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In 2016, as India debated a bill against human trafficking, a group of survivors decided to write to the country’s minister for women, offering their feedback. To their surprise, they heard back. That was the start of Utthan: a collective for survivors. Made up mostly of young women, the group uses the weight of its experiences to help others escape and rehabilitate – and to prevent trafficking in the first place. Groups like Utthan assist other survivors through the difficult readjustment, in communities where formal support is often lacking. But members are also changing underlying attitudes about girls that lead to so many being sold – and some say their work has changed their own attitudes, too. Tumpa Khatun married soon after her rescue and felt too stigmatized and demotivated to return to school. Today, she feels empowered to protect others. Her family often asks her to discontinue her work – out of fear for her, she assumes. But she firmly says, “I will leave my parents and husband if I have to, but I won’t leave this work.”
On a hot November morning, Bijoya sits huddled among a group of young girls chatting in the small room of a guesthouse, sometimes breaking into giggles at an inside joke. The border river Ichamati flows gently outside; the sandy river bank and shrubs of green faintly visible on the other end are part of Bangladesh.
Seventeen-year-old Bijoya left home early, dressed in a bright green and orange salwar kameez, her hair tied neatly into a ponytail and a backpack hanging from her right shoulder. Today, just before the start of the festival Diwali, most of her peers are enjoying a day off – but she’s made a long commute to this sleepy tourist town, Taki, to meet with fellow advocates. (Bijoya’s name, like some others in this story, has been changed for her safety.)
This is Utthan, a collective of survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. With teachers’ permission, Bijoya often skips classes to do her work. The independence, socializing, and responsibilities have made her happy, she says, but it wasn’t always this way.
“I spent so many months at home crying, wondering why this had happened to me,” she recalls. “But after I joined the others and heard their stories, I understood that I was not alone, there were many other girls who had suffered the same pain as me. I found friendship and healing.”
Nearly 8 million people in India live in modern slavery, according to estimates from the Global Slavery Index, many of whom were trafficked. Nearly 20,000 women and children were victims of trafficking in 2016, according to Indian government data, with the highest number in Bijoya’s state of West Bengal, along the border with Bangladesh. Victims’ advocates warn that the actual number is likely far higher.
But even when trafficking victims escape, they face a new set of challenges. Survivors’ perspectives are rarely used to design prevention, rehabilitation, and advocacy processes, their advocates say – and that’s something Utthan’s 17 members are determined to change.
Recent investigations in India have brought to light abuse at women’s and girls’ rehabilitation homes. And after survivors return home, only 3 percent received formal support, according to a study by Sanjog, a technical resource organization that works with Utthan. Often, they are left vulnerable to being trafficked again. The more that anti-trafficking programs can hear from survivors themselves, the better those programs can respond to their needs, groups like Utthan argue.
“My body would tremble with nervousness every time I was asked to stand in front of a man and speak, but now with training, I can speak confidently to everyone,” Bijoya says, referring to meetings with local authorities. “And they take us seriously.”
Survivors as experts
Bijoya was trafficked about three years ago, sold by her dance teacher across state lines for commercial sexual exploitation. Thanks to the efforts of her parents and police, she was rescued after half a year.
At first, she remembers feeling utterly confused. “Maybe my parents did send me here wanting [me] to work,” she briefly thought before the abuse began. Her father is one of the estimated 10 million laborers in India’s brick sector, who often work in dangerous conditions; many are in debt bondage.
“I spent my days in a lot of pain,” Bijoya says, breaking into tears.
Her father deeply supports her education and anti-trafficking work. For most survivors, however, there is little support, and life after rescue can be extremely tough. The biggest challenges are job opportunities and mental health services, especially in remote border villages, according to Bikash Das, coordinator with Teghoria Institute for Social Movement, which works with survivors.
As India debated a new anti-trafficking bill in 2016, a group of survivors wrote to India’s women and child development minister, Maneka Gandhi, with feedback on the legislation. To their surprise, they heard back. It was the start of Utthan, which they envision as a bridge between survivors’ needs at the grassroots and policymakers at the top.
Members, who receive a small monthly stipend, travel hours from their villages twice a week to meet in Sanjog’s office in the capital, Kolkata. They conduct surveys, take part in consultations and press conferences, and organize prevention programs. The major part of their work, however, is to assist other survivors in their communities. Each member takes responsibility for at least five: conducting regular home visits; accompanying them to hospitals, courts, and police stations; and educating their family and neighborhood about the situation. They also connect them with government programs, from a cash-transfer plan that incentivizes families to keep girls unmarried and in school, to vocational training.
Nandini (a pseudonym), a 23-year-old member, points out that this active, constant follow-up wasn’t available until recently. “There are community-based organizations but most social workers are male, and female survivors are unable to open up to them the way they do with us. We understand their pain and needs,” she says. When she visited shelter homes, she says, some survivors had been languishing there as long as eight years, deepening her desire for community-based rehabilitation programs.
“When survivors form support groups and networks, they are able to support each other emotionally, and fight for each other – even to challenge stigma and violence against survivors in families and communities,” says Roop Sen, a researcher and co-founder of Sanjog. Reaching up to authorities as a collective makes them take notice, Mr. Sen adds.
Other groups have incorporated survivors’ perspectives into prevention as well. The nonprofits Dhagagia Social Welfare Society (DSWS) and Save the Children currently have about 80 groups in West Bengal made up of teen survivors and school dropouts. Going about their daily routines in class, the playground, or the market, participants keep a lookout for girls who have stopped attending school, whose marriage proposals are being discussed, or whose parents are talking about sending them away for work. They’re trained to visit the home, trying to understand the situation and explain risks to families, assist with rescues, and raise issues with local authorities. Some are part of local child-protection committees, whose model West Bengal is trying to replicate around the state.
After several years, it is still challenging to convince poverty-stricken families not to send their daughters away, says DSWS founder Hriday Ghosh. But he notes that trafficking has sharply declined in villages with such groups, and a handful of former trafficking agents themselves now serve as informers.
“It is their village,” Mr. Ghosh says, emphasizing that the community had to work together to curb the crime. “We are outsiders and we will leave.”
Being the change
For girls, the biggest takeaway has been their own agency. Many say they feel empowered to challenge underlying mind-sets about women and girls, who make up the majority of trafficking victims.
Before 19-year-old Promata (a pseudonym) was trafficked from her village, her parents dissuaded her from going to school. “I was not even allowed to step out of the house,” she recalls, speaking firmly without a pause, sometimes adjusting the sequined scarf wrapped around her head.
It was only after returning and joining the survivors group supported by DSWS that she learned that being a girl did not mean she had no rights. She’s been sharing that with others ever since, including her own family.
“I won’t say things have changed entirely in the community, but they have begun to understand and value girls more than they earlier did,” Promata says. In the evenings, she adds, village girls are now playing and biking freely on their own – just like the boys.
Tumpa Khatun, now 23, married soon after her rescue as a teenager and felt too stigmatized and demotivated to return to school. Utthan, she says, has made her believe that she can still work and prevent those around her from hardship. Neighbors who once stigmatized her now approach her to intervene in cases of domestic violence and trafficking.
Her family often asks her to discontinue what she is doing – out of fear for her, she assumes – but she is undeterred. “I will leave my parents and husband if I have to, but I won’t leave this work,” she says firmly.
For those like Bijoya and Promata, who are working hard to continue their education, the biggest source of worry is the uncertainty of the future. They harbor ambitions of being lawyers and teachers, but around them, they see girls married soon after turning 18, if not sooner.
“The day I secure admission in college, I will dance like a crazy person,” Bijoya, a top student, announces with a grin. As for Promata, who has already worked her way to university, she plans to avoid marriage for as long as she can.
But for now, they’re optimistic. During a lunch break in Sanjog’s office, following an intense discussion at one of their biweekly meetings, Utthan members excitedly chat about a dance class that is in the works. Who wants to sign up, Ms. Khatun asks?
“I will!” Bijoya beams, raising her hands.