Within hours of arriving in Mumbai, Neetu found herself in a world unlike anything she could have imagined. A world of threats and violence in dark alleys and hidden rooms filled with cramped and brutalized bodies – the world of stolen women. ‘Night was like day. Day was like night,’ recalls Neetu.
Young, fair-skinned and beautiful, Neetu is one of an estimated 12,000 girls and women that the UN’s International Labour Organization believes are trafficked every year from Nepal to work in the brothels of India’s megacities. Other agencies believe the figure to be much higher. In Mumbai alone there may be as many as 35,000 Nepali girls working in the city’s notorious red-light district, giving Nepal the dubious distinction of being the largest exporter of trafficked women in South Asia. Many are tricked into leaving their homes with the promise of a well-paid job. Some are abducted. Others are sold by their own families. In Neetu’s case, the brother and husband of one of her closest friends delivered her to the brothel. ‘They loved me so much that I never suspected foul play,’ she remembers.
Once there, she avoided looking clients in the eye in the hope that she wouldn’t be selected – a tactic which resulted in regular punishment by the brothel owner. ‘[The owner] said that if I was not selected by customers often, I would not be able to pay off my debts to her, as she had paid a sum of money to purchase me. I was told that it would take three years for me to pay off my debts.’ Neetu earned the equivalent of $3.70 per client, of which she was able to keep 22 cents for herself. And so it continued: four or five clients per day, every day, for over two years.
UNICEF estimates that 1.2 million children are trafficked across international borders each year. Most of these are trafficked for the purposes of prostitution. According to Save the Children India, clients now prefer 10- to 12-year-old girls. The soaring number of prostitutes believed to have contracted HIV in India’s brothels has helped give India the second-largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world, just behind South Africa. Yet the trafficking of women from Nepal, Bangladesh and from the rural areas of India into the brothels of the big city is a blight that has gone largely unnoticed amongst India’s politicians and police forces.
Triveni Acharaya is confronting this apathy. ‘Being a woman, I could feel the pain of the victims,’ she explains. A journalist with one of India’s oldest newspapers, Triveni gave up her job last year to head-up the Rescue Foundation: one of a handful of organizations in India to tackle this abuse head on. She and her team face daily threats from pimps, brothel owners and criminals who stand to lose out from the type of attention that she gives their industry. After all, it is widely regarded as the third most profitable income stream in the world for organized crime (just behind drugs and gun smuggling).
‘Rescuing girls is a very risky job,’ says Triveni. ‘Often it represents a loss of nearly 20 lakh rupees ($45,000) to the brothel keeper. And in India any Tom, Dick or Harry would kill for [that] sum of money.’ Every step of the rescue process involves risk, from the initial undercover investigation involving pinhole cameras, secret informers and investigators-in-disguise, to the raid by the police on the brothel. But then there is that moment – after weeks of painstaking undercover work – when the girls, often locked away in hidden rooms, emerge from the darkness.
While Triveni now sees hope in Mumbai’s dark alleys, she believes that there is still an enormous amount of work to be done. ‘Special courts of law need to be established in India so that cases of sex trafficking can be expedited and effectively handled.’ The need for such courts is amply demonstrated by the Rescue Foundation’s own figures: of the 500 girls that the team has rescued, only 21 brothel owners have so far been prosecuted successfully. Cost, social stigma and an overburdened legal process are all conspiring to work against the victims of sex trafficking even after their rescue.
Neetu was one of the fortunate ones. By luck, a letter she had written to her parents and given to one of her clients made its way to the Rescue Foundation. Police raided her brothel in October, and she is now in a rehabilitation and vocational training centre run by Triveni’s team.
‘At first I did not have faith in anybody,’ says Neetu. ‘But now, I am studying English and learning computer. I like to be here but ultimately I want to go home. My life at present is in happy transit.’
The Rescue Foundation talked with Dylan Mathews