Beryl D’souza speaks with such composure, one wouldn’t know she’s seen more horrors in the last hour than most Westerners will see in their entire lives.
The young doctor’s elegant sari and soft features don’t look like those that have stared in the face of slavery—a slavery she fights as her own every day.
D’souza is the director and founder of Pratigya, an anti-human trafficking initiative based in Hydrabad, India she started earlier this year.
For several years the 31-year-old pediatrician has cared for Dalit children—members of the lowest social class—suffering the consequences of the 3,000-year-old caste system, a social structure where they are considered subhuman. Untouchable.
This ethnic group, segregated from the rest of the population, make up the gravediggers, the street sweepers, the toilet cleaners, the jobs beneath the rest of society. They are the least recorded, the least counted and therefore the most vulnerable to trafficking.
“The treatment and trafficking of the Dalit is one of India’s best kept secrets,” D’souza says of their fastest growing crime. “The only way to help them was to be their voice.”
The belief in the caste system is one so deeply entrenched in Indian society that despite no longer being law, its cruelties are still rampant today.
But D’souza’s delicate words and quiet courtesy suggest the peace of one who can hear a change coming.
A change she lives for.
Since graduating from medical school in 2005, D’souza has worked in mission clinics that service India’s poorest—the Dalit.
Caring for these “untouchables” is what first brought D’souza into their real-life nightmare.
“The community I worked in had the highest rate of HIV I have ever seen, largely due to a strong culture of commercial sex,” she says. “They’re struggling to even receive the most basic preventative health care. This is a very blatant exploitation of human rights going on here.”
This righteous anger is the fuel driving Pratigya—“oath” in Hindi—currently part of the Operation Mercy India Foundation (OMIF).
Pratigya coordinates with partner organizations like the Dalit Freedom Network (DFN) and the Human Rights Law Network on efforts to spread awareness, build schools, care for victims and, in the process, go up against the highly organized crime system in India.
“You can’t look at the problem of trafficking without looking at India,” she says.
Considering NGOs have estimated the number of Indians affected by trafficking between 20 and 65 million, according to the Trafficking in Persons Report, and the majority of that number is made up of Dalits, implementing this mission is all but impossible for one woman.
But D’souza is far from alone.
“Faith is primary to to my strength and my belief that society will change,” she says. “Faith is beyond what is obvious and seen. God is a God of justice, and He hears the cry of His people.”
D’souza’s belief that all people are created in God’s image has been formative to her own upbringing.
Born to a woman from a scheduled tribe—considered even lower than the Dalits—and upper caste man, D’souza was exposed to two different cultures and taught the beauty and value of each.
“Beryl’s passion for justice and for what is right and wrong was seen at a young age,” says Beryl’s father, Dr. Joseph D’souza, the international president of the Dalit Freedom Network (DFN). “We were always surprised when she was unafraid to speak out her mind when she noticed some injustice was going on.”
Outside of her own family, however, acceptance didn’t come as easily.
“People would get offended when they heard of my mother’s background,” she says. “I was told not to talk about it.”
But the people she was told to forget were her own.
“The Dalit are my mother’s people. They’re my own brothers and sisters and they’re struggling.”
Inspired to venture into medicine by her mother—who worked as a nurse and volunteered in the slums—Beryl pursued higher education and against the odds made it to medical school.
Beryl spent the first years after graduating gaining work experience in a mission hospital in the Belgaum district of southern India.
It was here where she met Kambawwa, whose death changed D’souza’s life forever.
Kambawwa was a 25-year-old woman in stage-four HIV. She was abandoned at the clinic by her family, whom she had provided for by selling her body since age 10 by working as a devadasi, a temple prostitute.
She had been pregnant three times and had her first child at age 12. Her body was riddled with STDs and various viruses from servicing up to 60 men a day for years.
By the time she was brought to the clinic, there was little D’souza could do but watch her die.
“It was a time of growing up for me,” she says. “I saw the social and human rights aspects of medicine. I was called to do something.”
D’souza’s new vision led her to the OMIF. She became head of a health care initiative for the DFN and began the fight for fair medical treatment among her people.
“One of the good and bad things about my practice is becoming emotionally invested with my patients,” D’souza says. “This has helped me to understand that it’s more than an health issue. It’s social and political.”
After caring and fighting for thousands of Dalits suffering from easily preventable health issues—caused by lack of clean waster, malnutrition, STDS or HIV— D’souza decided the issue of human trafficking in India and its victims needed special and focused attention.
This is what led to the creation of Pratigya.
And the work has only just begun.
Pratigya works directly with victims of trafficking, following them through the recovery and rehabilitation process. They run their own shelter in an undisclosed location in Hydrabad and work alongside like-minded organizations like the DFN and OMIF, along with lawyers and lawmakers.
“The problems of sexual trafficking can only be effectively countered when both Christians and non-Christians are mobilized to work together, especially government authorities,” Joseph says. “Thus Pratigya has to be constructed as a civil social entity.”
Although Pratigya functions as a secular organization, many have already felt the hand of God through their shelters.
“We consider the homes as promise of protection and care for the women,” says Jayaraj Soloman Raja, the national director of OMIF. “The homes give shelter to the women who are rescued and counsel them and care for them. The homes give opportunity for the women to learn skills that can provide marketable employment.”
D’souza has sacrificed wealth, time and perhaps even marriage to do what she feels called to.
“I don’t really want to quantify the hours,” she says. “Sometimes it’s difficult to draw the lines. But it doesn’t seem like work. It’s my life.”
photo courtesy of Rachel Robichaux