Every year, 12,000 women and girls are trafficked from Nepal to a life of sexual servitude in India. Many can never go back, but one survivor wants to build them a new home
KATHMANDU, Nepal --The room was sweltering and bare except for the bed. When 14-year-old Sunita Danuwar woke up, she had no idea where she was. She had on strange clothes; her hair had been cut. "And there were men staring at me like I was fresh meat," says Danuwar. "I just sat there and cried."
Danuwar, now 34, quickly learned that she -- like 12,000 other Nepali women and girls a year -- had been trafficked hundreds of miles away to an Indian brothel. She doubts her family sold her, but can't be sure. The last thing she remembers is her parents befriending two young men, who gave her something sweet to eat. After that she fell unconscious.
When she came-to in Mumbai, she asked a heavily made-up girl what was going on. The girl told her she was there to work. "I thought she meant washing dishes or clothes," says Danuwar. "But the owner showed up and told me, 'I have bought you, and you have to please men.'"
Danuwar tried refusing, but says a man who guarded the place came up to her with a long knife and threatened, "If you don't do this work, I'll cut you up and throw you on the street like a stray dog." She was soon sold to another brothel where the owner forced her to line up with the other girls -- "there were 40 of them, the youngest about nine" -- to have sex with up to 30 clients a day. When she tried to say no, the men would often burn her with cigarettes. Running away was impossible; the girls were paid nothing and constantly under watch.
"Nepal is particularly bad right now," says Taina Bien-Aimé, the former president of Equality Now, which advocates for women's rights around the world. "It's extremely poor and these girls are prized for their fair skin in India. Most important, they are just not valued by the culture. Their families figure: I can marry her at 12 for a cow, or sell her to a trafficker -- what's the difference?"
According to the U.S. State Department, thousands of Nepali women and children are trafficked to Indian brothels every year. In 2007, Nepal enacted new laws that prohibit and punish trafficking. However, implementing those laws has been far more difficult. Nepal and India currently share an open border, which has been a goldmine for traffickers who smuggle women out of Nepal and into the Indian brothels where they are sold for as little as a few hundred dollars.
Danuwar was finally freed at age 16 in a police raid. In 1997, she helped found Shakti Samuha, which in Nepalese means, "the group that empowers." The organization is run by Danuwar and other survivors of sex trafficking. Shakti Samuha provides returning sex slaves with a safe haven, psychological counseling, education, and training for jobs like barista, seamstress, or beautician. Danuwar operates from a shelter on a dirt road across from a massive garbage dump in Kathmandu, Nepal. When I visited, one room in the shelter was filled with women learning to sew amid piles of donated potatoes.