Survivors of sex-trafficking in Hyderabad, Delhi, Kolkata show how women sold off as slaves are helping others caught in same web

  • According to the statistics of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, 19,223 women and children were trafficked in 2016 alone

  • The average number of women and children trafficked in India every year is above 10,000

  • The highest number of survivors has been recorded in West Bengal. Sonagachi in Kolkata is Asia's largest red-light district, containing many hundreds of multi-storey brothels and around 11,000 sex workers

Hyderabad: Thirteen-year-old Reshma, a young girl from tiny Suryapet (in Telangana's Nalgonda district) in Class 9 at the time, had fallen in love with a boy who used to follow her home everyday. He would tell her that he loved her and promised to take her to Hyderabad city if she married him. Filled with a desire to see large buildings and experience a fast life, Reshma would dream of going to the city. The only problem was that for a Muslim girl who went to school in her village, it was considered a sin for fall in love. And to fall in love with a Hindu boy was simply unacceptable.

A few years later, the boy, around 20 at the time, proposed marriage to her. But Reshma's mother found out about their relationship, and threatened to tell her father if she didn't put an end to the relationship. Emotional chaos followed, but Reshma refused to do as her mother demanded.

After three months, she ran away from home and married to him in a small temple. The year was 2012. She was 16, he was 20.

"He had told me that he would kill himself if I didn't marry him," she said while regretting her decision, "I should have listened to my mother." The problems soon began. The boy didn't take Reshma to her home, saying that his family wouldn't approve. "Let's go to Hyderabad," he said instead. So after around three months, Reshma packed whatever little stuff she had and got ready to go to the city. After reaching, the boy took her to a woman he called "Didi" and asked her to wait there till he made living arrangements for them in the city.

He never returned.

 Survivors of sex-trafficking in Hyderabad, Delhi, Kolkata show how women sold off as slaves are helping others caught in same web

Nazia is among a number of rescued women who now work with charities like Prajwala. Firstpost/Ismat Ara

After almost a day at "Didi's" place, Reshma mustered up the courage to ask if she could call her husband. Didi, in response, gave her a blank look. That's when Reshma realised that something wasn't quite right and began crying. "Didi then told me that I had been sold for Rs 30,000 to her by my husband. If I wanted to leave, Didi said, I would have to give her the money she had paid to him in exchange for me. But I had no money," Reshma said.

Then, Reshma was locked in a room for two days with just some water and dry food. On the third day, she was told that there was no way for her to leave this place, so she should adapt. "The sooner, the better," they told her.

For a year-and-a-half, Reshma was forced into a life of prostitution. She recalled her experience in Hyderabad, "I saw hell during that time. There are no words to explain what was done to me. I used to tend to many men everyday. Customers used to treat me like a thing that they had bought. Even if we were sick, it didn't matter, we had to work. There were no meal timings, and I never used to get any money for the work that I did."

According to her, she and other women employed in the brothel had to work even during menstruation. "They used to stuff cotton inside and ask us to tend to customers even in that condition," she revealed. Reshma added that she did once get a chance to run away from that place, but chose not to because she didn't know where to go. Moreover, the owners of the brothel had taken nude videos of her and threatened to release them if she ran away.

This story is not restricted to Hyderabad, or Reshma. There are innumerable women being pushed into prostitution all across the country.

According to the statistics of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, 19,223 women and children were trafficked in 2016 alone. The average number of women and children trafficked in India every year is above 10,000. The highest number of survivors has been recorded in West Bengal. Sonagachi in Kolkata is Asia's largest red-light district, containing many hundreds of multi-storey brothels and around 11,000 sex workers.

Reshma was finally rescued in 2013 by the Hyderabad Police. Prajwala, a Hyderabad charity that primarily works with trafficked women, was entrusted with her rehabilitation process. But Reshma's troubles didn't end even after she was rescued.

After a bit of stability having lived at the charity for over a year, she decided to go back to her home in Suryapet and beg her parents for forgiveness. After many months of mentally preparing herself for her encounter with her parents, she finally went to her village. There, she was informed that her parents had, soon after her elopement, committed suicide. "I was left alone in the world, and even after all the mistakes I had made, I knew I had to make something of my life," she said, while showing her matric report card from open university, where she had scored decent marks.

Reshma is twenty four years old now. In the third year of her graduate studies, she is the chairperson of the survivors' forum of Prajwala.

***

At the age of 20, Seraj learnt the art of tailoring along with her 19-year-old sister. Belonging to a poor family in Chittoor, a district on the border of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, she always dreamed of having her own boutique and helping out with her family's finances. At around the same time, a neighbour suggested that the "talented" sisters be sent to Delhi to work. Excited at the proposal, Seraj's parents readily agreed. The neighbour made all the arrangements quickly.

Prajwala, a charity based in Hyderabad, works for the rehabilitation of sex trafficking victims. Firstpost/Ismat Ara

Prajwala, a charity based in Hyderabad, works for the rehabilitation of sex trafficking victims. Firstpost/Ismat Ara

One member of the neighbour's family, a man, was sent with these girls to Delhi to get them settled in. "He left my sister and me at a house with an 'aunty' and told us he would return and take us with him at night. But later, the woman told us that we had been sold to her." The man had taken them to Garstin Bastion Road (or GB Road) — a hub for brothels — and disappeared.

For three days after that, the two sisters were locked up in a room and beaten constantly. "On the third day, they finally took us for a bath," she said. In the bathroom, Seraj saw a razor kept in a corner. "I picked up the razor and slit my wrist. Death was better than a life of prostitution," she recalled. After slitting her wrist, she came out of the bathroom to pass the razor to her sister to do the same, but was caught. The sister couldn't use the razor, but Seraj had already cut her wrist. She was, immediately after, thrown out of the house, bleeding.

"I was left on the road to die. Those people got scared because they thought I would die inside their brothel. Luckily for me, a police van was passing by and I was spotted and taken to hospital," she explained. The events occured in 2005.

Now at the age of 35, Seraj is working as the head of the book-binding department at Prajwala and has finally achieved her dream of having financial stability. She went back and tried to reconcile with her family in Chittoor, who did not take her back because of the stigma attached. "It was too shameful for them, to know that their daughter had been pushed into prostitution, even though I was saved within the first three days without doing any sex work," she said.

However, no trace of Seraj's sister could be found, even after the neighbours who had facilitated this trafficking were caught by the police.

***

After her father's death in a road accident, Nazia, 16 at the time, used to frequent a neighbour's house where she shared all her woes. A middle-aged woman, she recalled, used to listen to her with compassion and patience. "That was my only way of dealing with my loss, talking to her. Everything at home was already too depressing," Nazia said. The year was 2014 and the city was Kolkata.

"One day, aunty invited me for tea," recalled Nazia. Excited, she quickly went over to her place. But it did not turn out well for her. "After drinking that tea, the next thing I remember was being in Hyderabad city, in a hotel room. And when I woke up, my head was hurting. I was told by a strange woman that I had been sold, and had to do sex work from now on," Nazia broke down while recounting the incident.

Prajwala co-founder Sunitha Krishnan. Firstpost/Ismat Ara

Prajwala co-founder Sunitha Krishnan. Firstpost/Ismat Ara

For the next two years, Nazia was pushed into prostitution in different parts of Hyderabad city. She elaborated, "Ten to 15 customers would come everyday. They sometimes even beat us if we didn't do what they wanted us to do. At all times, there was a guard present with me so I couldn't attempt to run away. They treated us like objects, and I had started feeling like I was only worth a life of prostitution." According to Sunitha Krishnan — co-founder of Prajwala, social activist and Padma Shri awardee, it is normal for sex trafficking victims to normalize their abuse. "Their sense of self-worth also comes down substantially as a result of this abuse," she noted.

In 2016, Nazia was rescued by the Hyderabad Police and Prajwala. Her family in Kolkata refused to take her back. "After my family disowned me, I decided to work for the cause of sex-trafficked women," she said. This year, Nazia joined the charity. "I now want to help with the rescue of other women like myself," she resolved.

Nazia has a team of people who reach the spot wherever there has been a case of rape of a minor, in order to mentor the family and survivor. "In most cases of rape of minors, it is family members who are involved. So our work involves explaining to the survivor and their families that their life isn’t over. We give our own examples to convince them of that."

Disowned by her own family, Nazia has found a new family in Prajwala and she is now serving as the chairperson of the Rape Victim Support Team.

***

According to the National Crime Records Bureau that released its most recent government data in 2018, Jharkhand has been recorded as the largest source of human trafficking cases of minors as well as adults whereas Maharashtra stands second, with 373 and 311 cases respectively. Telangana has 242 recorded cases while West Bengal has recorded 172 cases.

Trafficking specifically for the sex trade, however, has a higher number. In Maharashtra, it has 726 recorded cases whereas Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have 353 and 335 cases respectively. Delhi and West Bengal, both hubs of sex trafficking in GB Road and Sonagachi respectively, have only 40 and 68 recorded cases.

According to Krishnan, government data doesn't reflect the reality. She pointed out, "The year 2020 has just started, but we already have had over 10 rescue operations where we have found victims in just Hyderabad city, mostly minors." According to the data on human trafficking tabled in Parliament in July 2019, the number of traffickers arrested in the country has increased. In 2014, around 8,220 persons were arrested in connection with human trafficking. The figure has increased to 10,080 in 2015 and to 10,815 in 2016. The data also points out that one in every six traffickers arrested from the country is from Bengal.

Krishnan continued, "Trafficking occurs when there is a sale or purchase of human beings for the purpose of exploitation. It is often conflated with sex-trafficking, but sex-trafficking is just one part of it. The racket is very big in India — an industry in itself." She stated that there is no specific gang or criminal involved in sex-trafficking, but a range of people. It could be doctors, teachers, neighbours or even family members. It is this closeness of the girl to the trafficker that eases the process of sex-trafficking.

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Updated Date: Feb 06, 2020 10:50:12 IST