AT nine, Meena from Nepal's Chit-wan district lost her childhood in dirty beds stacked in house number 787, gali no. 13 in Kamatipura, Mumbai's red-light area. She was bought and sold many times a day. By at least seven men daily, for four years.
But the terrible transactions had begun much earlier. "First my stepmother took money and sent me to work with a man, he sold me to Neetu in Mumbai who sold me to Tara in Kamatipura," Meena prattles. "I don't know for how much. Must be a lot. Five or six thousand." With no awkwardness whatsoever, she tells you how she fell sick once because she'd serviced too many customers. Then, her fragile face urging one to believe what she obviously thinks is the worst part of her story, she complains: "Tara beat me a lot. Every time I felt too sick to work, she'd beat me on my knees. At times I thought I wouldn't be able to walk."
Then, the child in Meena emerges again. She talks of the good times she had in Mumbai. "When I worked well and pleased customers, I was permitted to see films. Ajay Devgan is my favourite hero," she giggles, pointing shyly at the cine-star's pin-up in her corner of the Kathmandu shelter that now houses her. But that isn't the only souvenir Meena's got from Mumbai: she's also got back STDs, tuberculosis and the HIV virus.
Yes, fair, young Nepali flesh sells well in Indian brothels. Grotesque appetites demand this tender, white commodity. To use and abuse. Till it wears out, sickens and is discarded. Then fresh supply is procured from across the border again. And dumped for consumption in the squalid shops that trade in female flesh.
Every year between 5,000 and 7,000 Nepali girls are trafficked into the filthy red-light areas of our metros. Many of them barely nine or 10 years old. Traumatised children, teenagers and young women who are trapped into the Indian sex trade that already has about 200,000 Nepali girls on offer. Sold by their ignorant, poor parents or hoodwinked into fraudulent marriages or promised employment in towns, these vulnerable, unsuspecting girls are lured out of their remote hilly homes and deprived lives, only to find themselves in Hindustan's depressingly dingy brothels. Where they're locked up for days, starved and beaten till they learn how to service up to 25 clients a day. Till they learn how to cope with cigarette butts being stubbed out on their young bodies. Till they learn to live with the festering diseases they earn in their business.
Rescued through a police raid in Kamatipura, Meena was repatriated to Kathmandu along with 138 other Nepali girls. She lives in one of the several shelters run by various Kathmandu-based NGOs working against trafficking and towards rehabilitation of girls who manage to escape or are rescued from a hellish existence in Indian brothels. Relatives of these rescued girls generally don't want them back. Neither is Nepal's government particularly keen on making the mountain kingdom a "dumping ground for HIV infections bred in India's brothels".
Unaware of just how unwanted they are, meanwhile, Meena and her friends try to recreate their lost childhood in the Maiti Nepal shelter in Kathmandu. Some of them have little time to live. Thirteen-year-old Shanta, it seems, is defying her deadline with death. HIV-positive and suffering from severe TB, she manages giggles between bouts of wheezing coughs. She's amused by Meena's fascination with Bollywood stars and says she likes the sewing lessons she takes at the shelter. She wants to be a tailor when she grows up. If she grows up.
From the poverty-stricken areas of Makwanpur district in Nepal, Shanta was too young to comprehend the forces which dragged her to Mumbai's brothels. But she does have stark memories of a nine-year-old Nepali girl's initiation into prostitution. "She was a scared little thing. Really tiny. She was thrashed till her nose bled. Then a man was sent into the room she was locked up in. Her screams had us shivering. She was torn apart, couldn't walk for weeks," recalls Shanta, voice shaking with reminiscent fear.
Ganga, 23, comforts Shanta. Hugging her tight, the older girl introduces herself as a former intern at house no. 811, gali no. 11 at Kamatipura. Married at age 10 to a boy she never met after the wedding, Ganga says she eloped with another man at age 14. "He said he was a rich man in Delhi and he loved me. He took me to some hotel somewhere that already had three other girls whom he'd also promised to marry. We were all herded together and sold later," says a matter-of-fact Ganga, no sense of shock betraying her tone. Having known too many girls who'd fallen prey to such proclamations of love only to be sold in the brothel where she worked many years, Ganga's equanimity is expected.
DISCUSSING a perverse rate-list, Nirmala says the brothel owners had priced her between Rs 100 for an hour and Rs 1,000 for a night. Her dancing talents would often have customers tipping her extra. But she got no part of the money. She sighs wearily: "The madam kept it all. I worked so much and returned with absolutely nothing." Except the HIV virus.
"Infinite misery, humiliation and the Virus are the gifts these girls got from India. Thank you," says a sarcastic Anuradha Koirala, a committed activist who runs the Maiti Nepal shelter. Adored by her young inmates, Koirala says she's tired of nursing girls about to die. Working against an apathetic government that believes activists like her are adding to Nepal's HIV statistics, combating, capturing and keeping tabs on 'procurers', running prevention camps in remote hilly hamlets to help people understand the realities of Indian brothels, Koirala's exhausted. But hasn't given up.
Working against a handful of activists like Koirala are organised forces that have a much easier task at hand. And many more returns for their work. Rows of their photographs are pasted on the shelter's walls: young and old, men and women, who've been caught red-handed. But there are many others still on the move. The 1,740 mile-long open border between India and Nepal poses little problem for these traffickers who've been known to ferry large groups of girls at a time. Without the hassle of paperwork or any threats of checking. It's no risk at all compared to smuggling narcotics and electronic equipment into India.
"Procuring" girls is perhaps the most shockingly simple part of the trafficking trade. Sometimes for a mere Rs 1,000 in Nepali currency, a daughter's bought off her parents, no questions asked. Sometimes, promises of a glamorous lifestyle and unemployment are incentives enough to lure illiterate prey from isolated, remote, poor villages into the Indian metros.
A procurer-pimp-police nexus makes the process even smoother. Bought for meagre sums, these girls have been known to fetch up to Rs 30,000 in the last rounds of negotiations. The police, allegedly awarded weekly hafta by brothel managers, ignores these transactions and the existence of minors in sleazy sex shops. And the girls spend their most lucrative years in shameful sexual slavery, earning to repay the money spent in buying them. Old, weary, sick, often with children and attracting very few customers by the time they're through with repayment, these women in prostitution are then allowed to keep a part of the money.
IT hurts me to think that this exploitation might never stop. Because for some there is too much easy money in it, for others there's nothing to be gained by lobbying for its abolition. But surely, for now, it can be monitored. Its magnitude can be lessened," says Kathmandu-based Durga Ghimire, chairperson of a 98-NGO-strong pressure group National Network Groups Against Trafficking. She feels that the alarmingly low rates of female literacy, coupled with the traditionally low status of the girl-child in Nepal have to be addressed to tackle the problem. After all, the areas most scoured by the traffickers, observes Ghimire, are the illiterate and isolated ones of Sindhupalchow, Makwanpur, Dhading and Khavre.
In agreement, Gauri Pradhan of Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Centre (CWIN) emphasises the need for collaboration by the two governments on this issue. "Fiery commitment by NGOs in both countries has put the issue on international agendas. To no avail really if both governments continue to be indifferent," the activist observes.
With over 250,000 Bangladeshi girls entrenched in the brothels of India and Pakistan, thousands being supplied constantly from Nepal into our country, it's certainly time to focus on this issue. India, along with Thailand and the Philippines, has the disgraceful distinction of housing 1.3 million children in its sex-trade centres. Most of them trafficked: from a third world to a first world situation. With relatively poorer areas supplying and relatively richer ones consuming. After all, it's the poor rural areas that supply victims for the flesh trade that thrives in metros.
"What use is the government's efforts towards rescuing these girls, if we've neither commitment nor any agenda for their rehabilitation?" asks Indrani Sinha of the Calcutta-based Sanlaap, an NGO that works towards the rights of prostitutes, their children and rescued children forced into prostitution. Macho police rescue operations often see young children dumped in government homes, where they languish. No country comes forward to claim them and they are too young to know their addresses in their homeland. "Thirteen 'rescued' Nepali girls are waiting to be picked up even now. Though there is no paperwork to get them out of their country and into the brothels, it is amazing to see how much of it has to be done before they can be gotten out of these homes and sent back to their country," says the harassed activist.
Ruchira Gupta, who has filmed heart-rending stories of trafficked children from Nepal to India in her Emmy-award winning documentary The Selling of Innocents, says elimination of sexual exploitation is perhaps the only way to end this human rights violation. "It's a long haul, we've to change and challenge society. The trafficking and the trade are getting institutionalised, it's a modern form of sexual slavery," she warns.
Not surprising then that Sinha of Sanlaap says some of the rescued girls she's spoken to talk of having been through rigorous 'training' before being initiated into the flesh trade. Constant exposure to blue films, tutorials in how to 'please' customers and repeated rapes are part of the lessons.
Lessons that are the only education civilised society provides these unfortunate children. Shameful lessons in Sex Education.
(Some names have been changed to protect identities.)