Why they give up living.
I sat there uncomfortable in the front seat. The rape victim giving her testimony in front of 100 odd people in that office auditorium of an NGO was an experience I was not prepared to deal with. I wasn’t comfortable sharing the same space with a girl who had seen such loss, tried to come out of it only to discover there was no such thing as ‘escape’ from rape. I wasn’t joyful that here in front of me was a girl whose life had been snatched away from her and when she took it back, she only found it was of no good anymore. I was uncomfortable because I knew deep inside that we were all hearing but none of us could sense her loss, not even me. It felt awkward to be hearing all this, as if I was in some body else’s bedroom seeing and hearing things I had no right to hear. It was a personal moment - too private to discuss.
The workshop had been organized under the theme of ‘Trafficking of Woman and Child” and a host of NGOs, International Development Bodies, state government Woman Commission members had come to benefit out of it. There were talks given by eminent social workers who had dedicated their lives to rescue and rehabilitate rape victims and trafficked women and children. It all revolved around how women were being raped because they were ignorant and lived in a male dominated society and how women were being trafficked around the world. But it was the testimony of this petite 15- year- old Bangladeshi girl that left me to think hard and think long.
She said when she was raped she was just 10. Her mother, a labourer ,used to call her ‘Rani’ at home, her mother’s angel, her queen. She’d often say one day she would get Rani married off to a prince. Rani would chuckle to herself happy in her life. Rani grew up in her parent’s love in a house where she was the only child. She thought she was special. Her father used to work in a factory but after an accident where he had lost the use of his hands, he was mostly at home. Then one day four men from the village raped her when she was playing alone in the field. She gave an account of how they left her to die after raping her. “I woke up with a bruised body, a broken face and blood smeared all over my body only to discover I was still alive! A part of me was happy that now I could just run home to the arms of my mother and tell her that Rani had escaped and survived, and made it back home. A part of me wanted to die as I felt my childhood had been snatched away from me without my consent. Mixed emotioned -fear, shame, sorrow, grief, happiness, hopeful, I picked up my clothes to walk back home.”
I could see tears threatening to flow from her eyes as she said, “Years later when I failed in everything I did in my life and in every relation I cared for and wanted desperately for it to work out, I wished they (the rapists) had killed me that day in the field - at least I would die just once!!. I escaped them, I escaped death once, only to be tormented and die each day for the remaining days of my life. My parents did all they could do to protect me but the society didn’t allow them to remain parents to me for much long. The society couldn’t find the culprits, so they found me and punished me instead, because I reminded them of what had happened and their total failure to do anything to punish the wrong doers. And so they punished the wronged!”
She told how her mother was not given work in the brick factory where she worked as a ‘hazira’ because the other women labourers would complain their husbands didn’t like them working with a raped girl’s mother! Slowly she wasn’t able to find work in her village. She would have to search for one in the neighbouring village. Poverty struck her happy family and bad fortune descended in to their lives. “After one year, a wealthy man and woman came to our village and said they were hiring women for their factory in Delhi and they would teach them how to sew and make beautiful clothes and earn their own livelihood. “So off went Rani as the first to be hired from the village, this time again, without her consent. Her mother cajoled her that it was for the good of everyone. Rani would now see India in real and not through the several Hindi movies they so adored! This trick worked and little Rani, 11 years old, set out with a ‘potli’ carefully packed by her mother for a future which had to be better than what she had now in a poverty stricken home in the interiors of Bangladesh. Or so she was made to think.
Every year hundreds of girls as young as ten are trafficked from Bangladesh to India on the pretext of giving them jobs in Delhi or Kolkata. Poor parents see this as a blessing and being uneducated they have little or no idea of what happened to their daughters and by the time, they get to know, its way too late, for the girls to return home and for the parents to want to have their daughters back. Poverty and lack of education are the best ground for traffickers to thrive and prosper. Rani was one such girl who was sold off for Rs.10,000 to a brothel in old Delhi. And she was told by the man who brought her from her village that there had been a slight change in the plan. A suitor had asked to marry her so he thought it was best she get married to him!! She was so young and naïve she took her mother’s parting words literally. She had told Rani, “From today this man is like your father. Obey him. He has got your best interests in mind.”
Rani became a sex worker on the streets of Chandni Chowk in Delhi at a tender age of twelve when other girls were still playing with their dolls in the protected environment of their father’s courtyard. Rani would be dressed in the attire of a child bride each morning with little idea that it wasn’t’ normal to have five different grooms everyday. She didn’t feel anything amiss as the man she was wed to, would turn up at her door each night to ask if she was happy and that she was a dutiful wife, obeying his wishes.
In the brothel where she lived she wasn’t allowed to talk much to the other girls and anyway, all other girls were much older. Ignorance is bliss, they say, so it was for Rani till one day she went out with the amma of the brothel to buy bangles from the bazaar. While amma was busy bargaining about the prices, Rani was audience to an advertisement in the radio which said girls from the neighbouring country of Bangladesh were being sold off in Delhi and the Government of Bangladesh was taking matters with an iron hand. Rani got a chill-up her spine as for the past few weeks girls of her age at the brothel had been discussing what had happened with them was not normal and that they had been cheated, sold off and exploited but Rani kept on telling herself that her husband wouldn’t want anything bad for her. After all he was her husband!!!! The radio programme announced telephone numbers of NGOs operating in the country who rescued such unfortunate women. Rani managed to write down one telephone number and hid it in her purse. She didn’t know when she would use it and if she would muster the courage to ever use it. For weeks Rani tried to forget about what she had heard in that bangle shop. For days she didn’t look to open the chit of paper with the telephone number. But one night, one of the girls called ‘Chandni’ was beaten up by amma and two men who she knew were guards for not agreeing to them. Someone whispered Chandni had been sold off to an old mantri and was now being taken to Allahabad. It was then Rani resolved it was time to use that telephone number tucked off in the deep recesses of her purse.
In the cramped office chamber of Pulse, an NGO which had earned a name for rehabilitation and rescue of trafficked women and children, there was only one person still working at ten at night. Harini Sharma, was still working on a report that she needed to take with her to the International Conference for Women and Child Development in Bangkok. She was swearing under her breath impatient with herself. For the fourth time in the evening Rahul had called to remind her that today was not a day to work late. It was their 6th marriage anniversary and he demanded she be home in an hour to show her face to guests who had long ago finished the celebration dinner! She was just wrapping up when the phone at her desk rang. At first Harini tried to ignore it but when the ring persisted, she noticed it appeared like a long distance call. She told herself that their partner NGOs shouldn’t be calling this late even if they knew she would be working late today. When the phone rang again she grabbed it in the first ring out of instinct. At first she could hardly make out from the low voice that she strained to hear, Kya aap meri maddat kar sakte ho (Can you help me)? Harini had worked her entire life rescuing trafficked women and experience told her not to ask who the caller was. So she told what she always told every caller reaching out for help, “You are calling the right person. I will take you out from there and you will not have to fear those who sold you off again. You can trust me. My name is Harini Sharma.”
Rani was calling from the telephone at Amma’s room while she was out and she knew this was her only chance to escape. She was so frightened she couldn’t tell much but she remembered to tell her name was Rani, she hailed from a small village called Darsha in the border of Bangladesh and now she lived in a yellow coloured three storeyed building in Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi with 27 other girls. Just when she was about to tell more she could hear some sound coming from the corridor and she was forced to hang up.
Harini didn’t return home that night. Rahul knew by now that for Harini a call for help meant she had to rescue the caller before she ate, drank or slept. He knew her for 10 years now. He had fallen in love with her for the same reason. Harini Sharma became a UN Ambassador for youth when she was just 24. She was awarded the Ashoka medal for her selfless contribution to rescue trafficked women disregarding her own safety sometimes. She founded the NGO Pulse Network–a network which operated through its partner NGOs in all the states of the country.
It took 2 months for Harini to track that call to the probable location in the capital. She used all that she had - the police, the partner NGOs in the 4 States of Meghalaya, Assam, West Bengal and Delhi (route of trafficking into the country), the State legal authorities and the media. To get a Court order to raid that brothel in the capital took more than just muscle power. It took persuasion, persistence and grit, all of which Harini didn’t lack. Harini was part of the raid on the brothel in Chandni Chowk. From the database of girls of missing from home or who had migrated for work she found one Rani who had left her village some 2 years ago. Harini was sure she was the same girl she had spoken to because the names of the village matched. With the police, the magistrate and the media Harini was part of the raid on the brothel in Chandni Chowk. After gunshots and scuffle that lasted 20 minutes, when the police finally broke open the front door of the building, everyone appeared to have fled from the sight. Harini peered inside almost disappointed but when she walked further in, she found a small girl hiding partially behind the couch. Harini went near her slowly and extended her hand and said, “ Rani, I am Harini and I am here to free you.”
*The names have been changed to protect the identity of the people involved.