Featured Story | Arpana

 When girls are rescued, they are immediately sent to a government remand home while the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) processes their case. Our social worker visits the newly rescued girls every week to provide counselling and support. It’s heartbreaking work. Within just a few weeks after rescue many of the young girls are released by the CWC. Brothel keepers posing as parents falsify birth certificates and demand the release of the girls. The CWC, fully aware of the ruse, release the girls back into the custody of the perpetrators. Back in the hands of their brothel keepers, the girls often show up in subsequent raids. The same girls rescued only months before are rescued yet again and released again.

In spite of this, each girl has a window of time, a few precious weeks, with access to one of our social workers. Arpana was rescued three times, once by the police and twice by us. Arpana actively resisted attempts at friendship and to listen to descriptions of a future life beyond prostitution. When Arpana’s brothel keepers claimed her, the government rubber stamped her return back to prostitution. After her second rescue, she responded angrily to overtures of friendship, saying, “This is the only work I can do, there is nothing else for me.”

When the brief window of opportunity closed again, and Arpana was released once again to her perpetrators, we were devastated. The CWC’s refusal to protect Arpana only reinforced her belief that to struggle against her fate was completely hopeless. Our investigators found Arpana once again in a brothel and she was rescued for a third time. When our social worker approached her in the government remand home, a transformation had clearly taken place. All traces of hostility and defiance were gone. She said, “Didi (sister), this was the third time I was rescued, I think God must have a plan for my life.

Restoration | Raji’s wedding

I first met Raji during  regular lunch break in the office in January. She hardly spoke and seemed to think a lot. I was acting as intern Ruhamah workshop manager until they could find a replacement and I could go back to my job as a communications manager. What I heard from my colleagues was different – Raji was a giggle bag, mischievous and also trustworthy. In the days that followed our initial meeting I got to know her better. Neither of us had a common language we could communicate in; she was comfortable in Kannada, which I was slowly picking up. Our initial conversations were punctuated with large gaps of silence which ended in laughter. She had large round expressive eyes that conveyed joy, mischief and fear.

Raji seldom shared her life story easily, but opened up one morning tearfully with an ordeal she dealt with when she was in the brothel. She remembered a time when she was locked up in the attic by her brothel keeper to prevent her from being rescued by the police. In the brothel she faced abuse and also contracted HIV. It was only after her rescue and admission into a shelter home that she learnt details about this life-threatening disease. She was transferred from Mumbai, where she was rescued and placed in a shelter home in her home state. She was linked to the HIV positive network in that area where the staff provided counselling, and practical advice on self-care. As far as I remembered, she never failed to take her medicine on time and was always careful about maintaining a good diet.

Every Saturday rescued girls in the aftercare program joined other volunteers to assist physically challenged children to ride on horses. Raji looked forward to Saturdays so that she could meet the children and show her love and affection for them. Like many rescued girls, Raji’s dream was to be married some day. It didn’t come as a surprise when we learned that she wanted to have three children after she was married. However the likelihood of girls finding husbands willing to marry them after their experiences in the brothel and after contracting HIV is next to impossible.  Good men are hard to find.  The HIV positive network assisted her to find a partner within the network and in a few weeks her marriage was fixed. Raji was brimming with joy. She made several trips between her hometown and Ooty in May to make arrangements for her wedding.She brought her fiance to the office to receive the blessing of the staff. Her fiance had a good job at a garment factory, his eyes met ours, his glances at Raji showed amusement and warm affection.  Surprising to all of us, Raji had found a good guy. As her wedding day soon approached she alternated between times of extreme happiness and extreme anxiety.  We constantly assured her that  we would support her through that time of preparation. Freedom Firm staff and two other rescued girls attended her wedding, which was simple yet beautiful.  She is now settled with her husband in his hometown, three hours away from her parent’s home.  She contacts us from time to time to let us know how she is doing and dreams of coming to work at Ruhamah Designs once again.

Justice | Serina’s bold testimony

When our social worker visited Serina  two months ago in her village to ask  her to come and testify against her brothel keeper, her response was ‘No’. Her parents did not know that Serina  was trafficked and sold to a brothel and then rescued by Freedom Firm’s investigation team in 2009. Years ago, when she had been reunited with her family she made up a story that she was lost and then found by Freedom Firm staff.  Five years later when the social worker asked her to testify, long after she had moved on with her life,  she was afraid. Now she was married and had children. She was not ready to jeopardize her relationship with her family and her status in the community. She had too much to lose. But when the social worker reminded her that a policeman would come to her door and summon her to court, she realized that the chance of exposure was even  greater. Serina quickly changed her mind and decided to testify.

Boarding a train, five year after her trafficking must have triggered many painful memories for Serina. However, this time the train journey had a different purpose.  This time she was a courageous woman seeking justice not a powerless victim.  She was going to testify against the person who perpetrated atrocities against her. She knew that without her cooperation the law would be powerless to punish the brothel keeper.

 Serina wanted to seek justice but the realities of life would make this journey extremely challenging and almost insurmountable. First, her mother agreed to go along with her but then her employer refused to give her leave. Then, halfway through the journey her mother called and said that her child was sick and crying uncontrollably. Serina was at a crossroad.  Should she travel to Pune to testify or stay back in West Bengal and look after her sick child?  She knew that she would never have the chance to testify again. She made the choice to continue her journey. Surprisingly, her father, mother and child travelled from the village to Kolkata, so that her child could travel with her to court.Serina, no longer a victim, no longer even a puppet of circumstance and family whims, took charge of her own life in this moment and boldly testified against her brothel keeper, Lata Thapa.