LBB’s Zoe Antonov found out more about “The Lost Daughters” of India and the stigma they face upon returning home, after being rescued from sex trafficking
Wunderman Thompson India and Kolkata-based NGO, SANLAAP, collaborated to reunite survivors of sex trafficking with their families, in light of Durga Puja – one of the largest Hindu festivals in India that celebrates the mother Goddess Durga and is generally considered a time of reunion.
The campaign aims to shed light on ‘The Lost Daughters’, women who have been rescued from sex trafficking but are struggling to be accepted in their families due to a social stigma over the incident and fear of shunning by society. ‘The Lost Daughters’ campaign bravely created an unprecedented festival pavilion display (pandal), which was missing the traditional idol of the Goddess Durga, in a bid to highlight the hypocrisy and irony of welcoming the Goddess like a daughter, but abandoning the daughters who try to return back home from the horrific experience of human trafficking.
Pinaki Ranjan Sinha, executive director at SANLAAP says: “SANLAAP in their long-standing of thirty years has rescued many young girls and women who have been victims of sex trafficking. Due to social stigma, many are refused by their families. Through this project, we would like to spread awareness and reach out to the maximum number of people. We want everyone to welcome their daughters as they would welcome the Goddess.”
According to Chandni Kapur, AVP and senior creative director at WT Mumbai, for some women the horrors of sex trafficking only worsen once they are back home, when they should be welcomed with open arms and helped - so using Durga Puja to deliver this important message became paramount.
Ashish Pathak, VP & senior creative director at Wunderman Thompson India told LBB’s Zoe Antonov more about this decade-long issue, the importance of rehabilitation and how SANLAAP managed to reunite 12 daughters with their families in only three months.
LBB> What was the initial idea of this campaign and the conversations surrounding it?
Ashish> The Lost Daughters focuses on an issue that has been prevalent for decades but there’s hardly any awareness about it. In India, when a woman is rescued from human trafficking, she is often abandoned by her family due to social stigma. Millions of women face this injustice and suffer in silence for years. Sanlaap, an NGO that rescues and rehabilitates women, wanted to highlight this issue and reunite rescued daughters with their families.
LBB> Tell us more about the social politics context of the campaign and the issues that sparked this conversation.
Ashish> Human trafficking is the second-largest organised crime in India. An estimated 16 million women are victims of sex trafficking every year. Unfortunately, only 7% of them are ever rescued. Once rescued from human trafficking, these women think their trauma is over but this is only the beginning of their trauma.
After the rescue, when the families are contacted, they often refuse to accept these women because of social stigma, patriarchy, and the fear of being shunned by society. Some women are abandoned by their loved ones and are living in despair for years. Some families refuse to even acknowledge the existence of their daughter and sever all ties with her.
The Lost Daughters aims to draw attention to this cause and reunite these daughters with their families.
LBB> The pandal with the missing Durga icon was a very bold and memorable move - was it difficult to make such a brave decision in the making of the campaign and how did the idea pan out?
Ashish> Durga Puja, one of the largest festivals in the world, welcomes home the Goddess Durga like a daughter. During this festival, countless pavilion-like structures called ‘pandals’ are constructed with the Durga idol. Millions of devotees visit these pandals to worship the idol and shower love on the proverbial daughter.
In 2021, Sanlaap wanted to use the backdrop of this festival to reunite rescued women with their families and shed light on the hypocrisy that was responsible for the plight of innumerable women.
So, we created an unprecedented pandal (pavilion) that had no idol.
The Lost Daughters used this pandal (pavilion) without the idol of the Goddess to remind of the hypocrisy in India that welcomes the Goddess like the daughter but abandons daughters who were rescued from human trafficking. The empty pandal (pavilion) then went on to become the venue where rescued daughters were reunited with their families.
LBB> What conversations were you aiming to spark with this campaign?
Ashish> We often hesitate to take the right step because of social stigma. The fear of being shunned by society dominates our judgment and decision-making. Every year, millions of women and girls become victims of human trafficking. Once they are rescued, they expect to return to their home. But, sometimes, families refuse to accept them because of ‘what will people say?’. In some cases, families refuse to have any contact with the daughter and choose to abandon her. In India, countless survivors are languishing in shelter homes after being rejected by their loved ones. ‘The Lost Daughters’ activation was planned to open the eyes of the people to the hypocrisy that was responsible for the plight of innumerable women.
LBB> What has the response been so far?
Ashish> The empty pandal immediately garnered a lot of attention and became a talking point across social media platforms. In just three months, Sanlaap has successfully reunited 12 happy daughters with their parents. Sanlaap continues to raise awareness around this issue with regular conferences and awareness drives. The NGO has partnered with other organisations and eminent personalities to encourage families to fight the social stigma that stops them from accepting their daughters home.
LBB> What do you believe is the role of creative media in shedding light on sex trafficking issues? Are there other campaigns of this sort coming up?
Ashish> Trafficking of girls for sex is very common in Asia. Through Sanlaap, we discovered something horrific. Very few of these rescued girls are accepted back home. It’s traumatic to know no one wants you. We wanted to raise awareness about this and urge parents to accept back their lost daughters. Durga Puja became the perfect occasion to deliver this message since the festival is all about celebrating the homecoming of the daughter. And the pandal with the missing idol of Goddess Durga helped highlight the issue. After all, every daughter is a Durga. We want to help raise funds for Sanlaap who is doing some brilliant work in bringing home the lost daughters. The activation is backed by on-ground posters and a Social Media campaign.
LBB> Tell us about the biggest challenges you faced with this campaign and what ultimately made it all worth it?
Ashish> The Lost Daughters was a heartbreaking experience. Interacting with the trafficking survivors and getting to know their story of being abandoned by their families gave us a bitter reality check about our society. The biggest challenge was to convince the families, who had earlier abandoned their daughters, to fight this social evil and accept their daughters. The NGO, along with counsellors and human rights activists, initiated a dialogue between these abandoned daughters and their families.
What started with one girl has now become a movement. We hope every lost daughter makes it back home and every family welcomes their daughter like they welcome Maa Durga.
LBB> Any final thoughts?
Ashish> The Lost Daughters is a small effort to draw attention to a very big problem. This project is our attempt to raise awareness about the issue to help more daughters come back home with dignity.