Woman's feet in chains

This is what it feels like to be sex trafficked at 14, in the words of a survivor

Nicknamed the “City of Joy”, Kolkata, in eastern India, is a city most commonly associated with Mother Teresa, temples and cultural riches. Yet it also has a darker side. It is a major hub for sex trafficking. Located close to the borders with Nepal and Bangladesh, Kolkata is home to the notorious Sonagachi district, the biggest red light district in South Asia, where an estimated 10,000 sex workers ply their trade. But now, away from this area, a new breed of brothel is emerging. Privately owned, they are located in unassuming buildings, and are more discreet and better shielded from law enforcement. Furthermore, more often than not, they deal in minors. 

Somewhere, amid the rabbit-warren that is Kolkata, sits the nondescript apartment block where Sadhna, who is now 19, was forcibly prostituted. She is just one of many victims; according to figures from the Indian government, almost 20,000 women and children were victims of human trafficking in India in 2016, although the real figure is believed to be much higher. Coming from neighbouring countries and other Indian states, they are often lured there on the promise of work, only to find there was never a job. Some end up in domestic slavery, performing menial household tasks; others end up sweating in textile factories for hours on end. But a large proportion end up in brothels, held against their will and forced into the sex trade.

Sharing her story with Global Citizen and the International Justice Mission, Sadhna explained how she went from a loving - if poor - childhood, to a living hell, after her father died and the family were left destitute. “I felt like I was left all alone to take care of my family,” Sadhna explains. “At age 12 or 13 a girl dreams of her future and her studies, but I couldn’t afford to do that. I would always think how to protect my family or educate my younger sister and take care of my mother.”

Initially working as a housekeeper, Sadhna fell prey to traffickers while doing something all of us have done at one point or another - looking for a job that paid a better wage. While attending what was supposed to be an interview, (where she asked to leave because she felt uncomfortable), she accepted a glass of water; only to wake up lying on the floor a few hours later, naked and disorientated, in a room full of beer bottles and strange men. This was the first time she was raped. She was 14 years old.

For the next two months, her body was sold multiple times per day, to men she had never met before, in a room “not even big enough for a single bed”. Sadhna is, understandably reluctant to go too far into the details of her experience, but it is clear it was a painful one: “The customers who visited me at that house didn’t behave very nicely with me. They were so bad I can’t even discuss it now … I felt worthless and couldn’t see any way out of it.”

Having been threatened with violence by her madam, running away was not an option: “She told me that two men would be following me, and if I tried to contact anyone she would get my mother and sister killed”, she explained. “Those people were constantly calling me up and threatening me of dire consequences if I didn’t turn up. They even sent men to follow me. I had no other option but to go back to them.”

Mercifully, Sadhna’s experience of sexual slavery turned out to be relatively short-lived in comparison to some other women’s ordeals; many women spend years, or even decades, in sexual slavery. After an investigation by the International Justice Mission, police raided the house and her madam was arrested, but the psychological impact had already taken its toll: “I stopped caring about anything in life. I had faced the worst experience of my life and didn’t bother anymore about anything else," Sadhna recounted.

Sadhna bravely testified in court against her madam and is now back in education, and hopes to become a social worker to help other girls and women still in her situation. But the truth is, her place in the sex industry has already been filled, not once, not twice, but many times over. The International Justice Mission claims that private brothels, such as the one she was forced into, are becoming increasingly commonplace, and children’s charity UNICEF believes that two million children are currently being exploited in the sex trade globally.

Ultimately, it is a situation that is too horrendous to turn a blind eye to, and yet too complex and widespread to really get a grip on. Traffickers prey on poverty and desperate situations, and as long as these exist, there will be a constant supply of vulnerable women and children to take advantage of. In the meantime, we can learn from the experiences and the bravery of survivors such as Sadhna, empower them as much as possible and pursue traffickers. And hopefully, in doing so, make the world a slightly better place. 

International Justice Mission is the world’s largest international anti-slavery organisation. With a focus on human rights, law and law enforcement, it works to protect people all across the world from violence.