Thu, Jan 11, 2018 - Page 14 News List

Finding their voice

Trafficked Indian girls testify against abusers

By Anuradha Nagaraj  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, Vijaywada, India

Nepalese and Buddhist monks last month watch Buddhist nuns participate on a month long bicycle pilgrimage in Kathmandu, Nepal. Roughly 200 Drukpa Kung-Fu Nuns began a month long bicycle pilgrimage of 3,000km, pedaling through Nepal and India to empower women and promote awareness around the human trafficking epidemic facing both countries.

Photo: AP

This year, Pinki, the lead singer of a rock band in southern India, wants to learn to play the guitar.

She wants to “strum the guitar like a boy” on stage and use music to forget her journey from a brothel to the band that is hired to perform at weddings and parties, the 19-year-old said.

Her new year’s resolution comes a year after an Indian court convicted 40 people of buying and selling girls in the southern state of Karnataka — among them Pinki’s own abusers.

Thanks to her testimony, the woman who trafficked her from her home into prostitution and the man who owned the brothel in the town of Ballari where she worked for eight months before she was rescued, were found guilty.

“They should have got life instead of the 10 years imprisonment,” she said, sitting on her bed, guitar in hand and a teddy bear beside her, in her village home in Andhra Pradesh.

“But I don’t want to think about it. I want to think about music instead and my boyfriend, who I hope to marry later this year.”

A thousand miles away, in the eastern city of Kolkata, another 19-year-old looks forward to this year.

As she prepares for her high school leaving exams, she is looking at colleges where she can study philosophy.

The girls were barely into their teens when they were rescued by police from the Ballari brothel in 2013.

But they were unable to forget the past while they waited for four years to recall the painful details of rape and abuse in court — to finally see their exploiters convicted.

Now both are planning their futures.

LOOKING BACK

Ifn 2013, police raided several brothels in Ballari in Karnataka, rescuing 43 women, including 21 children, and seizing evidence including cash and account ledgers.

Both the teenagers were among the rescued, seven of whom were from Bangladesh and the rest were from Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal, Karnataka and Odisha.

After her rescue, Pinki was placed at a home run by anti-trafficking charity Prajwala, where the Ballari survivors were asked if they were willing to testify against their traffickers.

“A big part of rehabilitation is closure and testifying is part of closure,” said Sunitha Krishnan, the founder of Prajwala. “We don’t tell them to forget what has happened but to recover and resolve the memory instead.”

Prajwala estimates that 200,000 women and children are forced into prostitution through threat and coercion every year (www.prajwalaindia.com).

Of an estimated 20 million commercial sex workers in India, 16 million women and girls are victims of sex trafficking, say campaign and support groups working in India.

WITNESS BOX

The odds, campaigners say, are pitted against trafficking survivors who decide to take their cases to court, with threats and intimidation from traffickers common.

The 2017 Trafficking in Persons report by the US State Department stated that victim identification and protection in India is “inadequate and inconsistent.”

“The government sometimes penalized victims through arrests for crimes committed as a result of being subjected to human trafficking,” the report states, pointing to disproportionately low conviction rates relative to the scale of trafficking (www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/countries/2017/271205.htm).

According to Indian government data, less than half of the more than 8,000 human trafficking cases reported in 2016 were filed in court by the police and the conviction rate in cases that did go to trial was 28 percent (ncrb.gov.in).

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