Womens' Stories - What makes us a social enterprise - life beyond human trafficking.
When Menaka* was 12 her family was forced out of their home in Bangladesh along with other Hindu families. They managed to escape to a refugee camp on the border of India.
Menaka made friends with a 30 year old woman in one of the nearby houses where she used to sneak in to use the toilet. The woman often asked Menaka to go to Calcutta with her. Menaka always refused, until one day, she had a fight with her sister and without telling her parents, left with her friend for Calcutta.
Menaka’s friend took her to Calcutta’s largest red-light district and sold her to a brothel owner for 1000 rupees (US$20). The brothel owner’s sister was furious, “Why have you bought such a young girl?” she yelled at Menaka’s owner. “Send her back now!” But if they sent Menaka back her family they would find out what had happened. So Menaka waited while they decided what to do with her.
At this time, a man took a liking to Menaka and negotiated a price with her madam – 500 rupees: Menaka was a virgin and worth a high price. The man took her to a room, locked the door and sat her down. He drank whiskey, she drank Coca Cola - she’d never heard of it before but accepted it and drank. She began to feel groggy and realized that she had been drugged. As the man began to make advances, Menaka tried to run, releasing one door bolt but she couldn’t reach the top bolt. Twelve-year-old Menaka was raped.
Over the next few months, Menaka was moved from brothel to brothel to avoid detection by police looking for underage girls. Eventually she was abandoned in Ram Bagan a small red-light area where she stayed. It was there a notorious local gangster took an interest in Menaka and they began to live together.
When men approached Menaka for sex, the gangster would chase them away, even beat them - he had fallen in love. He wanted her to stop selling her body. Looking back now, Menaka says: “He stopped me - and I stopped him.” Today Menaka’s husband has abandoned crime; he’s a mild-mannered man whom Menaka has learned to love. They both still live in the main lane where many girls stand in line waiting for customers but life is very different now.
Over the years, Menaka’s parents tracked her down but the shame surrounding her situation meant there was no communication. Joining Freeset gave Menaka tremendous hope - and she learned to dream of seeing her family again.
After a 30 year absence, she was able to pluck up the courage to visit her mother in Bangladesh (her father had already died). They were reconciled and Menaka was able to visit several times before her mother died.
No longer a victim of human trafficking but a survivor who has recreated her future.
The years Shyamali* spent married as a young girl were filled with agony and shame- Shyamali was barren. She found little understanding from her parents, who also blamed her for the barrenness and divorce.
Forced from her home, Shyamali went to live with an aunt. There, while sitting at a local tea shop, she was introduced to a man who asked where her husband was. She poured out her story to the stranger. He listened, and appeared to understand. When he offered to take her to Calcutta and find her a good job, she thought that someone finally cared enough help. This was the first step for her being trafficked.
Telling her aunt she was going to see her mother, Shyamali left for Calcutta. As soon as she arrived the man took her to Sonagacchi and sold her to a madam. On the first day she was treated very nicely. On the second day she was given a very short skirt – she asked what to do with it. “Don’t you know where you are?” her madam replied. “Wear this and go on the road and wait for customers.” Shyamali refused. Her madam said, “OK – you pay me my money back. If you don’t, all the pimps will beat you up.” It was then she discovered that the man who brought her to Calcutta was a pimp.
Afraid, she put on the skirt. They cut her hair and forced her onto the road. Her madam, still unhappy with her response, beat her so badly that the scars on her head remain today.
Sick of her outbursts on the street, Shyamali’s madam sent her to her daughter’s brothel. There, she and many others were kept indoors, with the customers brought to the womens’ rooms. None of the women were allowed out of their rooms at all. They never saw the same man twice, just in case a customer took a liking to a woman and tried to release her.
A year later, while the brothel-keeper was in hospital, one of the women told Shyamali to run away while she could. Shyamali stole 4 saris, a box of money and caught a bus to return to her aunt’s. Once there, she learned that her mother was worried sick about her. It was hard to go back home, but Shyamali missed her mother, too. She found her mother in a state, with a broken wrist. Using the stolen money, Shyamali paid for her mother’s treatment and nursed her.
Having few options, Shyamali went to work at a brothel in Asansol for a few months, where she met a woman who took her back to Sonagacchi. Her new madam treated her well, and even when she moved to an area close by would visit and check that she was OK.
Five years ago Shyamali met a man who has become her husband. She has new hope for the future. Today she doesn’t have to stand in line, waiting for men to use her. She has a stake in a business in Calcutta. Although she has only recently learned to sew jute bags, her progress is rapid. Soon she might become a supervisor and perhaps one day she will count other women who she is helping as her children – the ones she never had.
Bashanti* was born into a loving but poor family in Bangladesh. Her parents arranged her marriage to a local 16 year-old boy.
Her new family treated her as a slave. Athough she was only 7 or 8 when she married, she was expected to fully participate as his wife. At fifteen, she bore a son who died 18 days later.
Her grief and shame forced her back to her father’s house. She remembers her father sat crying while they fetched her mother to tell her the news.
In Bashanti’s second marriage, she was also abused by the family. There abuse turned to torture when her second son also died. Again she ended up back in her father’s house.
Bashanti then had a series of jobs where she found herself sexually harassed. When she declined a proposal for marriage, in fear of it ending like the first two, her job was terminated. It was while she was working in a rice field that she was offered a sewing job in Calcutta by another women. That is how Bashanti ended up being traffciked to Sonnagachi.
Bashanti remembers her first customer like it was yesterday. She was chosen from the many women who stood in line. Having negotiated with the man, her madam said to her “boste dow” (it means, in Bangla, give him a seat), so she did what she was told and asked the man to sit down. After 20 minutes of sitting and waiting the man became furious. “How long will I sit,” he demanded. Banshanti hadn’t realised that “boste dow” was street language for sex. She couldn’t bring herself to do it. She fought and screamed and the man eventually gave up and left in a rage. Her madam, furious at her loss of income, beat her.
Bashanti learned she was going to be moved again. She hoped they had given up on her and would let her be a housemaid. But her new “home” proved to be the place where she would give in. The house was full of girls from Bangladesh, all of them in the sex trade. She remembers their advice: “We got trapped too, but we had no choice. We had to compromise and so do you if you want to survive.” That night Bashanti gave up.
She says she always imagined, even after her divorces, that one day she would be a housewife with a husband and children. Now her nights were no longer for sleeping – there were customers, and tears.
Bashanti spent many years in the trade, moving around different red-light areas of Calcutta. But though she was trapped, she always remembered her responsibility towards her family. She managed to arrange for her two younger sisters to get married, and her focus today is to care for her elderly parents and little brother – along with her 2 ½-year-old daughter and a new man who looks after her well.
Bashanti was introduced to Freeset by a friend who had also been in the sex trade. Freedom was something that she had forced herself not to think about. Now, she has completed 3 months training and is ready to sew export-quality jute bags.
In a way, it brings her back full circle: She came to Calcutta with the promise of a sewing job. Many years later, she’s doing just that – and not just sewing. Freeset is about freedom. Bashanti sews bags for freedom.