6-12 September 2013 #672

Sunita's long walk to freedom

Once refused citizenships by their own country, human trafficking victims become national heroes
Devaki Bista

Sunita Danuwar is now 39, but when she remembers the first five months of abuse and torture she suffered in a Bombay brothel 25 years ago, she still has nightmares.

Sunita Danuwar (centre) of Shakti Samuha with Magsaysay Award trophy on Wednesday

Born in Dailekh* to a family from an under-privileged caste, Sunita was five when her parents moved to India’s Jammu and Kashmir state to seek their fortune. They found work in a potato farm, and nine years later the family was still poor and living at the margins of society.

Even before she turned 14, Sunita was helping her family’s income by crushing rocks by the roadside. One day, she was tricked by a friend and a truck driver into eating sweets laced with drugs. She was sold and taken on an overnight train to Bombay.

When she regained consciousness, Sunita found out she was in a brothel. The owners tortured her and didn’t give her anything to eat or drink, but Sunita says she managed to avoid being forced to have sex with customers. Exasperated, the owner sold her to another brothel for INR 100,000.

“I refused to sleep with their clients, too,” recalls Sunita, “but the new madam ordered her male staff to gang-rape me.” Most of the women forced into sexual slavery in the brothel were Nepali, and some girls were as young as nine.

Rich clients would pay up to INR 4,000 per hour to take them to private quarters, but the going rate at the brothel was INR 40. Foreigners, businessmen, army and police personnel were regular visitors.

Within five months of Sunita’s captivity, activists and police raided Mumbai’s red light areas and rescued 500 girls, among whom Sunita was one of 200 Nepalis. Many of them were helped to return to Nepal where Sunita found she didn’t have a home, her relatives weren’t willing to help, and she had lost touch with her parents.

The Nepal government refused to recognise them as citizens, and seven of the 12 young women in Sunita’s shelter had HIV. They were determined to help other trafficked Nepali girls so they didn’t have to suffer what they went through.

Sunita finally got their citizenship papers and turned a new page in her life. She got married in 1998, gave her SLC in 2010, and is currently enrolled in an undergraduate course. She and fellow survivors from Mumbai set up Shakti Samuha in 1997, the first Nepali anti-trafficking organisation run by victims of trafficking themselves.

On 31 August, Sunita Danuwar the President of Shakti Samuha and her colleague Laxmi Puri were standing on the stage of the Philippine International Convention Centre with five other recipients of this year’s prestigious Ramon Magsasay Award Foundation in Manila. It was a well-deserved recognition for a Nepali woman who battled overwhelming odds not just to survive trafficking and sexual slavery, but is determined to help others like her.

The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation’s citation praised the founders of Shakti Samuha ‘for their exemplary work to abolish human trafficking and help survivors to live with dignity and pride’.

On return to Kathmandu on Wednesday from Manila, Sunita said although human trafficking to India was declining, Nepali women were being increasingly trafficked to the Gulf countries. Sunita said she will plough the $50,000 prize money into Shakti Samuha, but more than the money it is the recognition of the work of her organisation that will encourage her, she says.

Sunita and Shakti Samuha follow two other pioneering Nepali women who have been voted CNN Heroes in the past three years for their work to help destitute women and children: Anuradha Koiralaof Maiti Nepal and Pushpa Basnet of the Early Childhood Development Centre.

Other Nepali recipients of the Magsaysay Award are Mahesh Chandra Regmi, Bharat Dutta Koirala, Sanduk Ruit and [Mahabir Pun](Nepal Wireless Networking Project).

See also

Two decades of vision, #633

Beyond the digital divide, #392

Mahesh Chandra Regmi, 74, #153

**Correction: Sunita's home district was earlier mentioned as Dolakha.*

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