by Hana Shams Ahmed
[Daily Star, November 24, 2006]
Mahmuda was a very ordinary teenager living in a small village in Nilphamari. The only thing that made her life different from many others was that her father died when she was very small, leaving her mother and her in a state of extreme poverty and helplessness. Mahmuda and her mother were forced to go back to her maternal grandfather’s house and live on whatever her uncles settled to spare for them. As young as she was, Mahmuda did not want to live on someone else’s money for the rest of her life. She thought she had the capability of earning a decent living on her own and was determined to go out and get it. A very brave decision for a girl so young! But the steps she took next would change her life forever.
Hers is a story of deception: simple yet crafty. Not a very unheard of but heart-wrenching story of a young girl who was promised work and freedom from poverty, promised of a new and better life which only ended up in the clutches of a band of ruthless slave traders far away from home, family, friends or any form of familiarity.
In the shelter home of BNWLA where she now stays she recalls her frightful past, hesitant at first. “I didn’t have my own home and we were going through some tough times so I thought that at least if I worked in someone else’s house I would make some money of my own,” she says. “My mother didn’t want to send me away to work at someone else’s house because I was her one and only child but when someone I knew said that I could get work somewhere with very good pay I decided to not tell my mother and go off to work. If only I had any idea that I would be sold off,” she laments.
There was a gang of people involved in this ‘transaction’. Three men, Shofiqul, Shafi and Bodi along with Mohsin, who was Mahmuda’s aunt’s boyfriend, took her to one of their houses in a van far away from Nilphamari. “I stayed there for a few days but when I had an argument with one of his wives [he had three wives according to Mahmuda] she was taken to another one of their houses.
When no one came to take her for a long time she started to get worried. “I didn’t have any money with me either so I had no way to go anywhere. By this time I was already a great distance away from my home. In fact I had no idea how to get home from there. I was starting to get worried about the whole situation. I couldn’t eat or sleep there. I cried over and over again. It was also getting very difficult to live there. People in the neighbourhood kept asking who I was and where I came from.”
Finally one day the three of them got together and told her that they would be going for a little trip. “I trusted them completely,” says Mahmuda, “They took me to the border area. It was winter time and although the border police was around the area was so thickly filled with fog they did not see us pass through.”
There were some houses just beyond the border and she had to stay there for a day. “The three of them ate at a hotel but I couldn’t eat anything at all,” she says. Finally they boarded a train and took her to Bombay. “Everyone was talking in either Hindi or English and I couldn’t understand anything,” she says, “and I was starting to get more worried.”
In Bombay they sold her off to a brothel under a Nepali pimp named Aarti where they locked her up in a room all by herself. “She told me that she had rented the house and I would have to do some work around there. I still had no idea what was going on and I thought that I was just there to do housework,” she adds ruefully.
Then the beatings started. Mahmuda was beat up mercilessly day and night when she refused to work as a sex slave. But she was adamant to maintain her self-respect. Her will power did not break. Finally after months of abuse when she still refused to give in, the police who pay regular visits at these brothels came to pick up three of the inmates from the house and place them in a shelter home in Bombay. According to BNWLA representatives, girls in these brothels are beaten up regularly, when they refuse to willingly sell their body, they are forced to ‘work’ until their ‘debt’ is paid off. Some girls seeing no other way afterwards decide to stay on in this, but others still refuse, the police are then called in and these girls are taken away.
After a few months at the shelter home there a BNWLA representative who was visiting there found her and brought her back to the shelter home in BNWLA.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch Asia in June 1995 probably more than a million women and children are employed in Indian brothels. Many are victims of trafficking through international borders, mostly Nepal and Bangladesh. Bombay has an estimated 100,000 brothel workers. Twenty percent of Bombay’s brothel population is thought to be girls under the age of eighteen.
Trafficking victims in India are subjected to conditions tantamount to slavery and to serious physical abuse. Held in debt bondage for years at a time, they are raped and subjected to other forms of torture, to severe beatings, exposure to AIDS, and arbitrary imprisonment. Many are young women from remote hill villages and poor border communities who are lured from their villages by local recruiters, relatives or neighbours promising jobs or marriage, and sold for very small amounts to brokers who deliver them to brothel owners in India for anywhere from Rs.15,000 to Rs.40,000 [$500-$1,333]. This purchase price (Human Rights Watch Asia report, 1995) becomes the “debt” that the women must work to pay off — a process that can stretch on indefinitely.
According to an AFP report at least 20,000 Bangladeshi women and children are trafficked to India and Pakistan and to Middle Eastern countries every year. According to a Times of India report an estimated 50,000 Bangladeshi girls are trafficked to or through India every year. The girls end up in brothels in India or Pakistan or in Middle Eastern or South Asian countries.
India shares a 4,222-kilometers border with 28 Bangladeshi districts. Bangladeshi traffickers have built up bases in the border districts of India. According to an Independent Bangladesh report an estimated 90 percent of trafficked women were forced to engage in prostitution. Reportedly, 400,000 Bangladeshi women are engaged in forced prostitution in India, and 300,000 Bangladeshi boys have been trafficked to India. According to one report, every day 50 Bangladeshi girls are lured across the Indian border and sold. Bangladeshi girls who are trafficked to India by organised networks usually end up in brothels in Kolkata or Mumbai.
In an ironic way, Mahmuda is one of the lucky ones. Very few girls at these brothels ever get to escape the clutches of these slave traders. Back at BNWLA’s shelter home Mahmuda is learning to cook and will hopefully soon also learn sewing work. But she is yet to recover from her trauma. It has made a pessimist out of a once very strong-willed girl. She does not care about cooking or sewing. “I wish my dad were alive, this would otherwise never have happened to me,” she says with a broken spirit, “I just want to go back to my village home and just eat salt and rice for the rest of my life.”