Fighting as a girl: Stories of change

“Dignity is something that I believe cannot be taken away by the unwanted circumstances that a person goes through. In my case, it took quite some time to regain my dignity. Today, I am not just a survivor of human trafficking, but a leader and an entrepreneur,” says Shashi from a remote village of West Bengal’s South 24 Paraganas district.

“Being part of the Self-Help Group Nirbhaya has really changed my life. I am learning new skills and earning with pride. It has changed people’s perception towards me. I have started earning respect from the same people in our community who had stigmatized me following my rescue,” informs the 21-year-old survivor of human trafficking who is now an active member of survivor leaders’ collective in the region that focuses on building support systems and inspire leadership in communities to prevent trafficking.

Shashi was trafficked at the age of 14 in 2014 and after 6 years of exploitation at brothels in Pune, she could succeed to escape from there and reach her village. Earlier as well she had tried several times to flee from there but each time was caught, and the torture increased in many times.

Her mother brought her to a local NGO as she was very depressed following her repatriation and because they needed support on the legal case against the traffickers. They connected her with other survivors who provided her the much-needed moral support and counselling. She also became a member of the SHG group they created to generate some sort of livelihood opportunities for the survivor leaders. Shashi received a loan of Rs 10,000 from the SHG and started a stationary business, which has since been going very well for her.

Survivors of human trafficking often find themselves in tremendous psychological and financial distress following their rescue and repatriation as they do not have immediate and smoother access to proper rehabilitation services or financial aids. So, any economic empowerment for them works like a magic bullet that provides some income and increases their bargaining power in their households and communities. It also helps them mitigate the stigma and regain their confidence; dignity as well as their agency.

Rabeya’s is a similar story of courage and hope. When the 20-year-old survivor of trafficking returned home following her rescue in 2016, she witnessed a terrible financial distress at home. Somehow, they were managing to live with whatever the family was earning. But during the Covid-19 lockdown, her husband lost his job and arranging a square meal for the family became a struggle for them.

“I felt terribly helpless and started to believe that I have become a burden for the family members who were already in a dire situation,” says Rabeya, who was later contacted by the survivor leaders of the region and became a part of an SHG Aadyashakti. She received a loan of Rs 10000 through which she bought a sewing machine for her husband who then resumed his tailoring business. Rabeya also reared some chickens in her backyard, and little by little she began to pay off her family debts and managed to take care of her family needs.

Although it has reduced a bit, Rabeya still faces stigma in her community, and she believes that is because some people are jealous of her. “Some people always want you to suffer. If you overcome your struggle and fear, they feel defeated. But there are people in the community who recognise your feet and they come forward to give you that respect. I am getting that now,” she adds.

Covid-19 has shaken the world upside down. It affected countless lives and hit a billion lives. And amidst that a new pandemic grew exponentially — human trafficking. Many women have been trafficked from West Bengal to different parts of India. Some were rescued. But after their return they are fighting an uphill battle. A battle to get back to their normal lives. There are a few like Rabeya who have shown great courage and fought that battle without losing hope and conviction. Survivor led SHGs have come handy for many young survivors of human trafficking to rebuild their lives and restore their dignity.

Survivor leaders with support from their mentoring organisations have so far formed 14 SHGs – 13 in South 24 Paraganas and one in Jalpaiguri districts – which are playing an important role in making the survivors rediscover themselves.

Nirupama, a survivor leader from Jalpaiguri district, says she never knew about SHGs. She sees this as a platform for the women, survivors for their economic empowerment and financial inclusion, where they can also share their feelings, problems and get solutions as group. This also leads to self-empowerment with decision making power, boosting confidence and most importantly fostering community-based rehabilitation.

“Earlier I never dreamt of buying things for myself. Now I can do that. Upon receiving the loan from SHG, I started a tailoring business which is now picking up well. I can now walk freely in my village. Nobody talks to me in a harsh manner. My parents can look me in the eye and feel proud. Yes, I am earning money. But that is not all. I am earning the respect of my peers,” says Nafisa, another survivor leader, whose voice resonates of her newfound confidence.

“Until now, I was simply known as a victim. But I am so much more than that. I am a strong, 19-year-old woman, who wants to help other people,” she adds with conviction.

Such small stories of change are scattered in the most vulnerable and marginalized parts of Bengal where survivors are fighting against all odds. Threats of their traffickers cannot cover them, deter them from sharing the stories, but fighting in the frontlines, advocating and facilitating policies against human trafficking.

The SHGs are proving to be a great medium for social and economic empowerment for these rural women. They are not just a conduit for credit, but also act as a delivery mechanism for various other services ranging from entrepreneurial or skills training to other forms of self-supporting and community development programs. The survivors are also being made aware of different government schemes that are aimed to support them. As a result, the chances of getting trafficked again have been reduced a lot.

The ability to earn is establishing them firmly in the society. As a result, they are beginning to speak up and their vulnerability of getting trafficked again have also been reduced to some extent. Survivor leaders along with other peer survivors’ collectives are now slowly but steadily restoring their lost identities. These women are not only fighting to change their own lives, but also fighting for others. They are reaching out to other survivor’s collective across country and have also set up Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking (ILFAT) – a national platform for and by survivors of all forms of human trafficking.

Together these women, who were battered by the society, crushed by poverty, and dishonoured by the criminals are standing up for their rights. Such tales will inspire generations of women, who will muster the courage to say ‘no’ against all forms of social discrimination. As the world observes International Women’s Day, these women need to remember and celebrated for their courage, hope and conviction!

Note: All names in this article are changed to protect identity.

DISCLAIMER: This story was published earlier as a blog on The Times of India, and has been republised here with the author's permission