This article originally appeared on VICE India.
While the pandemic has changed the world as we know it, what it’s also done in its march is make already-existing problems even worse. And this is particularly true for the world’s most vulnerable and marginalised. In Asia, it’s also led to fears of the escalation of one of the biggest organised crimes in the world: human trafficking.
While transnational illegal human trade rakes in a lucrative annual profit of $32 billion, it comes at the cost of destroying millions of lives. And the data is particularly jarring in India. In 2019, the US State Department came out with a report stating that “India is a course, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour and se_x _trafficking,” with a “systematic failure” to address any of these issues. So as the Indian government struggles to tackle this evil, the human cost of this social evil continues unabated. In the meantime, more women and children continue to be forced into the line of fire.
A few months ago, VICE reached out to a survivor of trafficking to tell us how trafficking destroys the lives of many young girls like her, even after their rescue, because of the impunity the men enjoy, and the stigma of forced sex trade that women continue to bear. Trishna* (name changed to protect identity) hails from a small village along the India-Bangladesh border in West Bengal, a state that has had a history of tens of thousands of teenagers trafficked and sent to brothels across India. At the moment, she is under witness protection for filing a case against her trafficker, who continues to roam the streets freely. Trishna, who is currently also fighting to formulate a law that protects people from all forms of modern slavery, spoke to VICE about her life in confinement, and beyond.
I come from a big family from a village along the India-Bangladesh border in West Bengal. In 2010, I was 14, a student of class 9, when I met this boy who lived in a village close to mine. We would hang out a lot. I would, in fact, even call him “bhai_”_ (brother). Then one day, our school had a programme and there was a puja in our village. I remember wearing a sari that day. While the festivities were on, this boy told me and a friend of mine (also my age), “Chalo ghoomne chalte hain (Come, let’s go for a walk).” They asked us to get in a car, and we did. Apart from us, there were two more of his friends. We went because we trusted him. That’s how it always is, isn’t it?
They drove to the train station and I remember it being very cold. Two of the boys got off and went inside, while we waited in the car with the one who was driving. But when they didn’t come back for a long time, we asked the driver if we could leave, and he offered to drop us back home. He started driving, and that night, he didn’t stop. We were so young that we didn’t know what was happening. When we eventually stopped, it was the next day and in a totally different city where we didn’t understand the language. In fact, it took us months to find out that we were in a district called Siwan in Bihar. When the driver dropped us to a big apartment, we were informed that we had been sold off and can’t return until his money is paid up. It turned out that the boy had sold us for Rs 48,000 ($633). We were told that we have to dance at parties to earn that money.
In our village, young girls don’t do that. We study and go home and contribute to home chores. But we were uprooted from everything we knew, tortured and threatened. We didn’t have our own money, nor did we know where we were or the language of the place.
After around six months, we moved to a new flat, which was owned by a college professor from the area, who would often notice my friend and I sitting separately from the rest of the girls. One day, he asked if things were okay and even though we didn’t speak Bhojpuri, we managed to tell him our story. Then he asked us for our parents’ phone number and my friend gave her own. He called them up and asked if someone from their family was missing, and her family immediately said ‘yes’. The next thing we know, our families set off for the address that the principal had shared with them.
But the traffickers got a whiff of the whole thing when they noticed our interaction with the professor. So by the time my family and the police arrived, the traffickers had moved us to another location. The principal, on the other hand, was scared about being involved too much so he switched off his phone after sending the address. So obviously, our families could not find us.
A week later, the principal called them again to ask if they found their daughters, but they accused him of lying. The principal immediately found out about the shift in location and told them what happened. A few days later, our families, along with the local cops in Siwan, found the right address and broke into the flat.
They finally found us. I wish things had gotten better after that. It didn’t. The police misbehaved with us and our families. They told us that our lives are over and tried to touch us. When we protested, they threatened that if we don’t let them touch us, they will tell people that we came here because we wanted to. They accused my father of abetting the crime. Back home in the village, things were pretty bad too. People said hurtful things, like how we should have killed ourselves instead of coming back. The fact that the blame and the shame were put on us and not the survivors was devastating. The local cop in fact even told me that I should never reveal the name of the boy who sold us. We were even discouraged from taking medical tests upon our arrival. We didn’t know what it involved so we got scared and didn’t get it done.
And, of course, home was chaotic. The whole village turned up and blamed us. All of my friends started to distance themselves from my friend and me. In school, kids used to tell others, “No, don’t hang out with them. They did this kind of work and they’ll take you away with them too.” Words like ‘impure’, ‘dirty’ and ‘bad’ were constantly used, and it impacted us a lot. I dropped out of school after that.
My mental health got impacted a lot so I started visiting a psychiatrist. I spent three years seeking therapy, and not really leaving the house or talking to anyone. In 2015, things started to change. A local NGO that worked with trafficking survivors, came to know about us and reached out to find out if we’re doing okay. At that point, I really wanted to step out of my house too, to feel better, so I agreed to meet them. For the next few months, they would take us for training and counsel us on how to respond to the stigma and discrimination around us. We also got medical support, rehabilitation, loans, finance help, etc—essentially everything to make ourselves self-reliant. They started our court case, too. They taught us how to be self-sustainable. The most important thing we learnt was how to interact with authority figures, like at a police station, or in front of government figures or parliamentarians, where we would feel massive shame to initiate conversations. But they taught us how to speak up.
It took me a while to understand what I wanted for myself, my sense of agency, and where I belong in this society. I asked myself how long would I keep suffering in silence and fear. I started to think about asserting myself in this world despite everything. A few of us survivors under training realised that alone, we cannot make a huge impact. But together, we can. We made a group called Utthan (Hindi for ‘to rise’), comprising trafficking survivors, and in 2016, we started working on a bill to protect people from trafficking and spoke to leaders and parliamentarians across India.
In 2017, I, along with three other sex trafficking survivors, filed our first Public Interest Litigation (PIL, which seeks wider social change) to meet the psychological, physical and re-integrative needs of trafficking survivors. We want education, job training, healthcare and legal aid, apart from some form of rehabilitation resources. In 2018, the bill we were working on, called Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, was introduced in the Lok Sabha (Lower House), but it never reached the Upper House.
This did demotivate us for a bit, but we will not stop. Today, we have joined forces with other survivors’ groups across India because this is not a problem in just West Bengal. It’s everywhere. We started expanding our network and picked up other issues like that of shelter homes, and how putting rescued survivors in them is not a solution. Today, I am one of the leaders in a group called ILFAT (Indian Leaders Forum Against Trafficking), which has over 2,500 members and survivors other than those who have been trafficked for forced sex trade. We also have sex workers, survivors of child marriage and organ trafficking—basically, anyone who has faced sexual abuse, oppression and confinement. Our struggles are not different from each other's. I am fighting for a law that protects us all, and sensitise people about what it means to have your life snatched away from you—be it through trafficking or other forms of violence against women and children—and build a society where people can regain control of their lives without any stigma.
I now support survivors and help them get back into society because that was denied to me. Even during the pandemic, we are extending our relief work to communities around us. Today, I don't look at myself as a survivor. I’m a leader. I have the right to not be defined by my past, and that’s how everybody’s story should be.
If you’re a survivor or know one, or want to do something about the issue of human trafficking in India, reach out to ILFAT on their website.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.