02 Mar 2017
14 min read
1776 words
Sunita Danuwar shares with VMAG her experiences, struggles and her ongoing quest to scotch out human trafficking

Where does your self-confidence and strength come from?
It takes so much energy to survive not only the physical abuse I’ve lived through, but to endure the mental drain of it and to live with the shame. My grieving over my lost childhood had left me broken, and I knew I had to do something to save my soul, or else I would have just withered. That’s why I chose to turn my pain to strength. The best gift that I could ever give someone is hope—because I’d be giving them something that was taken away from me.

When you talk about your childhood, your eyes twinkle. Tell us about your family.
I was born in Dailekh, which to this day remains remote and inaccessible, to a family from an under-privileged caste. My mother gave birth to 10 children, but six of them died at an early age. I am the youngest in my family. When I was five, we migrated to Jammu and Kashmir state to seek a better life. I remember we settled in a potato farm, where my parents toiled away to create a better future that never materialised—nine years later, our family was still poor and living on the margins of society.

What kind of a child were you?
I was very outspoken and stubborn. My father did masonry and carpentry work, and I used to help him. I also remember crushing rocks by the roadside, picking mushrooms, taking on menial jobs. When I turned 13, my grandfather passed away, so my father had gone back to the village. It was at that time I was raped by a man who worked in the same potato farm. Later, we found out that my uncle had taken money from him and promised me as his child-bride. When my father returned home, we decided to leave everything and move to Nainital.

What happened next?
On our way to Nainital, we worked in various places because we didn’t have money. While we were on the road, my parents befriended two young Nepali tractor drivers, who tagged along with us. They used to flirt with me and entice me with promises of a good job and comfortable life. Of course, I always avoided their advances—something about them always made me feel uneasy. One day, after dinner, they offered laddoos to all of us, and everything changed after that.

And then you woke up in a brothel in Mumbai...
When I woke up in Mumbai, I didn’t have a clue about where I was or what I was doing in that small dingy place. A heavily made-up girl told me that I was there to work. I was so gullible that I actually thought ‘work’ meant washing dishes or clothes. But everything became clear when the madam showed up and told me, without mincing her words, that I had been sold and that I was supposed to have sex to please men.

What was your initial reaction?
The owners tried to bend my resolve by denying me food and water for days. I somehow managed to avoid being forced to have sex with customers. Frustrated, the owner sold me to another brothel for (Indian) Rs 100,000. Initially, I refused to sleep with the clients, but the new madam ordered her male staff to gang-rape me. We were in a place where we couldn’t even fantasise about ending our lives—we were even denied the choice to live or die. So with a sense of resignation, I started to sell my body. I was given a new name—Usha.

I know it’s a very painful part of your life, but can you talk about that time?
The worst thing that happened to me after I was sold was that I lost faith in everyone, and I’m sure that was the case too with the 40 other girls who were with me—the youngest was around nine years old. We were forced to have sex with up to 30 clients a day, and  when I tried to say no, the men would often burn me with cigarettes. Foreigners, businessmen, army and police personnel were our regular visitors. There was one gentleman who just liked to spend time with me, no sexual contact, and he would tell me that he would help me escape, but like I said, I had lost faith in everyone.

“The worst thing that happened to me after I was sold was that I lost faith in everyone”

Did you ever think that you would walk free?
I never thought that I would walk away from that brothel. On the day we were rescued, the madam had told us that she wanted to take all of us to the cinema, which I found pretty strange to start with, so I went to change my outfit. When we were about to leave the house, I happened to glance at my reflection in the living room mirror, and I didn’t like the colour of my outfit, so I told the madam that I wanted to change again. I went to my room and put on a new outfit, and when I opened my door, I saw a female police officer standing there.

What went through your mind?
It was a mix of disbelief, cautious elation—what if I was just imagining all this, was what I thought. I was lucky that I hadn’t left the house with the others because when we were all lined up, I could see many of the girls were missing. Throughout the interrogation, the madam tried her best to brainwash us into providing wrong details to the police, but I knew this was my only chance to get free. That raid in February 5, 1996 rescued some 500 girls, among whom I was one of the 200 Nepali girls.

But instead of your struggles ending, they only increased after the rescue.
Immediately after we were rescued, we were taken away to a prison-like building. I think the police officers did not know, could not fathom, the extent of our hurt. At that time, our government was reluctant to accept many of the rescued girls because they feared we had AIDS. It still hurts to think that many national dailies back then carried articles about us that had derogatory headlines. It didn’t make things easy for many of us whose families and relatives weren’t even willing to acknowledge us. The problem is that people see trafficked women as prostitutes, and they see prostitutes not as victims but as criminals.

Was that the reason behind starting Shakti Samuha?
First of all, those of us who have been sexually assaulted or trafficked need to learn to harness our survival strength so that we can heal our damaged self-image. And then we need to channel that strength to help former victims learn to overcome themselves and change things—through love, understanding and compassion for all. That was the reason some of us fellow survivors from Mumbai set up Shakti Samuha.

Your organisation, and you yourself, have received numerous prestigious awards. How have those helped?
We are thankful to everyone who recognise our efforts and help us in our work at the national and international level. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about our government. We have been interacting with many universities and organisations in different countries, and it was because of these awards and recognitions that we were able to visit these institutions to talk about our issues.

What’s the state of trafficking today?
Trafficking has evolved with the changing times. Today, we’re seeing an alarming rise in internal trafficking, for instance. And today, many girls and women end up getting trafficked after they are first lured with promises of foreign employment and tourist visas; some are lured with fake marriages. All these problems have been compounded by our weak law enforcement—a product of an unstable government mechanism.

Has your life panned out better than you imagined?
With time I have gotten better at dealing with my flashbacks. I’ve also achieved the unthinkable: I have a loving family, a doting husband, I passed the SLC in 2010, and I have completed my undergraduate studies. I want to help create a society where human trafficking does not exist. I’ve had ups and downs, some highs and some really low lows. But I believe that if I can make it, surely anybody else can too—never, ever, ever give up.