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Saturday February 27 2015
Words: Debi Marshall
Pictures: Paul Harris and Thom Rigney
Australia’s worst paedophile priest, Father Gerald Ridsdale, once lived with a young clergyman who is now Cardinal George Pell. As the Cardinal prepares to give evidence to the child abuse royal commission, two women break decades of silence to tell Debi Marshall about their ordeal in Ridsdale’s care – and their disappointment with Pell.
In 1973, a young Father George Pell, flushed with success from his recent studies in Rome and Oxford, returned to his home town of Ballarat and took up residence in the St Alipius presbytery; a place, it would be publicly revealed more than 20 years later, that was a paedophile’s paradise and a child’s nightmare.
His housemate that year was the tall, rowdy and popular parish priest, Father Gerald Ridsdale. What the parents and parishioners who worshipped God and obeyed the sanctity of the church and its messengers did not know was that from early in his priesthood, Ridsdale was subject to a psychiatric report. He was already a serial child abuser who sodomised children at will, picking them off when and where his desires dictated: in front of a church altar, at the presbytery, or on camping or fishing trips.
When he hurt them, he ignored their cries for him to stop. If they persisted in making a racket, he beat them. Badly.
In May 2015, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse began an investigation into how Catholic Church authorities dealt with paedophile clergy in Ballarat and the impact of abuse. It heard that the diocese was a hotbed of scandal, cover-ups and paedophilia, and that vulnerable children – particularly orphans – had been prey to abusive clergy.
The hulking figure of Fr Ridsdale had given sermons from the pulpit while secretly running an unsophisticated, but terrifyingly effective paedophile ring. All three of Ridsdale’s Christian Brother cohorts - particularly Brother Robert Best - had also enjoyed uninterrupted access to vulnerable children, whom they handed around to each other to abuse.
For Gabbi Short, now 60, growing up at Ballarat’s Nazareth House Girls’ Home, run by the Sisters of Nazareth, was the equivalent of living in hell; a daily battle for survival. The fifth of nine children, Gabbi was placed into care when she was just eight weeks old, at the suggestion of her parents’ local priest.
“Dad was a war veteran who suffered shell-shock and neuroses,” she says. “Mum cared about us, but the way Dad was, she had no choice but to put me and my sister in a home. She had no pension to live on.
“Because I went into care so young and stayed there until I was 12, I was known as a ‘lifer’. Mum made every effort to continue to see me, but the nuns made it clear she wasn’t welcome at Nazareth House and she eventually gave up.”
Gabbi recalls with a shudder the years 1963 and 1964.
“They were just the worst years,” she says. “That was when Father Gerald Ridsdale, who was the chaplain at our school, and Sister Imelda, were there together. It was a nightmare.”
Sr Imelda, a young, attractive nun, was a sadist to children.
“She was in Ridsdale’s thrall,” Gabbi says, ticking off on her fingers some of the brutalities she and other orphans endured.
“She was charming and sycophantic to Ridsdale, but together they brutalised us orphans continually. The sexual and physical assaults that I and the other girls endured between us are too many to list, and they are all graphic and appalling.
“For no apparent reason, Sr Imelda would slam my head up against the wall, which resulted in a hairline fracture of my skull, drag me up the passage by my hair, make me stand in the freezing cold hallway for three hours at a time or get down on my knees and polish the concrete.
“She would belt me for wetting the bed and if we wet ourselves from fear, we had to lick up our own urine.”
“We were his playthings. He’d kick us, belt us, or slam our heads up against walls."
Ridsdale, whom Gabbi describes as an “arrogant and cruel beast of a man,” also delighted in the abuse.
“He just ran amok,” Gabbi says. “We were his playthings. He’d kick us, belt us, or slam our heads up against walls. He used to belt me around the head with his hand. Maybe they hated themselves and their life – who knows? But we were definitely their scapegoats. There was no escaping the brutality.”
Gabbi developed her own defence mechanism to ward off the sure advances of the paedophiles who worked in or visited Nazareth House.
“After all the abuse I’d endured, I developed such a thing about my body that from the age of 12, no-one would dare touch me,” she says. “Paedophiles are experts at knowing which children to pick on and they didn’t come near me. But not all my friends were as lucky.’
Gabbi Short talks about the day she first saw Gerald Ridsdale.
Gabbi recalls that Ridsdale would visit Nazareth House and take girls away as he chose. No-one stopped him.
”One of his favourite girls was Sarah [not her real name], who was in charge of us junior girls,” Gabbi says. “He raped her repeatedly from the age of 10 but when she reported it to a nun, it was ignored.
“Sarah tried to commit suicide by jumping out a second floor window. A nun came in, made all the girls in her dormitory line up at the window so she couldn’t try to jump out again, and belted her within an inch of her life.
“Sarah was so desperate, she just wanted to die. Years later, she accompanied a friend who needed to see a priest for pre-marital counselling. When she entered the room, she found to her horror that the priest was Ridsdale. He recognised her instantly and pulled a photograph of her in her first Communion dress from his top drawer. He had kept it all those years.”
There are other stories, too, of girls who won’t be identified: the 12-year-old virgin who mysteriously became pregnant at the orphanage and was secretly sent to have her baby at St Joseph’s Babies Home in Broadmeadows. When she heard a baby cry after her excruciating labour and asked if it was her child, she was told to be quiet. She was returned to the orphanage, sans baby, and told to say she had been on holiday.
She doesn’t know who the father of her baby was, but suspects she was drugged and raped, probably by a priest; possibly Ridsdale. It would be 50 years before she would reunite with the son taken from her.
Cossetted from the outside world, with the Catholic mantra of guilt and hell, fire and brimstone to keep them on the straight and narrow, the orphans knew that it was a mortal sin to be molested and that if that happened, they would go straight to hell.
“You need to understand just how isolated and cut off we were behind the walls of that imposing, grandiose orphanage,” Gabbi says.
“We were so vulnerable. On one side of the grounds was a nursing home for the elderly; we were on the other side. We had the same teacher for every subject, so we couldn’t get away from the sadism.
“There were about 15 girls in my class. They were all abused.”
At the mercy of the Nazareth nuns who, in turn, did the priests’ bidding, they weren’t taught about sex.
“I didn’t even know the word, let alone what it meant,” Gabbi says.
Gabbi made that special Catholic sacrament, the First Communion, in 1963, aged 7, and saw her mother, very briefly the day before.
“I ran to her and asked her not to go away any more,” she says. “But I never saw her again.” Her mother died in 2003.
Gabbi has a photograph of herself from that day, dressed, as are her fellow students, in a virginal, white, knee-length dress and veil. Standing between them, a vulture amongst his flock, dressed in black robes, his hands piously locked together and wearing an affable smile, is Fr Ridsdale. He had something to smile about: just a week before, he had raped yet another young girl, Julie Braddock. As with the other children he frequently assaulted, he had got away with it.
Julie, now 60, has carried the scars of Ridsdale and Imelda’s abuse throughout her life.
“He was the parish priest, so we saw him every day,” she recalls. “Both of them were preparing us for our First Communion; we were learning passages from the Bible. They agreed I needed one-on-one tuition, so I was sent to meet Father in the chapel.”
It started innocently enough: a word of encouragement from Ridsdale, a kiss on the cheek, progressing to him putting his hand up her dress and then his fingers into her vagina.
“I cried, because it hurt,” she grimaces. “I was still crying when I went to see Sr Imelda.”
It was the worst decision she could have made. Imelda beat her, savagely, and locked her under the stairs for three days. Released from the dark, foul-smelling cupboard where she was given only a bucket for her excrement, she was again sent to Ridsdale.
“He said that evil was inside me and he needed to get it out.”
The rape that followed was so brutal that when she cried out in pain, Sr Imelda entered the room and dragged Julie to the bathroom, demanding she take a bath before she was sent to get her toilet bag. Forcing her to lie on the cold lino, Imelda inserted Julie’s soapy toothbrush in her vagina and rectum until she bled. Satisfied that she was clean, Imelda then pronounced that Julie was a filthy girl who must remain silent about what had happened.
Julie was seven and a half years old. Ridsdale would rape her again on at least two occasions.
A week before her First Communion, Julie fainted during rehearsals. Enraged, Ridsdale ordered that she stay behind when the other students left.
“He slammed me so hard in the face that I fell over the church pew and was very badly bruised,” she says, absently drawing a figure-eight with her fingers on her kitchen table.
“Then he dragged me out of the church and threw me down the steps.”
“Nobody gets away with that!” he screamed. Lying whimpering on the ground, she quivered to see Sr Imelda advance toward her, to pick her up. She knew what she was in for.
Like other orphans, Julie, the sixth child in her family, desperately needed loving care – not abuse. Abandoned by their mother when Julie was one month shy of her second birthday, she and her two siblings – one marginally older than herself, one three months of age - were taken into police custody.
Sent to St Joseph’s Babies Home, run by the Sisters of Nazareth, Julie was placed into the Nazareth House Girls Home at the age of five. It was an unwelcome induction.
“I was shown to my dormitory and told not to wet the bed. The next morning, very early, I was woken and hit on the legs by the nun because I had wet the bed. She rubbed my face into the wet sheet so hard my nose bled. I was then dragged to the bathroom, told to strip in front of the other girls, and beaten along with others who had wet the bed. Later, our names were called out and we had to stand our naked feet in buckets of boiling water.”
The physical abuse was so horrendous, that on occasions Julie would fall unconscious. Sr Imelda was always the most vicious.
“She broke my fingers,” Julie says. “She made me and the other girls eat our own vomit.”
Gabbi and Julie became friends.
“I once tried, with Gabbi, to crawl through a hole in the fence, but a nun kept dragging me back. The wire was embedded in my leg and I needed 11 stitches. I was locked in a cupboard under the stairs for days and nights as punishment. When I was released, I was so ill I had to stay in the sick room for eight days.”
Julie was never told that her real sister, Gail, was at the orphanage, and imagined that Gabbi was her sister.
Julie left the orphanage in 1963 to live with foster parents. But her foster father, too - a pillar of the Polish church and, she believes, part of Ridsdale’s paedophile ring - also abused her; abuse that was so terrible she still can’t speak of it.
In 1968, she became violently ill. Flummoxed as to the cause of her condition, the doctor would later ascertain it was the result of Ridsdale’s abuse and the injuries she sustained at her First Communion rehearsal. Julie’s spleen, one kidney and her appendix were removed.
To escape the hell of life at home, in 1972, aged 16, Julie left home and later married a boy she liked, but didn’t love. The marriage didn’t last, but depression, which has dogged her all her life, did. Four serious suicide attempts ended with hospitalisation, but she eventually found love, married, had seven children and gained a teachers degree. Her beloved husband died in 2005, as did her foster mother, who had left her husband immediately when Julie finally told her of the abuse.
Gabbi left the orphanage in 1968. Moving through a succession of other Catholic homes, including the Winlaton Youth Training Centre - “virtually a prison” - she slept rough on the streets. The terror and trauma she suffered as a child haunted her in her 20s, when her body turned in on itself.
“I was in shock and went down to 30kg,” Gabbi says. “I was dying inside.”
Determined to get stronger, she found work, married and had three children. The marriage didn’t last, but what has lasted is her commitment to ensuring others did not go through what she experienced.
“In my 40s, I started to talk about what had happened at the orphanage,” Gabbi says. “I started to heal and I haven’t stopped talking about it since.”
Now a spokesperson for Forgotten Australians and a relentlessly outspoken critic of the malevolent evil that was allowed to flourish in Ballarat - and elsewhere Ridsdale and his companions lived and worked - Gabbi says she will not rest until these paedophiles and malicious nuns are fully exposed.
“I could move on with my life and put this behind me,” she says, “but I’ve chosen to speak out for vulnerable children who can’t speak for themselves. We need to look out for kids today because no-one looked after the kids of yesterday. We were just open slather.”
The law eventually caught up with Ridsdale and his paedophile cohorts, but too late to save more than 30 boys, who chose to end their own lives rather than relive the ongoing nightmare of the sadistic sexual, physical and emotional abuses inflicted on them by these so-called men of the cloth.
For Ridsdale, the dominos started falling when, in 1992, one of his male victims contacted a hotline regarding paedophile priests. When the police came calling, he could no longer hide behind his cassock, clerical collar and cross. He went quietly.
Pell welcomed the announcement of the Royal Commission, but his welcome soured in public opinion when he added that priests who hear confessions from people who commit child sex abuse must remain bound by the Seal of Confession (the duty of Catholic priests not to disclose what is heard), which he described as ‘inviolable’.
Later, addressing intense questioning at the Royal Commission about what he knew, Pell (by then a Cardinal in Rome and one of the Vatican’s most powerful figures) said he had noticed nothing.
“[Ridsdale] concealed his crimes from me and other priests in Ballarat, from parishioners and from his own family,” he asserted grimly.
Victims, police and the media, were outraged. Not only had Pell shared a house with Ridsdale in 1973, he had chosen to walk side byside with him into court in 1993, when Ridsdale pleaded guilty to 30 counts of indecent assault against nine boys, aged 12 to 16, between 1974 and 1980, for which he received his first, 12 month sentence.
Both had cut an odd figure: Pell, then an ambitious auxiliary Bishop in colourless priestly robes, and Ridsdale, sporting a garish white suit and hiding behind oversized sunglasses. Pell’s decision to walk with this vilified priest would prove to be a PR disaster.
In 1994, Pell had allegedly responded to child abuse victim Timothy Green that he not be ‘ridiculous’ when Green told him that Ridsdale’s friend, Brother Edward Dowlan, was abusing children at St Patrick’s College. Pell has insisted he has no recollection of such a conversation. He was present at a 1982 meeting of the College of Consultors, which discussed unseating Ridsdale from the Mortlake Parish to a Catholic centre in Sydney.
By 1993, Ridsdale’s days of being protected were numbered and a flood of victims would continue to come forward. Between 1993 and 2013 he was convicted of 54 child sexual abuse and indecent assault charges against children aged as young as four.
“The vast majority of those were boys,” Gabbi says. “But we know there are girls for which he hasn’t been charged and that the figure is higher – much higher – than 54. Hopefully his past will catch up with him before he is eligible for parole again in 2019. Or before he goes to meet his Maker, in whose image he had represented himself.”
A slim, intense woman with a ready smile, who speaks in an urgent torrent of words, Gabbi cannot hide her disgust that Pell consistently claims he did not see or hear anything.
“How could he not have heard the relentless rumours or the parishioners’ complaints?” she asks, incredulous.
“How could he not have seen the stricken faces of the children when they left Ridsdale’s company? Even Ridsdale’s nephew, David, who was sexually abused by him for five years from the age of 11, claimed to have told Pell about the abuse. He says that Pell’s response was to offer him a financial bribe to keep quiet. Pell, of course, dismissed David’s claim by responding that ‘An offer of help is not the same as a bribe.’ It all just beggars belief.”
At the Royal Commission, Pell said that at no time had he attempted to bribe David or his family, nor did he offer any financial inducements for him to be silent.
And throughout the storms, Pell stood resolute. Paedophilia “was always regarded as being totally reprehensible,” he intoned.
In 2007, Gabbi and Julie, who had not seen each other for 44 years, met again at a Nazareth House reunion. They have remained friends. Gabbi exhorted Julie to tell her story, but shame and humiliation linger like shadows. She is now very ill.
“This is probably my last chance to tell my story,” she says. “I was stripped of everything I was and everything I am, just as the other 500,000 Australian orphans were. I didn’t know I had siblings until I was 25.
“It matters that I, and other orphans, called out for help and were ignored. Imelda is dead, Ridsdale in prison, but it still matters. It matters. We need justice.”
Julie, too, questions why Pell supported Ridsdale and not the victims. Like other child abuse victims, she is disgusted and outraged that Pell has cited ill health as his reason for not returning to Australia to face the Royal Commission – offering instead to appear by video link.
“If he’s well enough to run the Vatican’s finances,” she spits, “he’s well enough to come home and be counted.”
Julie, who gave evidence before the Royal Commission, is adamant that history must not repeat.
“We are only weeks away from the next sitting of the Royal Commission in Ballarat,” she says. “I want the church to stop hiding what happened. It needs to stop trying to write its own script to take away who we, as victims, are.”
She has a special message for Ridsdale and others she believes have turned a blind eye: “Stop protecting each other. You need to go to the next life with honesty and give us victims some peace.”
“The tragic reality is that if Ridsdale had been stopped in the 1960s, when there were so many warnings about his disgusting behaviour, he wouldn’t have gone on to rape so many boys - a slew of whom later took their own lives – or girls,” she says.
“History could be so very different if those men of the church hadn’t lied and covered up for him and others. This story is just the tip of the iceberg. Nazareth House and the Catholic Church need prosecuting, as do any nuns still alive who abused us. Ridsdale needs prosecuting for what he did to us.
“The question is now: who was protecting Ridsdale? Let’s throw the book at those people.”
Sexual Assault Counselling Australia provides counselling for people who want to address their trauma as a result of hearing about the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Call 1800 211 028.
The National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800RESPECT also offers counselling on 1800 737 732 and at 1800respect.org.au.
| Sunday February 21, 2016
Cricket-mad Sister Brigid Arthur goes into bat for refugee rights
Feisty Sister Brigid Arthur, 81, is at the forefront of Christian social action. Sister Brigid Arthur at the Brigidine Order in Albert Park, Melbourne.(Penny Stephens)
Being a cricket fan, Sister Brigid Arthur was killing time by listening to Test match commentary on her car radio while she waited for friends to return to their North Melbourne home.
It was March 2001, a few months before the watershed Tampa crisis and children-overboard scandal altered the course of the 2001 federal election campaign and Australia's political conscience on refugees.
Arthur had just become involved in asylum-seeker advocacy and was planning to start visiting detainees at Maribyrnong detention centre in Melbourne's west. Sister Brigid Arthur is not letting up on her activism despite being 81 years old. (Penny Stephens)
But what happened next that night put a dent in her plans.
Suddenly, the clunk of willow on ball was interrupted by an unknown man tapping on her passenger-seat window, gesturing to find out the time.
In hindsight, of course, Arthur says she should never have opened the door. Political activist Sister Brigid Arthur is a key player in the Churches Refugee Taskforce, which is co-ordinating the sanctuary campaign for 267 asylum seekers set to return to Nauru. (Penny Stephens)
Next thing she knew, the 66-year-old nun was yanked out of the car and thrown viciously onto the road behind her car. In that moment, her biggest fear was that the man would start the car, reverse and run her over. She knew that if that happened, she would be dead.
Thankfully, before her attacker started the engine, a resident heard her screams and ran out of his house, scaring the man away. Arthur was packed off to the Royal Melbourne Hospital for surgery on a broken hip.
Arthur is sitting in her cramped, airless office in the Brigidine Order's lovely Albert Park headquarters as she remembers the brutal attack.
It's a glorious sunny day in bayside Melbourne but Arthur is oblivious – her desk is literally buried in work.
In retelling the story, Arthur is not focused on the trauma. Rather, she takes great delight in the next, synchronous part of the story.
"I couldn't go and start visiting the asylum seekers because I was laid up, so I started writing letters. A few weeks later, when I was recovering, I decided to stop in at Maribyrnong on my way to Echuca and meet one of the men I'd been writing to. I was on my crutches and out comes this bloke on crutches."
It turned out he had fallen over at the detention centre and broken his hip. He was carrying exactly the same injury as Arthur.
"It was very funny," she says now, in her even but slightly gravelly voice.
Arthur is tenacious and passionate. Since that visit, she has made many hundreds more to detention centres and doggedly fought for the rights of asylum seekers across Australia. At 81, with wrinkles criss-crossing her face and a spark in her eye, she shows no sign of letting up.
Arthur had a long career as a teacher and principal within the Catholic education system before moving into a consulting role, which left more time for campaigning.
She co-founded the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project in 2001, is a board member of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and vice-chairwoman of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce. She is also involved in Love Makes a Way, a religious organisation that organises peaceful sit-ins at the offices of prominent politicians to protest asylum-seeker policies.
That's how she got herself arrested in 2014. Not once but twice.
"I took part in two demonstrations – one at [Opposition Leader] Bill Shorten's office and one at Kelly O'Dwyer's [the Liberal member for Higgins in Melbourne]," Arthur says.
"The police came in and said: 'Do you want be escorted out or do you want to be carried?' I decided being escorted would be enough.'"
Religious organisations hit the headlines this month when church leaders kick-started the controversial "sanctuary" campaign in response to a High Court appeal.
The appeal ruled that the federal government could legally return 267 asylum seekers, who had been receiving medical treatment in Australia, to Nauru. This prompted dozens of church leaders, spearheaded by Anglican Dean of Brisbane, Dr Peter Catt
, to declare they would turn their places of worship into sanctuaries to stop the asylum seekers being returned. Catt is chairman of the Churches Refugee Taskforce.
Arthur describes the taskforce as an umbrella organisation, which didn't plan the campaign, but supports the individual churches in their push. Nevertheless, she has been called on by the media to explain and defend the religious response to what she brands as the federal government's "calculated cruelty".
Pamela Curr, a refugee advocate with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, says she has never seen Arthur lose her temper. But Curr quickly dispels any notion of a saintly demeanour. "[Arthur] doesn't roll over. I have seen her in plenty of meetings with immigration officials where she fights like a tiger."
Curr has been glad of Arthur's company on many a long road trip to Canberra, and not just for her determination.
"One time I was going with Brigid and a couple of other nuns," Curr says.
"They stayed in this rundown motel because they didn't want to spend money. So we pulled up at this place and there was nothing around. Brigid opened up the boot and out wafted the smells of this delicious chicken curry with rice she had prepared before we left. She loves to cook."
So how did this cricket-loving, curry-cooking girl from the country end up as an octogenarian human rights advocate, protester and leader?
Unsurprisingly, she is the eldest of eight children, raised in Victoria's Wimmera region, so she knows how to take charge. But she is refreshingly honest about her entry into the order – it wasn't piety that grabbed her and there was certainly no epiphany.
"I was more enthused by the Christian social action group I had been involved with at school, which had the motto: 'See, Judge and Act'. That had a huge impact on me ... and I'd already thought I wanted to teach. So I [entered] but I still thought, 'I probably won't stay but I'll have a go'."
So we could call you the reluctant nun?
"I'm not sure about reluctant," she says after a pause. "I was ambivalent."
Her regard for the Catholic Church has changed significantly in the six decades she has served it.
"I no longer think of the church as having all the answers ... And I believe that clericalism [maintaining the church hierarchy] has done us a great disservice," she says.
Arthur has no intention of stopping her advocacy work any time soon. But she does acknowledge that the worldwide Brigidine Order is coming to the end of its shelf life.
"We've been around for 200 years (founded in Ireland) ... we've satisfied a particular niche and this is the end of an era. Our youngest person is 50 and we're not trying to attract anybody. It's time to pull up stumps."
Ah, the cricket analogy. What about the push for generational change in her beloved game?
"I did get into watching some Big Bash [cricket] over summer and I didn't mind it. I was quite surprised actually," she says.
Saturday February 19, 2016
Slaves in the free world
By PANKAJA SRINIVASAN
A human rights issue - Human trafficking involves child labour, begging and a host of other social problems;(Photos: Special Arrangement)
Pankhuri Agarwal hopes that Freedom Matters , her documentary on Human Trafficking, will spread awareness on the enormity of the crime
“Human trafficking is the number of people on a square meter of a traffic signal.” A doctor’s response to a question on human trafficking reinforced 24-year-old Pankhuri Agarwal’s desire to tell people about this horrific issue. “Sure, there are statistics. Here are some popular ones. According to the International Labour Organisation, human trafficking generates $150 million a year in illegal profits, and there are around 36 million victims across the world.” Pankhuri obligingly provides the numbers and follows it up with “I do not believe in statistics as these represent only the tip of the iceberg but they do help in communicating the enormity of the situation.”
Pankhuri now studying for her Masters in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, as a Felix Scholar has just released a documentary called Freedom Matters to spread awareness about human trafficking. Along with production house The Storygraphers, she made a short film that tries to answer questions about human trafficking, why we should be bothered and how we may actually be perpetuating it. And what we can do irrespective of our educational or professional background to stop it.
This was not what Pankhuri dreamt of when joined Sri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi. Her dream was to be a CEO of an MNC. She had the qualifications to make that come true when, after graduation, she was placed in a reputed company. But, in 2011, just after India won the ICC World Cup in 2011, an article titled “Thanks to the match, sex workers have a day off” changed things.
Within a year, she had resigned her job and started working with NGOs involved in different aspects of human trafficking from rescue and rehabilitation to prevention. “This has been my boldest decision so far,” she says. In the course of her work with NGOs, she learnt about the modus operandi of human traffickers. She picked up valuable insights working with advocate Ravi Kant, the founder of Shakti Vahini, including the legal and rehabilitation tools to provide relief to victims and survivors. “Every story is different, every person is different. The traffickers are organised and change their routes. This is what makes saving lives harder. The experience is emotionally draining. However, it has taught me the importance of freedom, hope and courage at a very young age.”
Pankhuri is struck by how people don’t know what they can do. “Existing documentaries or the visual media tell us to do something. But what is that ‘something’? One need not be a social activist or from the Government to do something. For instance, many people ask if online petitions even work. I know they do. So I wanted to create a platform that not only spoke of specific action points but also provided authenticity of their impact.”
Pankhuri also wanted to debunk false notions that human trafficking is only prostitution or that only poor people and women are trafficked. “I wrote the initial script with everything that I wanted to convey. I wanted to tell people that we perpetuate it and that it also affects us; therefore, it is in our selfish interest to take action. My friends helped give soul to my words.”
She then discussed the idea with Hardik and Ashish, co-founders of The Storygraphers (See box). They had their first meeting on April 28, 2015. “The same day, we started interviewing random people on the streets of Delhi to gauge what they know about the issue. We met regularly to spend more time with children and sex workers in Delhi’s red-light area. We interviewed people and shot at different places. Editing took a lot of time. We had multiple drafts because we wanted to be sure that we communicate our message effectively and simply. The Storygraphers gave wings to my dream project. They hold equal credit and ownership for everything related to this documentary.”
After the documentary was born, they created a blog to sustain the discussion at
Freedom Matters has voices of many respected and passionate anti-human trafficking activists and researchers including Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi and actor Kalki Koechlin. Pankhuri’s mentor, Dr. P.M. Nair, introduced her to Satyarthi. “I wrote to Kalki and she replied! She had so many questions. She wanted to be very specific and clear in what she said. She prepared a lot for this interview.”
The Storygraphers did this as a public service project and Pankhuri’s friends and family helped raise the money needed. The challenges lay elsewhere. “Finding the right visuals was a challenge, as we did not have the kind of money to experiment. So, MTV Exit helped us with some video clips; the rest was shot in Delhi. The most challenging part was editing and bringing all of this together.” In nine months, on January 26 January, 2016, the documentary was released.
Pankhuri wanted to understand how different social science disciplines interact to solve human rights issues. She hopes her stint at SOAS will teach her that. “After my studies, I will continue to work against human trafficking, both activism and research-based advocacy. I also plan a PhD, which will make a contribution in saving lives.”
Pankhuri is sustaining the discussion and queries that Freedom Matters is generating. “Besides, I am volunteering at the Anti-Slavery International in London.”
She wants to establish a home for survivors; not a shelter but a home owned and managed by them. “I also intend to act as an interface between and within NGOs and other stakeholders as the flow of information has to be enhanced if we want to expedite the process of fighting this crime. I hope that Freedom Matters helps us sustain this platform for discussion and action. We are the problem, we are the solution,” she says.
I wanted to tell people that we perpetuate human trafficking; that it also affects us; therefore, it is in our selfish interest to take action.
~ February 9, 2016
American College of Pediatricians issues warning against GardasilBy Erin Elizabeth
At the end of January, the American College of Pediatricians issued a warning against Gardasil, the FDA and CDC approved vaccine (that’s supposed to save girls and boys from cancer). As they are “committed to children’s health”, they feel they can no longer remain silent about the safety concerns. Scroll down to read their full statement
From the article:
“The College says that in addition to concerning correlations between Gardasil and Premature Ovarian Failure, they are also concerned with the pre-release vaccine testing methods utilized by Gardasil maker Merck. Pre-licensure safety trials for Gardasil used a placebo that contained polysorbate 80 as well as an aluminum adjuvant, which are both contained within the vaccine. Therefore, if either of these ingredients could cause ovarian dysfunction, an increase in amenorrhea probably would not have been detected. The College notes that the placebo-controlled trials were highly questionable due to the fact that the placebos were actually not placebos at all.”The ACP believes that parents and the public should have access to this information and that more research needs to be done (none of the trials included a long-term study of ovarian function), especially in light of the increased reports of premature menopause. As there have been multiple case reports published in the last two years which link premature menopause to girls who had recently received an HPV vaccine, and the number of reported cases in the VAERS (vaccine adverse reaction database) all involved amenorrhea, POF or premature menopause, it’s clear we don’t fully understand what’s going on. They also feel that since doctors might not realize that there is a link between the vaccine and POF, that they may not be reporting to VAERS and the numbers therefore could be much higher.
More from the article:
“Despite the concerns from the College of Pediatricians and the need for additional studies on the controversial HPV vaccine, that hasn’t stopped the American Cancer Society and the State of Rhode Island from backing the vaccine. The American Cancer Society released a statement shortly after the College of Pediatricians voiced their concerns telling people to get the vaccine and pushing for higher rates of Gardasil use. The Mayo Clinic has also joined them in their push for more girls to get the controversial HPV vaccine. It is unclear if the American Cancer Society was aware of the recent concerns before pushing forward with efforts to encourage young women to get the vaccine.”
Sadly, the State of Rhode Island has added the HPV vaccine to its list of mandatory vaccines for seventh-grade students, both public and private, beginning with the 2016 school year (unless a medical or religious exemption form is on file). Japan has however stopped use of the vaccine because of the fertility concerns.
Thank you Japan for putting your citizens first, not cash.
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New Concerns about the Human Papillomavirus VaccineThe American College of Pediatricians (The College) is committed to the health and well-being of children, including prevention of disease by vaccines. It has recently come to the attention of the College that one of the recommended vaccines could possibly be associated with the very rare but serious condition of premature ovarian failure (POF), also known as premature menopause. There have been two case report series (3 cases each) published since 2013 in which post-menarcheal adolescent girls developed laboratory documented POF within weeks to several years of receiving Gardasil, a four-strain human papillomavirus vaccine (HPV4).1,2 Adverse events that occur after vaccines are frequently not caused by the vaccine and there has not been a noticeable rise in POF cases in the last 9 years since HPV4 vaccine has been widely used.
Nevertheless there are legitimate concerns that should be addressed: (1) long-term ovarian function was not assessed in either the original rat safety studies3,4 or in the human vaccine trials, (2) most primary care physicians are probably unaware of a possible association between HPV4 and POF and may not consider reporting POF cases or prolonged amenorrhea (missing menstrual periods) to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), (3) potential mechanisms of action have been postulated based on autoimmune associations with the aluminum adjuvant used1 and previously documented ovarian toxicity in rats from another component, polysorbate 80,2 and (4) since licensure of Gardasil® in 2006, there have been about 213 VAERS reports (per the publicly available CDC WONDER VAERS database) involving amenorrhea, POF or premature menopause, 88% of which have been associated with Gardasil®.5 The two-strain HPV2, CervarixTM, was licensed late in 2009 and accounts for 4.7 % of VAERS amenorrhea reports since 2006, and 8.5% of those reports from February 2010 through May 2015. This compares to the pre-HPV vaccine period from 1990 to 2006 during which no cases of POF or premature menopause and 32 cases of amenorrhea were reported to VAERS.
Many adolescent females are vaccinated with influenza, meningococcal, and tetanus vaccines without getting Gardasil®, and yet only 5.6% of reports related to ovarian dysfunction since 2006 are associated with such vaccines in the absence of simultaneous Gardasil® administration. The overwhelming majority (76%) of VAERS reports since 2006 with ovarian failure, premature menopause, and/or amenorrhea are associated solely with Gardasil®. When VAERS reports since 2006 are restricted to cases in which amenorrhea occurred for at least 4 months and is not associated with other known causes like polycystic ovary syndrome or pregnancy, 86/89 cases are associated with Gardasil®, 3/89 with CervarixTM, and 0/89 with other vaccines administered independently of an HPV vaccine.5 Using the same criteria, there are only 7 reports of amenorrhea from 1990 through 2005 and no more than 2 of those associated with any one vaccine type.
Few other vaccines besides Gardasil® that are administered in adolescence contain polysorbate 80.6 Pre-licensure safety trials for Gardasil® used placebo that contained polysorbate 80 as well as aluminum adjuvant.2,7 Therefore, if such ingredients could cause ovarian dysfunction, an increase in amenorrhea probably would not have been detected in the placebo controlled trials. Furthermore, a large number of girls in the original trials were taking hormonal contraceptives which can mask ovarian dysfunction including amenorrhea and ovarian failure.2 Thus a causal relationship between human papillomavirus vaccines (if not Gardasil® specifically) and ovarian dysfunction cannot be ruled out at this time.
Numerous Gardasil safety studies, including one released recently,8 have looked at demyelinating and autoimmune diseases and have not found any significant problems. Unfortunately, none of them except clinical safety pre-licensure studies totaling 11,778 vaccinees9 specifically addressed post-vaccination ovarian dysfunction. While data from those studies do not indicate an increased rate of amenorrhea after vaccination, the essential lack of saline placebos and the majority of participants taking hormonal contraceptives in those studies preclude meaningful data to rule out an effect on ovarian function.
A Vaccine Safety Datalink POF study is planned to address an association between these vaccines and POF, but it may be years before results will be determined. Plus, POF within a few years of vaccination could be the tip of the iceberg since ovarian dysfunction manifested by months of amenorrhea may later progress to POF. Meanwhile, the author of this statement has contacted the maker of Gardasil, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make known the above concerns and request that (1) more rat studies be done to look at long-term ovarian function after HPV4 injections, (2) the 89 VAERS reports identified with at least 4 months amenorrhea be reviewed by the CDC for further clarification since the publicly available WONDER VAERS database only contains initial reports, and (3) primary care providers be notified of a possible association between HPV and amenorrhea. A U.S. Government Representative responded that they “will continue to conduct studies and monitor the safety of HPV vaccines. Should the weight of the evidence from VAERS or VSD and other sources indicate a likely causal association between POF and HPV vaccines, appropriate action will be taken in terms of communication and public health response.”
The College is posting this statement so that individuals considering the use of human papillomavirus vaccines could be made aware of these concerns pending further action by the regulatory agencies and manufacturers. While there is no strong evidence of a causal relationship between HPV4 and ovarian dysfunction, this information should be public knowledge for physicians and patients considering these vaccines.
Primary author: Scott S. Field, MD
The American College of Pediatricians is a national medical association of licensed physicians and healthcare professionals who specialize in the care of infants, children, and adolescents. The mission of the College is to enable all children to reach their optimal, physical and emotional health and well-being.
A printable Adobe Acrobat (pdf) copy of this position is available by clicking here:
1. Colafrancesco S, Perricone C, Tomljenovic L, Shoenfeld Y. Human papilloma virus vaccine and primary ovarian failure: another facet of the autoimmune/inflammatory syndrome induced by adjuvants. Am J Reprod Immunol. 2013; 70:309-316.
2. Little DT, and Ward HR. Adolescent premature ovarian insufficiency following human papillomavirus vaccination: a case series seen in general practice. J Inv Med High Imp Case Rep. 2014; doi: 10.1177/2324709614556129, pp 1-12.
3. Wise LD, Wolf JJ, Kaplanski CV, Pauley CJ, Ledwith BJ. Lack of effects on fertility and developemental toxicity of a quadrivalent HPV vaccine in Sprague-Dawley rats. Birth Defects Res B Dev. 2008; 83(6):561-572.
4. Segal L, Wilby OK, Willoughby CR, Veenstra S, Deschamps M. Evaluation of the intramuscular administration of CervarixTM vaccine on fertility, pre- and post-natal development in rats. Reprod Toxicol. 2011; 31:111-120.
5. Information available through http://wonder.cdc.gov/vaers.html.
7. http://www.fda.gov/downloads/BiologicsBloodVaccines/Vaccines/ApprovedProducts/UCM111287.pdf , p.373.
8. Vichnin M, Bonanni P, Klein NP, Garland SM, Block SL, Kjaer SK, et. al. An overview of quadrivalent human papillomavirus vaccine safety – 2006 to 2015. Pediatr Inf Dis J. 2015; doi: 10.1097/INF.0000000000000793, pp 1-48.
9. http://www.fda.gov/downloads/BiologicsBloodVaccines/Vaccines/ApprovedProducts/UCM111287.pdf , p.394,396.
India ~ Wednesday 03 February 2016
Civil society opposes legalising sex determination
Union Minister Maneka Gandhi had said that sex determination should be made mandatory as a solution to female foeticide
By Kundan Pandey
PC-PNDT Act prohitbits determination of sex of foetus. (ThinkStock Photos)
Union Woman and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi’s suggestion to make sex determination mandatory has been opposed by the civil society.
Gandhi, on Monday, had said that the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PC-PNDT) Act should be amended to make sex determination compulsory during pregnancy. Subsequently, keeping track of the pregnancies and checking if the female babies are born or not will help counter female foeticide, she added. The Act currently prohibits sex selection before or after conception and misuse of pre-natal diagnostic techniques for determination of sex of foetus.
In a statement, non-profits working in health sector, said that it is extremely distressing that the union minister should make a statement in contravention of the PC-PNDT Act (1994, revised 2003) which states disclosure of the sex of the foetus as the prime offence. The Act talks of strict penalties against diagnostic facilities and practitioners who do not comply with the legal requirements. The minister, on the other hand, expresses reluctance to “keep arresting” ultrasound owners and involved medical personnel who make profits from sex determination tests, the statement added.
Civil society groups have also expressed astonishment at such a proposal emerging from the Ministry for Women and Child Development, as it will severely hamper women’s rights to bodily autonomy and their access to essential maternal healthcare, such as safe and legal abortion services or post-abortion care. Women in need of ultrasound or safe abortion, for reasons other than sex selection, would find themselves being denied these services.
“The Minister must be aware that unsafe abortions significantly contribute to maternal deaths in India, and such rules will only increase these deaths. We need to move towards greater empowerment and autonomy for all our citizens and a fulfilment of their human rights, and not move back into an era where vigilant behaviour was encouraged and our bodies and lives were not in our control,” the statement said.
The group recommended that society should look deeper for reasons that compel families to opt for male children, and consider daughters a burden.
The statement was endorsed by AIDWA, All India Peoples Science Network, Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, CommonHealth, Healthwatch Forum UP, Human Rights Law Network, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, National Alliance for Maternal Health and Human Rights, Right to Food Campaign, Adivasi Adhikar Samiti, Chhattisgarh, The Ant, Chirang Assam, CREA New Delhi, Forum Against Sex Selection, IPAS Development Foundation, LOCOST Vadodara, Nirantar New Delhi, Prayas Rajasthan, Public Health Resource Network, SAHAJ Vadodara, Sahayog Lucknow, Sama New Delhi and many others.
Thursday February 4, 2016
Coming to grips with female foeticide
Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi’s clarifications over her remarks on the existing ban on sex-selective abortions should put the focus back on the real issues. There are three aspects to the proposal that she put forth at a conference in Jaipur: establish the sex of the foetus when a pregnancy is detected; tell the mother about it and register the fact in public records; and ensure that deliveries happen only in institutions and not at home. This twin strategy of tracking sex-determined foetuses and requiring institutional deliveries is expected to ensure that female babies are not aborted, or killed at birth. While this idea might seem persuasive, like many technological fixes it betrays a worrying lack of awareness of social realities. The very attempt to record the status of the foetus involves the obvious risk of exposing women to undue psychological and social pressure to abort female foetuses. Two, such an intrusion by the state into a woman’s personal-biological space is unwelcome, even Orwellian. That such suggestions are being floated no matter how quickly they are withdrawn in the face of criticism is an indication of India’s persisting inability to address the problem of female foeticide, and the continuum of social ills that this practice reflects.
At the moment, there are few incentives for medical technicians, apart from public interest, to withhold information from families on the gender of the foetus. And when such violations have come to light, prosecution has been indifferent. Maharashtra is believed to have come down severely on errant doctors and clinics, which is significant given the likely impact the State’s large population could have on child sex ratios. The record of Punjab and Haryana, with a high prevalence of sex-selective abortions, also points to a modicum of enforcement. But there is a long way to go. After all, where traditional cultural norms dictate a strong preference for boys, recourse to medical technologies could well reinforce socially detrimental personal choices. Clearly, the emphasis ought to be on the reversal of India’s adverse sex ratio among children in the 0-6 year age group. On a national average, the number of girls for every 1,000 boys in this segment of the population dipped to 918 in the 2011 decennial population Census, with more disturbing regional variations. The corresponding figures were 927 and 933 in 1991 and 2001, respectively. Notably, Ms. Gandhi’s six-time constituency of Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh has seen a sharp drop in the child sex ratio in the 2001-2011 inter-Census period. At 940, the figure was above the national average in 2001, but declined dramatically to 912 in the last Census. Pilibhit could easily set an example for the whole country, if only by a scrupulous compliance with the spirit of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, under which any disclosure of the foetal status is a punishable offence.
Thursday February 4 2016
Maneka's radical idea
Pregnancies cannot, and should not, be tracked
Before Union minister Maneka Gandhi chooses to voice one more radical idea to improve the child sex ratio, she should get a few facts right. With poor health infrastructure, especially in rural India, institutional deliveries are not available to all. Two, women are not cattle, their pregnancies cannot be tracked. On Monday, the minister suggested that instead of withholding the gender of the foetus under the PCPNDT Act and penalising the ultrasound lab owners and doctors for any violation of the law, foetus sex determination should be made compulsory, the gender of the child registered, and the birth be tracked by mandating institutional delivery.
It reeks of Sanjay Gandhi-ism. Can institutional deliveries be above board; they have not even reduced infant mortality significantly. The hon'ble minister should know babies are born in the fields, on pavements and in homes in India. Moreover, a mandatory registration of pregnancy violates a woman's dignity and privacy. It also treats all pregnant women as potential killers of their female foetus. The suggestion is also ill-timed as most indicators have begun to show a partial improvement in the gender ratio, after years of hard work in implementing the PCPNDT Act.
In a country as vast and corrupt as ours, the Minister's suggestion, if put into practice, would be counter-productive. By making sex-determination compulsory, 'diagnostic centres' would mushroom to do the job. Since they would be legal, they could exploit the situation. The minister should rather pay attention to the general welfare of the girl child, her education, health, security and eradication of dowry. For a government that pretends to swear by a mantra of "minimum governance" the minister's suggestion smacks of Stalinism. agency and could be a model that needs studying.
Tuesday February 2, 2016
Foetus registration is not feasible: activists
By R. Sujatha
Union Minister Maneka Gandhi had on Monday said that some stakeholders believed that such registration would help to check female foeticide. (Reuters)
Chennai: Activists against sex-selective abortion say the Union Minister Maneka Gandhi’s reference to an “alternative point of view” that every pregnancy should be registered and the parents informed of the gender of the foetus is unfeasible.
The Minister had on Monday said that some stakeholders believed that such registration would help to check female foeticide.
The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act currently prevents scan centres from revealing the gender of the foetus. Though very few violators have been punished so far, activists say registering the foetus is not the answer.
They point out that despite a robust birth and death registration Act abortions have not fallen drastically.
Scientifically too the suggestion cannot work as gender of the foetus can be determined with some certainty only in the 18th to 20th week of pregnancy and an abortion that is done beyond 20 weeks could harm the woman, they add.
M. Jeeva, convenor of Campaign Against Sex Selective Abortion says the village health nurses (VHN) attached to primary health centres, who are empowered to record all pregnancies do not do so.
“A VHN covers a population of 40,000 to 50,000. If 10 women get pregnant then the logical end is that their birth/death should be known. But not all data on abortions are recorded,” he says.
Three years ago the National Rural Health Mission devised a solution by making it mandatory for every pregnant woman to register at the scan centre.
She would have to bring the form with her during every scan. But the process was abandoned within six months.
S. Elango, former director of Public Health and president of Tamil Nadu chapter of Indian Public Health Association says the element of surprise to the parent is recognition of Nature.
“A foetus registered as boy could turn out to be a girl at birth. Also, how will the government take forward the concept? Who will register the pregnancies, where will they be registered and will there be an age limit on pregnancies,” he asked.
According to him, the best option is to strengthen the PCPNDT Act.
Saturday February 6, 2016
IMA supports making pre-natal sex determination compulsory
New Delhi, (PTI)
The Indian Medical Association(IMA) today came out in support of Union Minister Maneka Gandhi's suggestion to make pre-natal sex determination compulsory to check female foeticide.
The IMA said the recent statement by the Union Women and Child Development Minister indicates that a 20-year old ban on foetal sex determination may be lifted.
"She referred to a point of view put forth by stakeholders before the Ministry that if each pregnancy could be registered and the sex of the foetus could be made known to the parents and if the same happens to be a female, the delivery should be tracked and recorded.
"However, there is no formal proposal being considered by the Ministry on this issue at this stage and this is a suggestion that needs to be debated. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) supports this viewpoint," the doctor's body said in a statement today.
The minister's suggestion that pre-natal sex determination test be made compulsory to check female foeticide evoked sharp reaction from the activists and the netizens.
India is among the countries with the worst child sex ratio in the world. The 2011 Census showed that the child sex ratio has dipped from 927 girls in 2001 to 919 girls in 2011. Child sex ratio is the number of girls per 1,000 boys between the age 0-6 year.
"The data proves that India has an abysmal record when it comes to reining in the cases of female foeticide. Latest Census numbers also cast a shadow on the adequacy of measures which are helping in educating people to not prefer sons over daughters," said National President of IMA, Dr S S Agarwal.
Reports said that with 919 girls per 1000 boys, child sex ratio in India has reached its lowest levels since 1961.
"Since the PC-PNDT Act, the sex ratio in the country has not changed. The government should form working group of Ministry of Health, Women and Child Development Ministry, IMA, FOGSI and Indian Radiological and Imaging Association (IRIA). These bodies should deliberate together on this and work out implementation of the guidelines," Dr KK Aggarwal, Secretary General of IMA, said.
Tuesday February 2, 2016
Sex determination test must to check female foeticide: Maneka
Move can prove counter-productive: Cong
Union Minister Maneka Gandhi. Tribune file photo
Jaipur: Union Minister Maneka Gandhi has suggested that sex determination test should be made compulsory to track women pregnant with a girl child as a measure to check female foeticide.
"In my personal view, the woman should be compulsorily told that whether it is a boy or girl child whom she is going to give birth. It should be registered to be able to check whether they have given the births or not," the minister for Women and Child Development said.
"I am just putting out this idea. It is being discussed though there is no conclusion yet," she said at the All India Regional Editors Conference here.
It is a different way to look at this problem (female foeticide), which could be solved with this idea, she said.
"We cannot keep catching people doing (illegal) ultrasound," she said, adding that arrest of such people was not a permanent solution.
Congress not in tune with Maneka's suggestion to control female foeticide
Meanwhile, the Congress on Tuesday said Women and Child Development (WCD) Minister Maneka Gandhi's suggestion of sex determination tests to be made compulsory to check the rising cases of female foeticide could prove to be counter-productive.
“In this country today, women are unsafe, girl child is unsafe and if by sex determination the information is registered whether the female foeticide can be stopped, this is her idea or imagination. Whether it will be counter-productive, whether it will have positive effect is something to be seen,” said Congress leader PC Chacko.
He asserted that sex determination and making it known to the mother and to the family members may lead to even bigger problems.
“I don't know whether the minister has made the statement in a confidence. I am not very sure whether it's a well thought-out formula. This can be counter-productive as well,” he said. PT
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