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Fighting human trafficking

Text by: Ankita Jain

Drugged, kidnapped and sold to a brothel at the age of 14, Sunita Danuwar now works to end trafficking from the country

It was dark when Sunita Danuwar woke up. When the 14 year old looked around, there was nothing except a bed in a narrow room. There was no sign of her parents or siblings. Sunita thought she was dreaming and tried to go back to sleep. As she drifted off, the door opened and a tall, large-built woman with a booming voice handed her a glass of milk and asked her to get out of bed. As the petrified girl cowered, the woman ordered in Nepali, “Put on some make-up fast, you have to do dhanda.”

Sunita had been on her way to Nainital with her parents and they had to make a stop on the way. That’s when she was  drugged, kidnapped and sold to a brothel in Mumbai.

Sunita is the youngest child in her family with three siblings. When she was five, in search of better opportunities, her family shifted from Nepal to a remote place in Jammu and Kashmir .

After a few years, her uncle visited them and took away her only brother for work outside the valley. “My mother was unaware of this and when my brother went missing, she tried everything to know his whereabouts but failed miserably,” says Sunita. One day someone claimed to have seen the missing child in Nainital. This is how Sunita and her family left everything they had and packed their bags for the lake city. “Who knew that on the way my parents would lose another child as well,” shares Sunita with a heavy heart.

I was first gang-raped by five men, then forced into the trade. I tried to run away but was caught. I even tried to kill myself. But finally, I gave up and accepted my life as a sex worker.

Sunita, now 38, was bullied, beaten and threatened if she refused to cooperate in the brothel. “I was first gang-raped by five men, then forced into the trade. I tried to run away but was caught. I even tried to kill myself. But finally, I gave up and accepted my life as a sex worker,” she says. Over a period of six months in Mumbai, she was sold twice to two different brothels. Defining that nightmare period, she expresses, “The thing I hated the most was that all the ground level suppliers in the brothel were Nepalis. Instead of getting us out of that place, they were the ones helping the place to run.”

She considers herself lucky that she was rescued during a police raid of the brothel. Another hurdle lay ahead. The Nepal government did not want her or the other 200 rescued girls to return home fearing that they would spread HIV and the country would become a dumping zone. But after the efforts of several NGOs for another six months, many of them returned to Nepal. “Bollywood actor Sunil Shetty helped with our flight tickets after he heard of our plight,” she recalls.

Back in the country, the girls were taken for trauma counselling. Later, Sunita got together with 14 other survivors and founded Shakti Samuha, an NGO for, by, and of trafficking survivors, the only one of its kind in Nepal. Human trafficking is a major problem in Nepal’s border towns, and Sunita’s association helps free young women from the clutches of traffickers. Shakti Samuha also runs several shelters managed by survivors themselves. The organisation has won several awards in recognition of its efforts.

According to the International Labour Organisation, 12,000 to 15,000 girls are trafficked from Nepal every year. At present, there are about 200,000 Nepali origin sex workers in brothels across India, a majority of them in Mumbai and Delhi.

Shakti Samuha has helped rescue and rehabilitate more than 1200 survivors so far, and its four shelter homes also provide vocational training. As a member of the Global Alliance against Trafficking Women, Shakti Samuha is also working with the Nepal government to provide better compensation to survivors. It has partnered with Indian NGOs to repatriate rescued girls. Talking about one of the recent rescue operations, she shares, “In Sindhupalchowk district, a khaja ghar was running a brothel keeping two girls captive. The younger one was barely 15 years old and was serving 30-35 clients a day. The girl was brought to khaja ghar in search of work.”

She also mentions the latest strategies adopted by the traffickers, “Earlier the traffickers had to work hard looking for girls in remote places, and today social media platforms do their work. They make friends with pretty girls, meet them and take them away with promises of exploring places.” Promises of fake scholarship and job opportunities are another widely used tactics, she claims.

Not surprisingly, Sunita has received several threats from traffickers and politicians but she remains unfazed. Married with two children, she says the support of her family has kept her going. “Internal trafficking is expanding day by day, we are doing everything possible to expose them and save lives of innocent girls.”