To Hell and Back
By Luna Ranjit, MPA '04
She is a living proof of human greed.
She was once a young and innocent girl;
She had flawless skin and teeth like pearl.
However, she could neither write nor read.
She swallowed all the lies that she was told.
She dreamt of a life that she had never seen;
She became an actress, lived like a queen.
Then she woke up. She was already sold.
In dingy corners of an alien place,
Where she did not know a single face,
Men came, men went; they paid her meager price.
Another owned her body. She had no choice.
Years passed before she finally could flee.
I ask myself why her and why not me…
The above poem is based on a true story; unfortunately, it is not merely a story of one girl, or even a few girls. The story is a rare one in that the girl managed to finally flee. I came to hear many similar horror stories during the summer of 1998, when I worked with a women’s organization in Nepal that was trying to fight trafficking in women and children.
Each year, thousands of young, innocent girls are trafficked across the border from Nepal to India to be sold into prostitution. In India, a large percentage of the victims are women and girls from Nepal. According to Human Rights Watch, up to half of Bombay’s estimated 100,000 brothel workers are Nepali women, 20 percent of whom are believed to be girls under the age of eighteen. In Calcutta, 20 percent of the 5,000 sex workers in the Sonagachi red-light area are Nepali. According to one expert, over 500 Nepali girls arrived in Sonagachi in 1993 alone.
Human trafficking is a very lucrative “trade” in Nepal and India. Young women and girls, as young as eight years old, from remote hill villages and poor border communities of Nepal are lured by local recruiters, neighbors or even relatives promising jobs or marriage. They are then sold for amounts as small as Nepali Rs.200 (less than $3.00) to brokers who deliver them to brothel owners in India for anywhere from Rs.15,000 to Rs.40,000 ($200-$500). This purchase price, plus interest, becomes the "debt" that the women must work to pay off -- a process that can stretch on indefinitely because most women have no idea how much they owe or about the terms for repayment.
The girls I met in Kathmandu were actually among the lucky ones who were rescued by the combined efforts of the police and social workers. A majority of the hundreds of thousands of women and girls who are taken across the border rarely returns. They are forced to live a slave’s life and are subjected to serious physical abuse. Held in debt bondage for years at a time, they are raped and subjected to severe beatings and other forms of torture, exposure to AIDS, and arbitrary imprisonment. Brothels are tightly controlled, and the girls live under constant surveillance, making escape virtually impossible. One of the girls had burn marks all over her arms, reminding her of cigarette butts she had to endure whenever she refused to “entertain the clients.” I knew the statistics; I had followed media coverage; and I had read books. But nothing could have prepared me for the personal stories from the girls, some younger than me, who had survived many years of repeated rape and torture.
Both the Indian and Nepali governments are complicit in the abuses suffered by trafficking victims. Existing laws in both countries have had virtually no effect on curbing trafficking. The willingness of Indian and Nepali government officials to tolerate, and, in some cases, participate in the burgeoning “flesh trade” only serves to exacerbate such abuses. Officials often try to evade their responsibility by categorizing trafficking as purely a social problem. Open border and the lack of trans-border cooperation between India and Nepal compound the problem. Apathy on the part of both governments, the highly organized nature of trafficking networks, police corruption and the patronage of influential government officials mean virtual impunity for traffickers. Even when traffickers have been identified, in few rare cases, there have been few arrests and fewer prosecutions.
The situation indeed looks bleak. Yet, I do not want to conclude on a negative note. There are many human rights activists and women’s organizations in both Nepal and India that have dedicated their time and energy to fight the “flesh trade.” The girls I met in 1998 are an example of their success story. That same year, the Nepali activists caused enough noise to put a trafficker behind bars. However, these victories look pale compared to the scope of the problem. Rescue efforts do need to continue; but I believe that the real solution lies in raising awareness among young women and girls, along with their families and communities of origin, such that these young women and girls become less vulnerable to false promises of a better life.
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