued. It was through an article shared by The Better India, featuring the work of Shafiq Ur Rehman Khan, the man, the face, the core spirit who is behind an entirely community-oriented and community-run organisation called EMPOWER PEOPLE (There's a cool anecdote to their choice of the name too, which you shall find as you proceed) that unveiled this portion of our world to me.

The next thing I do is immediately find them on facebook and put a 'like' on their page. This was worth staying in touch with. What gave me most hope was the fact that there was a live person behind this organisation who transparently shared his views most honestly and that really was another big factor that held my attention, that showed me that this was one genuine effort and that it was worth at the least, paying attention to.

Over time, I followed their work through facebook and other links it led to. Once they had posted about a need for volunteers and I wrote to Shafiq ji if I could help in any way. At that time, all I did upon his primary suggestion was, to go and register myself as a member and surf their website to see how I could contribute. And I continued to follow the updates and share them occasionally on my own timeline. Until recently.The intensity of the posts has lately been increasing and in reading about it all, I keep getting a rising urge to be able to do more than just follow the updates. I want to be able to DO something too! So I got in touch with Shafiq ji again asking if there was anything I could actually do and thus we come to this post.

I was a bit apprehensive for I wondered how I could really be able to contribute, some apprehension was also reserved for the moment of how I would if I could, handle any kind of field work, what kind of people would I be dealing with etc. With thoughts such as these and an eagerness to even finally get to know how I could get involved, we had our first official conversation to explore the options. What I love the most is the very transparent way everything was shared by Shafiq ji pertaining to the scenario, including his frustration at times, the challenges, the joys, their current scenario and where they wish to go. And that conversation, rather their story, is what I share with you here:

Confusion is my ideology.

That's the first thing he says. And it sets the tone for the incredible story that follows- a whole different world that majority of us would want to have nothing to do with, if we had the choice. In that very space of our precious Earth, that very hidden plane of existence in our World, presenting to you, right here, is a group of dedicated passionate Individuals, who have taken it upon themselves to make right, what others have done wrong; Individuals, who work day in and day out to make the life of another girl, another woman, another human, more safe and more hopeful, bringing to them long denied succour and giving them a reason to live on~

It is, as well, a story of the exploited, the unheard and how we, as a people, have failed to ensure the right to a dignified life for such a large, unseen portion of us.This particular post has been divided into categories, each of which could be read over time as it works for you, that is, YOU, you and You! Thank you (*) to have taken the effort to get to this point. Ahem. And stay tuned for more to come:

The Beginning before the Beginning

When did it all begin?

Empower People has been here since ten years.

The story of Empower People is my story~

I belong to a farmer's family. My family was part of the enemy class for Naxals (Maoists). Being a farmer, we have lands and thus we are easy targets for the landless. We had started a public library especially for students as there was no library in the entire locality. We were asking people to donate old books and comics but no one was interested. One man was regularly donating some books, novels. Their books were different and political so we were not interested in those books but we were greedy for the books. One day I told him that no one is interested in your books. We need some text books which can be used by school students who cannot buy text books. Then he started talking about his book and he taught why this was needed. He was part of the Naxalites and he started talking and teaching. I got impressed with their ideology and commitment and so I decided to be part of that.

I joined a Naxal party when I was studying in 8th class. This was sudden because I had no ideology or any other kind of a relation to things until then. After that I was working with that party but after four years, I felt somehow that this is part of the problem. We are not serving people who are suffering, rather we are using their suffering to put our ideology in their mind. The party had a history of violence so I decided to start something new and we started a new intervention in which we created a chain of people (young students) who came together to learn and teach each other. College students were giving tuition to students of 9th and 10th and those students were teaching 7th and 8th dropouts and parents were also engaged in this process. I was curious to explore the basics of discrimination and oppression but I had no answer. 

Meanwhile one of my friend and mentor was killed by the Naxals. After the killing, I realised that I was the target and they even mentioned my name in their pamphlet so I decided to flee. My family was in Delhi so I came here and wrote an email to Swamiji. I joined Swami Agnivesh. I knew him because I was a 'kitabi kida'. During his march against female foeticide, I realised that Gender is a primary unit of discrimination and oppression. I was not satisfied with existing things so I decided to march on foot against female foeticide and gender inequality. It was an attempt to explore a possibility of change. Across the areas of Delhi, Gujarat, Punjab and Assam, I assisted Swami Agnivesh and then realised that it was a popular way and I wanted to change that. Swamiji is a good man. I still love him but he is a little old fashioned.

The Beginning

We got together and made a group of boys and arranged a March against female foeticide in Haryana, having seen how Gender based discrimination was a primary discrimination.

We had limited knowledge on this and during the march, we were inspired from the whole lot of debates and many other things that happened. It was a training ground for us. We received our training among the people- Someone from the community would ask a question and amazingly another person from amongst them itself would give an answer. So we all learned together.

Then, we formally named us as Empower People. Earlier, we had thought of naming it as Empower India but everybody talks about country and we thus decided that we instead, would talk about people. That's where it all began.

At that time, the people who formed the group were mostly under 20 years of age and our work started in earnest. In the course of time, we found a girl who was a victim of Bride Trafficking and that's when we realised, that it was an even more heinous act and that nobody wanted to deal with it. Even after 10 years of staying with the community, we find that the NGOs are not ready to delve into this matter. Ours is maybe the only organisation that is working on this as far as I know.

The Approach

We follow a multi-dimensional approach. Anti-trafficking is our mainstay and there's also a focus on making leaders out of people. Girls who have suffered this menace and have survived are usually unable to become leaders. But at Empower People, we make them Leaders.

The field operations and the decisions/counselling pertaining to other victims, the entire process, is carried out by them. It is a more sustainable chain.

We have an ideology, a strategy that we wouldn't have any banner or poster. We do not want to ever enforce our presence so much that the local community thinks that 'they are here to change us.' 

A journalist once asked me, why on the website and Facebook page, my photo was pasted everywhere. The reason is that, when we are on field, an IPS officer with a sophisticated understanding may get what we are doing, but a ground level officer would create trouble for us. So it is to reassure them that we are working with the community against trafficking and we have been doing it for a while now. There is a lot of danger on field both from the criminal gangs as well as the administration. Lots of problems of the communities are increasing which in turn cause a lot of frustration which is then shifted elsewhere. It is fully complicated. To avoid all of this, it becomes important to establish that I am associated with this. Self promotion becomes an unavoidable necessity.

Another important component is that if an International Organisation gets involved, for example a UN agency etc, they start guiding your work. It becomes a top down policy where the root problems being faced on ground by the community never go up. It is those organisations that then decide if female foeticide is more important or child marriage. So we decided that we will not be funded by them but the people that we were working with. The important thing though is that when you break connection with the top, there is a lot of frustration.

Current Scenario

In these 10 years, we have started and closed many interventions. Currently, the people composing the central level team that formed the original group, have all settled in different places and I am the only one remaining from the old team. We do have new people though. Right now we are operating in North India- Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Western Uttar Pradesh.

Earlier there were many members and dealing with all of them was quite tough. Every action had to be told to every member. Even verification that he was not a trafficker became an added task. If we did not disclose certain information, a member would say you didn't tell us before. 

We have applied a lot of strategies but are failing all the time. In every work, money is required. When that money is denied from the top, it becomes very difficult. It is very tough to generate money because different people have different perspectives.

Trafficking is promoted in many ways by large sections of society. The middle class for example would not do away with their dependence on domestic workers. Their bias in turn promotes and sanctions trafficking. Almost everyone contributes in demand. The middle class need them as domestic worker and farmers or landlords need them as field workers just because they don't want to pay a satisfactory salary and the benefits of a worker.

The Frustration

After 2012, non-cooperation has especially increased. I cannot understand at all what is happening. Sometimes I get very frustrated and vent the same on Facebook and then my friends tell me why I indulge in this bewakoofi- 'Why do you write if you don't want to leave?'

I'm not a sadist and neither do I want any sympathy. Sometimes I do wish to leave all of this and go away but I cannot do it. People pull you back and it is simply not possible to leave.

As an organisation, if you want to do something but cannot do it because of lack of resources- it is pathetic. We had organised a March in 2012- against bride trafficking. It was organised from Assam to Delhi, 8000 km by car. (Marches on foot would never be more than 300 kms because the body would not sustain.) It was really amazing that people were there all through and they appreciated it and even participated. There was no celebrity, only us common men and women- no politician or leader- no one knew us yet there were at least 50 bikes at all times through the journey joining in and out.

After that time, when we tried to organise another march, we could not. There was a need for 1 lakh 20 thousand rupees in 2014-15, a basic amount before we start to march. We tried to get that amount but we couldn't. Even some companies who most of the time came to us for this or that, we approached them for spending some of their CSR for us and we would do everything, but they refused.

The Perseverance

Today most of the focus is on eco-development and not on human development.

Involving people has been good. One of them once suggested that we should organise a fundraiser. Fundraising is not an issue. Speaking ideas is more important, money comes second. The day I need money, I will leave this and open a roadside dhaba and start a business. Money IS an issue, but not a BIG issue. The big issue is how to achieve Sustainability and avoid Institutionalisation. So there is a big confusion currently. I do not want us to become an institution or a corporate NGO. I don't want us to lose our spirit of "Yo! We will do it."

Very recently a gang of 10 got arrested and we were able to rescue 3 girls. In the entire process, we incurred an expenditure of Rs. 55,000/- over 10 days. Our entire focus is to make the girl safe, if we try to fight corruption, the girl is surely gone. Rehabilitation is always a priority.  That girl is now admitted in a residential school in Assam. We will also provide her with para-legal or para-counselling training so she can help others in future. As for the traffickers, initially we do not contact them, but after the bail, we contact them and involve them in our field seminars and sensitization workshops. Some of them become our supporters and some of them don't accept us.

The Community

How cooperative are the communities? 

They are involved in each and every thing but only if our approach is favourable to them. Most of the rescue work is done with the community. We always use them in the rescue operation. No one is evil- everyone wants to be a part in this particular work. Most of the time they have been supporting the organisation. They have provided us with 3-4 big offices on field and have not asked for a single rupee of rent from us. They themselves come and change the bulb or the fan or the invertor. We do have their cooperation, especially in the destination area- where the people are demanding.

We are fighting more than 200 cases and each and everything is free of cost only because of their cooperation. I feel it is because of our strategies with the communities that they are realising that this is a problem and that 'we should support them for the good work they are doing.' Other organisations have not been accepted by the people.

The Way Forward

The cases are regularly increasing. While on one hand, more and more people are coming forward and reporting the cases, on the other hand, people are demanding more and more girls. 

Human rights debates have reduced in the last few years. Today you will either find a 'desh bhakt' or a 'dharam bhakt'. In such an environment, the individual takes the backseat and we cannot talk about humans.

I really don't know how to do something. I'm confused about everything. I think maybe that it is also to do with the fact that I'm neither religious nor spiritual. I am anti everything. Sometimes I get frustrated because there is no God or power to save me. I have a sense that I am God and that source of power is within me. 

So for the way forward, these are the options I can think of:

1. Compromise, and we allow UN to dictate the problem.
2. Work more. Get other middle class people also involved and find solutions.
3. Develop a fresh way on field to move ahead. 

Now, I am thinking to involve more and more people to reflect together and decide how to proceed with new ideas. That's why I am regularly talking about each and every thing.

The Challenges

I don't want us to become a corporate NGO or an institutional setup. We really need some mental people- what I mean by that is that we need people who can think extraordinary things. Balanced people cannot think anything new. We need people who can reflect together, think together and then plan, extraordinary people who can think about each and every aspect and then say- this is the way.

We were planning to launch a camp for normalisation of relationship between men and women. There are a lot of things to do and each and every thing is less. Someone is working somewhere handling 3-4 things at a time so it becomes difficult to think about other things and be able to execute. 

Many a times we organise meetings with our people and discuss and plan to develop things. There is need to focus on creativity and creativity and me are poles apart. On the other hand, there are criminal cases to be handled and then there are also social interactions to conduct.

Money is not a big deal- everyone is earning money, even the traffickers. Issue is involving people with great dedication- mental people. We really need those kind of people- the extraordinary, who can think and organise, have more and more conversations and start something with this. Those who have the spirit to contribute.

The Hope

Our girls are making something and we are now planning to launch a company in near future. They are making a kind of a slipper of wheat hair currently. It is traditional in Assam and those who have come from there know how to make it. There are girls who have come from Jharkhand, Assam and they bring with them their know-how and teach each other.

Last time they made baby booty for small baby's feet with big eyes etc and exported 200 of them to the US. We are trying to make it sustainable. Most girls are making berry, kaaleen, other kinds of things that villagers use, sewing clothes within the village although not yet selling in Delhi. They are making and selling within the community. They don't want a market. Yet they come forward and contribute to Empower People with their money, it is amazing!

There are a lot of positive things. We just need some capable people to think, reflect, decide and do something. We can do a lot of things.

On a Personal Note

How do you sustain yourself while all of this is happening?

I work to earn- I do part time research. Anthropology is my major. Some people like the academicians or NGOs or other groups have assignments that I complete for them. I was once involved in setting up CSR for an organisation and realised that I shouldn't be there, so I left it.

After the 8th class, I never attended any classroom, I attended open school and I earned masters from IGNOU. and I have always been a confused and isolated personality and I have come to love that about myself. 

There are about 30 people working as full time volunteers currently. Most of us do something to survive. We are a family of more than a thousand people. There are survivors as well. Now it is about new people who can come in and plan things and tell me- 'Shafiq, do this' - I will do that.

You should think something and involve people who can think. For starters, download zoom, we conduct our meetings on that mostly. Let's think together and plan together.

As an Endnote

Focus on work, not on me.

Well, like you said- Story of empower people is your story, so it's one and the same.

Haan true, maybe. I'm not sure. Sometimes I feel it's self obsession.

Well, if that means that other selves get to reflect on their own selves via another self, I don't see why it should be called self obsession, perhaps self transparence is a better term.

I appreciate this. Being part of the earth family, it is my duty to share the pain and suffering of people.

And my dear friends, I am sure each and every one of us feels a sense of gratitude towards this free spirited large hearted group of people, who continue even as you read this, to find a lead to the next lady to be rescued, to the next life to be saved from the tyranny of apathy, and the next part of the world to be lightened from the burden of this age old blindness that binds large portions of us within its fold making us inadvertently indulge in actions we would never otherwise have even imagined in the first place had we steered clear of its tangled net laid wide across all of Earth, our home.

Rest assured dear lovely being existing on earth right this precious moment, this is just the beginning. You can take a few teenie steps yourself, having come thus far for which we thank you much.

You can find their facebook page right here.

You can follow their work also via the Founder's facebook page right here.

And. Most importantly, if you think you are one of those "mental" people, please write to us!!! You can reach Shafiq ji at shafiq@empowerpeople.in or you can write to me at reemarchitect@gmail.com. We shall surely make some more noise over time and we could use your vocal chords too, ahem ~;-) Woohooooooo !^.^!


  1. I literally feel like standing up and clapping after reading this...but since I am in the library, I probably should not :)

    1. Wow. Thank you so very much Keith for BRIGHTENING this moment up with your super kind and creatively articulated super jazz words! Chuckling all the way!! Thank you thank you thank you!!!