By Jeanette Sequeira and Lizette van der Laan*
Between 20 and 29 million people are bought and sold worldwide into sexual servitude and forced labor. Around 4.5 million of those are victims of sex trafficking, most of them children, baited into slavery hoping to exit the abject misery that they called home and to save their families.
In Nepal alone, thousands of girls go missing annually. Neeraj (see video) had never heard the word “trafficking” before she realized it was happening to her. There were neither marriage proposals nor a well-paying job waiting for her in India. The promise was cursed and there was no transition to the grim reality of her life as a trafficked girl, when she was raped daily by dozens of men for the benefit of her pimp.
Neeraj says that, had she known about sexual trafficking, she would never had fallen for it. Girls at risk mostly live in dire poverty, they don’t know how to stand for their rights, or that they even have rights. Because of their inferior social standing, Nepalese girls have been especially disadvantaged and vulnerable to violence and trafficking. There, the prevailing masculine-dominated and discriminatory society tolerates violence against girls and women.
To save girls like Neeraj from brothels, people involved in the physical rescuing put their lives at risk on a daily basis. An investigation team collects evidence of sexual exploitation by going undercover and pretending to be customers. When enough proof is collected, the team carries out a raid with the help of the local police.
The rescue is only the first step towards rehabilitation. Estranged from their families, shamed and wounded, many girls struggle with loss of confidence and purpose, and in most cases, trauma and depression.
Also, they are at very high risk for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
The support of local partner organisations is crucial as they provide rescued girls with key rehabilitation including vocational training and life skills. By giving care and support, they reduce the risks of re-victimisation, and strengthen girls’ capacity to reintegrate into mainstream life.
Neeraj, and millions of others, have faced the worst in mankind, when ignorance and greed prevail, and grown men can collectively rape little girls and find it a tolerable act. Yet, Neeraj has also become a new person, not the little girl who believed everything she was told, not her repeatedly raped body, she has discovered her own strength of character. She has found the courage to speak out against sex trafficking. Injustice doesn’t hold any secrets for her and she’s determined to fight back.
* Names changed.
For more information, please see www.freeagirl.nl/en
Soni Domal, 16 years old
Soni lost her father when she was 5 years old. Her mother then decided to move from Nepal to India in search of work. In Mumbai, her mother became a housekeeper and met her current husband, Raju. Shortly afterwards, Raju became an alcoholic and as a result went into great debt.
Soni had not been going to school, as her parents were too poor. At 14, She looked for work, but at such a young age, she couldn’t find anything. When a friend of her stepfather saw the young Soni, he suggested to sell her to a brothel in order to solve his debts. Abused by her husband, Soni’s mother did not go against his will and Soni was sold to a brothel where her age didn’t matter.
She ran away twice but at home her stepfather was waiting for her.” He hit me very hard every time. The second time he gave me something to eat and took me back to the brothel. I cannot remember what happened that day, but when I came back I had no more clothes.”
Soni was rescued at age 14 by one of Free a Girl’s local partner organisations in India. After a couple of years, she was reunited with her family and had the chance to see her friends again. She wants to go to school, then find a good job and earn money in order to raise her brother and sister and provide them with the opportunities she was denied.
Ruhi Khan, 17 years old
When her parents divorced, Ruhi and her mother lived in one of the many slums of Mumbai. Ruhi went to school and her mother worked as a cleaner in the city. But they weren’t earning enough money and during that period Ruhi met a woman who offered her a good job in the garment industry. Ruhi was lured under false pretences and sold by this woman to a brothel. After a month she was rescued and she returned to her mother in Mumbai.
One day, her father came to Mumbai and took Ruhi away because supposedly her mother was not earning enough money. He abused her for six months; Until her sister came to visit and Ruhi told her what was going on. Her father was so angry that he sold her to a man in Bangalore. The man drugged her and sold her to a local brothel.
“ I was taken to a house and had nothing to eat or drink that night. The next day more girls arrived. I asked them what they were doing and then I realised he had sold me.”
The men forced themselves on her. The girls were mentally an-d physically tortured. One day she used a beer bottle to hit one of her customers over their head. ‘I was furious and I couldn’t handle my fury”. The pimp was notified and he beat her up. Ruhi worried that she would never rid herself of the fear. She often could not sleep at night and didn’t trust anyone. “it was so bad there,” she said “I wanted to be dead.” Now she is free.
Free a Girl met with Ruhi’s mother just before they were reunited. She explained that she had hoped for a better childhood for her daughter. “if I could see her I would ask how she is. Is she is eating and living properly. And I would tell her I’m sorry that I have nothing to offer her.”
At the shelter home, Ruhi began drawing classes to help her organise and structure her thoughts. “I would like to be in control of my own life”. She says.
Hema Mandel, 19 years old
Hema was married to a man called Amjad. She became pregnant, but miscarried. She had many quarrels with Amjad about this and she decided to leave him. She was lured by her so-called friend to a brothel.
During her stay, the customers came and went. She fantasised about when she would be free and how she could escape this life. Once she tried to flee. She waited in the early hours of the morning for the security of the brothel to leave their posts. Everyone was downstairs so she went to the top, climbed down a ladder and ended up in the property next door, a junkyard. She climbed over a high wall to get out and then ran as fast as she could but she was spotted and caught. After her rescue she feels like she has been born again. She can go to her family, and finally get back her freedom. She wants to pick up her life again and in the future open her own beauty salon with her mother who already works in beauty care.