The young reporter suspected the girls in the roadside brothels had been kidnapped from small towns and brutalized into submission. But as with many portals to India’s trafficking networks, the doors opened only to keepers and clients.
Determined to get the girls’ stories, she dressed as a man. Wintry weather enabled her to don a long coat and mask her face with a scarf without arousing suspicion. And it worked — with a knowledgeable source, she collected incriminating details from many brothels. But at one, a middleman noticed her chatting with two young girls, perhaps not even in their teens, and the atmosphere turned ominous.
“Nobody would ever know where your dead body is,” she recalled. “I think we escaped with a fraction of seconds.”
Priyanka Dubey, at 28 years old, is at the forefront of a new wave of feminist journalism in India that has helped push the shocking level of violence against Indian women onto front pages around the world.
So many times when people see my work as an act of bravery, I want to go out and tell them that behind this story is a girl who is, in a way, also trying to protect herself through her work. The voice that each of my stories raises is not a strength shield only for the survivors it talks about, it is a strength shield for me too.
Born to a middle-class family in what she calls a “monotonous” suburb of Bhopal, Ms. Dubey (pronounced du-BAY) went into reporting knowing it was “produce or die” -- be successful or submit to family pressure to marry and abandon her career.
Her desperation to remain free has made other risks pale. She has spent months tracking the tentacles of child-trafficking networks and gathering accounts of rape in marginalized communities. Her long, carefully documented reports in the Hindi- and English-language press bring the voices of victims, enablers and perpetrators before a horrified public. Her articles have been submitted as evidence in prominent judicial cases, demanding attention at the highest levels of government.
“The process of change is slow but my stories make strong noise,” she wrote in an e-mail interview from Delhi. She chose that mode, fearing her accent would complicate a discussion over the phone.
Ms. Dubey was just back from the United States, where she accepted one of journalism’s top honors this year, the Knight International Journalism Award, at a star-studded affair emceed by Wolf Blitzer. There were flashy tribute videos for each winner: hers included the brothel tale.
Demetri Sevastopulo, U.S. political correspondent for the Financial Times and one of the judges for the award, saluted Ms. Dubey’s “amazing courage and bravery.”
“She took on a topic that’s really been taboo in India -- the treatment of women, rape, child abductions, and she produced some amazing stories with fantastic detail and colorful reporting,” he said. “She put herself in dangerous situations, she went into brothels, and she wrote about a subject that really is something that needs to have more light shed on it.”
Dubey Risks Her Life to Expose Abuses Against Women and Children in India Dubey Risks Her Life to Expose Abuses Against Women and Children in India
Ms. Dubey's rise comes amid a confluence of change within India. Some argue that the rising economy has diminished some of the conflicts over traditional flashpoints of religion and caste, allowing underlying problems to emerge.
And women, while still deeply oppressed, are not utterly powerless. In recent decades, they have made serious gains across society in literacy and longevity.
Also, half the huge population of nearly 1.3 billion people is young -- under the age of 25 -- with significant swaths leaning liberal and yearning for social justice.
A stream of impassioned young women had already fought their way into journalism when a case of astounding brutality shocked the world. In late 2012, a 23-year-old student was gang raped by a group of men on a bus who also penetrated her with a metal bar, destroying many of her inner organs. She died two weeks later.
Her legacy played out in the new prominence of coverage of Indian society’s failures to protect women, some of it under women’s bylines. There was suddenly what one prominent writer and editor, Nisha Susan, called “an alchemy of a movement.”
Many of the writers, including Ms. Susan and Ms. Dubey, had made names for themselves with blockbuster reports in Telhelka, an investigative magazine founded in 2000. It specialized in undercover stings and anti-corruption exposés that riveted readers and ruined politicians’ careers. And it funneled the reporters through a boot camp-like experience that toughened them, gave them confidence and clips, and enabled them to jump high when they left.
"That work-space trained me to work like a one-person army," Ms. Dubey said. "From pitching the idea to researching to lining up sources to arranging the travel to doing to story and then filing copies, one has to do it all on one’s own -- and that too on unbelievable shoestring budgets."
But gender had been on the margins, Ms. Susan said. When the women moved on -- some left Telhelka after the founder was accused of sexually assaulting a reporter -- they found new outlets for investigations closer to their hearts, and kept pushing into new arenas.
“That explosion that started with sexual violence has expanded,” Ms. Susan said. “Conventional news magazines will now cover something like how gender affects medical diagnosis of conditions like TB.”
Ms. Dubey’s reach has expanded her reach over time. Last year, at the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster, she wrote a long look at the city’s stalled efforts to come to grips with the world’s worst industrial accident. She didn’t spare Union Carbide, the government, Bhopal’s citizens or herself from the judgment that it was all to easy to look away from the enduring suffering caused by the leak of toxic gas those decades ago. "How Bhopal and I Betrayed Our Own" is unflinching, disquieting and wrenching.
Back in Delhi, Ms. Dubey is focused on finishing a book that collects her ground reporting on rape from the last five years. And she still feels she is fighting for her own freedom.
“So many times when people see my work as an act of bravery, I want to go out and tell them that behind this story is a girl who is, in a way, also trying to protect herself through her work,” Ms. Dubey said in her email. “The voice that each of my stories raises is not a strength shield only for the survivors it talks about, it is a strength shield for me too.”