Helping Survivors of India's Sex-Slave Trade

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If I had tried to escape, the brokers would have beaten me," says 22-year-old Shanti* of her time working in India's brothels. "They kept wooden rods."

Shanti's path from a rural village to a big-city brothel was one that many young girls in India have unwittingly followed. Growing up in farm country, taking care of cattle and doing household chores, the teenage Shanti knew little about cities. And she knew nothing about human trafficking—the buying and selling of people into forced or unpaid begging, prostitution or labor. When a local moneylender encouraged Shanti to take a job as a housekeeper in the west coast city of Mumbai, she agreed to go there with him.

A young woman who survived sex trafficking shows paper flowers she made in Prajwala's print shop. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS
A young woman who survived sex trafficking shows paper flowers she made in Prajwala's print shop. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

A few days later, Shanti realized something had gone terribly wrong. "I was told he sold me and another girl for 60,000 rupees [$1,200]."

Shanti worked for her "brokers" for three years, unable to leave. Once, Shanti says, she was sitting outside the brothel and her madam thought she was trying to escape. "The madam hit me with a burning stick," she says, pulling down her collar to show a scar near her neck.

Shanti and other women in her brothel were finally set free by a police raid. They might have had nowhere to go but the streets—if not for Prajwala, a Catholic Relief Services partner in India that fights sex trafficking. The name Prajwala means "eternal flame."

Freedom to Heal

Once rescued, the first step for Shanti and her counterparts was counseling with Prajwala. "They said, 'You can change your life.' I liked that," says Shanti. Prajwala also coordinated life skill courses for the young women. "They de-learn everything they learned in prostitution," says Reena Lal, a member of Prajwala's staff. There is rehab for addiction, medical help and psychological intervention. It's a slow process: "The trauma they've gone through—to unlearn that takes time," says Lal.

Many women escape prostitution only to find themselves drawn back in because they have no other options. With support from Catholic Relief Services and the Sieben Foundation, Prajwala trains young women in skills like bookbinding and carpentry, and offers them employment in Prajwala's own printing and carpentry businesses. Dressed in simple dark-blue smocks, Shanti and several dozen young women in the print shop make business cards, notebooks and more; those in the furniture shop make beds and desks.

'Try to Save Other Girls'

The young women find particular inspiration in the words of Dr. Sunitha Krishnan, the founder of Prajwala. Dr. Krishnan survived abuse as a young teen and now devotes her life to helping young women who are at risk. "Ms. Sunitha has general meetings and tells us good things, like 'You should work hard and be independent—and try to save other girls,' " Shanti says.

CRS and Prajwala have partnered to raise awareness about the hundreds of thousands of women and children sold into the flesh trade in India. With the support of CRS, Prajwala's team researched and wrote "Shattered Innocence," a study of sex trafficking in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. "Shattered Innocence" became the foundation for Andhra Pradesh's first-ever state policy on trafficking in the country. CRS and Prajwala have also advocated for improving standards of care in all shelter homes for survivors of trafficking.

Prajwala has plenty of experience creating a loving and restorative environment for such survivors. Near their bookbinding shop is their shelter for girls ages 7 to 17. All have endured sexual or other forms of abuse; some have HIV. "The younger the child, the higher the price," says Lal of children sold into prostitution. Human traffickers hide their valuable commodities carefully whenever they fear raids. Some traffickers have hidden children in a water tank on top of a building, or kept them in basements. "Sometimes there are false ceilings and walls," says Lal.

Safe at Last

The young women in Prajwala's print shop make items like business cards and stationery. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS
The young women in Prajwala's print shop make items like business cards and stationery. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Some girls in the Prajwala shelter are orphans; still others are at risk because their older sisters or mothers might be involved in prostitution. But whatever happened to them in their past, the girls are safe now.

"Their behavior totally changes here," says Kranthi, a social worker at the shelter, which is funded in part by the Vista Hermosa Foundation. Each day, 120 little girls take classes, play board games and race each other outside. They have picnics, go to the occasional movie, and enjoy festivals and summer camps. They are taught they have value far different from what buyers and brokers see in them.

Lakshmi*, a 17-year-old in a pink dress with a beautiful wide smile, has been at the shelter for years. "I was 8 when I came here. My father died of cancer, and my mom left. I worked in another house as a domestic servant—washing dishes, sweeping floors—and they beat me." Lakshmi was scared when she first heard about the Prajwala shelter: "I thought that the hostel staff would beat me." Now, however, she talks glowingly of her teachers, her computer studies and field hockey, her favorite sport. Looking around at her laughing, chattering classmates, it's not difficult to believe Lakshmi's words about the girls who come here: "They forget their sorrows."

Speaking of the young women in her care, Dr. Krishnan knows that their painful pasts are only one part of a larger journey. "So long as I concentrate on the pain and trauma, I might miss out on their power and resilience," Dr. Krishnan wrote on her blog. "Through unconditional love, empathy and acceptance, the child was able to see the beautiful person within."

Focusing on the strength and beauty inside each person, Prajwala has saved hundreds of young women from a life of sexual servitude. "I'm happy I got this opportunity to start afresh," says Shanti. "I will never go back to that kind of life."

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of survivors.