Editor's note: Mala is a pseudonym — we had to change her name because victims of crimes under Indian law are not allowed to be named.
NEW DELHI, India — Mala was just 18 when her boyfriend, Rohit, convinced her to leave their dreary, conservative little village in northeastern India for a city where they could be anonymous, and live freely together.
In retrospect — she took off with Rohit around three years ago — she knew it wasn’t a well-considered plan. Mala didn’t question him about where they would live exactly or how they would survive. She knew only that she wanted to leave her small world with the man she loved.
“We left in the dead of the night, I had packed some clothes, but that was it,” she said. “One of his friends was waiting a little outside the village in a van. We got in and drove for maybe five hours before we stopped. I did not know the name of the place, but I thought we would leave (there) after a short break.”
Mala soon realized she’d been duped. “I saw a lady giving a big bunch of money to Rohit,” she said. “He told me he was going out for half an hour, and after that I did not see him again.”
She had fallen for a scam that’s widespread throughout India, a country that has more people trapped in modern-day slavery than anywhere else on the planet. Here, madams and pimps will pay between $300 and $800 for new prostitutes, anti-slavery advocates say.
According to the Global Slavery Index, 14.2 million of the 35.8 million people enslaved throughout the world are in India. The index singles out women and children as disproportionately affected. India is a major destination for sex trafficking, particularly from other South Asian countries.
“There are reports of women and children from India and neighboring countries being recruited with promises of non-existent jobs and later being sold for sexual exploitation, or being forced into sham marriages,” the index found, noting that only 13 offenders were convicted of sexual trafficking in 2013.
For the first few days of her captivity, Mala declined the food and water offered by prostitutes and other brothel workers, and cried in the room she shared with five other young women.
“I knew I was in a brothel and I knew I would be asked to service men sooner or later,” she said.
Eventually, the brothel owner — an older woman called Mummy — summoned Mala.
“She gave me some clothes and some jewelry and told me to dress up. She said a man was coming to see me that evening and if I wanted to keep getting food and water, I would have to work for it,” she recalled. “If I refused, I would be beaten up and deprived of food and water. Sometimes, even if I refused, men were still sent to my room and they forced themselves on me.”
A year ago, policemen raided Mala’s brothel and others in the district. Some of the officers, she said, had visited the place before as regular clients. Police said they rescued 45 girls, including eight minors, who said they were either brought to brothels under false pretenses or kidnapped and trafficked and then forced into sex work. Like Mala, many had fallen for boys who turned out to be recruiters.
After the rescue, police brought the girls a shelter run by Tatvasi Samaj Nyas, a nongovernmental organization that assists victims of slavery. Vithika Yadav, a consultant who works with Tatavasi Samaj Nyas and runs Love Matters India, a sex education website, said their rehabilitation was long and at times painful.
“For the first few weeks or so, we just let them grieve, we did not force them to talk or ask them details about where they were from,” Yadav said. “It’s important initially to just let them sleep, to rest. Anyway, they did not trust us at all at first, they would tell us fake names and fake ages. It was very difficult to get them to talk.”
A few weeks later, once the women adjusted to their new life, Tatavasi Samaj Nyas got to work. Indian law mandates that victims of sexual trafficking be rehabilitated and integrated into society within six months. But that’s not always possible, Yadav said.
“Some of the minors were born in the brothel itself, others were trafficked — the law is a bit tricky when it comes to women rescued from sexual exploitation,” she said. “One of the first things we have to do is contact the families of the girls, and give them the option of going back home. In many cases, families are directly involved in the trafficking. Then we have to find another solution.”
Mala and the others who either found jobs or went home were lucky. Others went to another government-run home. Some of the minors rescued from Purnia are still living in the Tatvasi Samaj Nyas shelter.
“We are still counseling them, and helping them get over the trauma,” Yadav said. "They are also being given basic education and vocational training to help them find jobs once they come of age. For instance, we teach them how to work in a beauty salon or sewing.”
These days, Mala works as a maid in Patna, eastern India. She doesn't like to talk about what happened to her, and she is reluctant to provide more details of her years in captivity.
She is afraid, she says.
“My current owners don’t know what happened to me, and I don’t want them to,” she said. “I want the past to stay in the past.”