2-8 September 2016 #824

Hiding hidden wounds

After facing years of abuse in Indian brothels, rescued young women have to then struggle to fight stigma back home in Nepal
Shreejana Shrestha

Shreejana Shrestha
OUT OF BROTHEL: Bimala's family does not know that she was sold to a brothel in India, and spent seven years as a sex worker.

Shanti tried to kill herself several times after being sold by her relative to a brothel in Delhi when she was just 11. After five years as a virtual sex slave, during which she had to serve multiple clients every day, she was rescued and brought back home. 

However, the euphoria of freedom was short-lived. After being saved seven years ago, she had to struggle against societal stigma and ostracisation, and faces the strain of hiding her past life. 

“I was so elated after being rescued but the happiness didn’t last forever. It is painful to be cautious all the time and pretend nothing happened to me,” says Shanti. 

Read Also

Epicentre of Trafficking, Om Astha Rai

She still remembers her first night at the brothel, when she was raped by a 40-year-old man, and then by seven other men that same night. Her little feet made footprints in her blood on the floor in her room.

Shanti is from the Badi community in Surkhet, which has one of highest rates of trafficking. Light House Foundation Nepal brought her to Kathmandu after her rescue, and trained her in sewing and making jewellery.

Raju Sundas of the Foundation says trafficking survivors are given life skills so that they can better reintegrate into the society. “If they don’t earn on their own, they might return to the same profession,” he says.

Shanti wants to start her own business, and has to constantly guard against people finding out about her past. Being ostracised by her community was bad enough, but what hurts Shanti more is the fact that the relative who sold her into prostitution lives around the corner from her in Surkhet (see box). Despite crackdowns, at least 7,000 Nepali girls are still being trafficked to brothels in India every year, and there are about 200,000 Nepali girls there, according to a 2015 report by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Bimala has lived with her daughter in Kathmandu since her marriage failed. For her own family and neighbours, she is someone who resided in India for many years, got married and is living happily.  

What they do not know is that she, like Shanti, was also sold to a brothel in India when she was 11, and spent seven years as a sex worker. After being rescued, she got married to an Indian man but could not endure the torture from her husband. She has not met any members of her family, although she is back in Kathmandu with her daughter after leaving her husband in India.

“If you have been trafficked once, you are never going to be the same person, and will not fit into society ever again,” Bimala says, “people will always remind you about what happened to you in the past.”

Bimala has managed to keep her past a secret, and she has decided to make her own future back in Nepal. She works in a student hostel to support her daughter. She has also mustered the courage to go see her family in Mugling this Dasain.

Sundas says trafficking survivors need years to overcome the stigma and be rehabilitated in society. "So we keep them in shelter houses, and try to boost their confidence through counselling,” he says.

Bimala says: “I don’t want to tell them anything about my past life and my broken family because I will be blamed for everything, even though none of it was my fault.”

(Names have been changed)

Turning the tables

Both Shanti and Bimala know the relatives who lured them to India and sold them to brothels there. But neither wants to take them to the police. 

“The person who sold me in Delhi lives near my house, she apologised to me after I was rescued. But since she is a relative, I didn’t want to file a case,” Shanti explained, head bent. “My life became a living hell because of that person, but I cannot punish her.” 

Young girls and women from Nepal are sold to India mostly by their close relatives, and that makes the prosecution process difficult. Nepal Police had 185 trafficking cases registered in 2014 and 2015 even though the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) estimates that about 17,000 women and children were trafficked from 2013 to 2015. 

Kamal Thapa Chhetri of the NHRC explains: “Usually victims and their families try to settle the cases outside the court system. Due to this, the number of cases registered with the police is low compared to our data.”

Victims avoid filing cases against the perpetrators to steer clear of social stigma, having no hope of compensation and facing a sluggish justice mechanism, Chhetri adds. In addition, most perpetrators are relatives who lure the girls with promises of jobs, and rescued women generally prefer to keep quiet. 

Read also:

The missing half, Kapildev Khanal

Sold in Los Angeles, Sangeeta Shrestha

Time to prey, Bhrikuti Rai

Pimps on the run, Sangeeta Lama

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