About this story: To protect the privacy of the girls who were trafficked and to comply with Indian laws on identifying victims of sexual crimes, we are not disclosing their identities or those of their family members. We photographed them in ways intended to obscure their faces and altered some images to hide distinguishing features. We use pseudonyms for the girls featured in the story.
A shorter version of this article appears in the
October 2020 issue of
National Geographic magazine.
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Before they were sold to the same brothel, Sayeda and Anjali were typical teenagers, growing up in similar circumstances a few hundred miles apart: Sayeda in the city of Khulna in Bangladesh, and Anjali in Siliguri in West Bengal, India.
They nurtured the aspirations of teenagers everywhere—to get out from under their parents, to find love, to start living out their dreams. Both were naive about the world and couldn’t have imagined the cruelties it had in store.
Raised in a tiny two-room house in a squalid neighborhood, Sayeda spent much of her childhood on her own. Her mother would rise early and leave for the day to clean shops in New Market, one of Khulna’s commercial districts. Sayeda’s father was a cycle-rickshaw driver, ferrying passengers for a pittance. A struggling student, Sayeda dropped out of school before her teens, despite her mother’s admonishments that trouble would befall her.
Outgoing and free-spirited, Sayeda was quick to smile and made friends easily. What she loved most was to dance. When her parents were out, she would watch dance sequences from Hindi and Bengali movies on television, copying the moves. Sometimes, when her mother caught her, she would scold Sayeda. “Our neighbors didn’t like that she was always singing and dancing,” her mother told me.
Sayeda was beautiful, with a delicately chiseled face and almond-shaped eyes, and liked wearing makeup. She began to help out at beauty salons, learning about hairstyles, skin treatments, and cosmetics. Worried about the attention she was attracting from boys, her parents married her off when she was 13. Child marriage is common though illegal in much of South Asia. The husband Sayeda’s parents chose was abusive, and she went back to her family.
When Sayeda returned home, she implored her mother to let her enroll in a dance academy. “I’ll be able to perform in shows and make some money,” she said. Her mother relented, and Sayeda began dancing at weddings and other events. That’s when Sayeda became romantically involved with a boy who used to visit the academy. He told her he would take her to India, where she could earn a lot more as a dancer. Sayeda, imagining a future filled with promise, decided to run away with him.
Anjali, a graceful girl with bright eyes and high cheekbones, had similar reasons for wanting to leave home. Her family lived in a slum, in a makeshift dwelling. Raised primarily by her mother, who worked as a maid, she and her sister were so poor they fought over the few school supplies they could afford. By 13, Anjali had dropped out of school—the norm for many children from poor families across India. She started working at a factory, packaging snacks. Reserved by nature, Anjali didn’t have many friends. At home, her confidant was a baby goat she’d adopted, which followed her around, nibbling at her food during mealtimes and climbing into bed with her at night.
At the factory, Anjali met a young man who charmed her. Anjali knew her mother was on the lookout for a prospective groom for her, but she decided she wanted to be with the man she’d come to like. So, one evening in October 2016, during Durga Puja, a Hindu festival, Anjali put on a bright new salwar kameez, slipped out of the house, and took a bus to a train station to meet up with her boyfriend. To Anjali’s surprise, he was with another young man, but she boarded a train to Kolkata with them.
Searching frantically for Anjali that evening, her mother gathered that she’d been planning to elope for some time. In the days before Anjali disappeared, the neighbors had heard her speaking to her goat, saying: “Who is going to take care of you when I’m gone?”
Trafficking is a ‘growth industry’
Of all the depravities that afflict humankind, among the most shocking is the enslavement of children for sexual gratification. Sayeda and Anjali, who told their stories to me, are just two of countless victims. As with most criminal enterprises, determining the scale of this atrocity is impossible, but it’s clear that sex trafficking of minors is a multibillion-dollar industry that spans the globe. (Here’s why we’re telling this story.)
According to a frequently cited study by the International Labour Organization, more than a million children were victims of sexual exploitation in 2016. Because detecting child prostitution is difficult, the report conceded that the actual number was likely far higher. The most recent Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, found that the number of victims of trafficking reported by countries rose from fewer than 15,000 in 2010 to nearly 25,000 in 2016. The statistics represent only a fraction of the actual victims; most are never detected. The increase may reflect improved enforcement, but researchers believe it more likely reflects a grimmer reality—that human trafficking, including the trafficking of children for prostitution, is on the rise.
“We have 70 million refugees in the world at the moment. We have displaced people and increasing economic disparity,” says Louise Shelley, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective. “This is a growth industry.”
The scourge of child sex trafficking has left virtually no country untouched, but some parts of the world have emerged as hubs of this illicit trade. One that has been especially ravaged is the region where Sayeda and Anjali grew up—the Indian state of West Bengal and its neighbor Bangladesh, which once were a single province known as Bengal. Divided by a 1,400-mile international border but bound by a common cultural and linguistic heritage, the two areas share the misfortune of seeing thousands of girls sold into sexual slavery every year.
The actual toll is unknown, but numbers reported or estimated, however imperfect, point to a high volume of trafficking. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, West Bengal accounted for almost a quarter of the 34,908 cases of human trafficking reported in the country from 2010 to 2016, a staggeringly large share for a state that makes up about 7 percent of the country’s population. In 2017 alone, 8,178 children were reported missing from West Bengal, nearly an eighth of India’s total that year. A significant number of girls among them were almost certainly sold to brothels. The picture might be worse for Bangladesh: One government estimate suggested 50,000 girls are trafficked out of the country to India, or through India, every year—a figure that doesn’t include girls sold into prostitution within Bangladesh.
West Bengal is as much a destination as a source for girls who are trafficked into prostitution. The long border with Bangladesh and the 60 miles adjacent to Nepal include many unguarded stretches, allowing traffickers to smuggle girls into the state. Some end up in the red-light districts of Kolkata, a metropolis of more than 14 million people. Others are sold to brothels elsewhere in India—Delhi, Mumbai, Pune. (In India, commercial sex work is legal, but many activities associated with the trade, such as pimping or running a brothel, are illegal, as is engaging children in prostitution.) Girls trafficked into the country are sometimes then trafficked to the Middle East and elsewhere. For most of the girls ensnared by this sinister enterprise, there is no escape. Many resign themselves to a life of prostitution.
Not surprisingly, the biggest cause of this tragedy is the poverty that’s widespread in the region. Most of the girls who are trafficked fall for promises of employment or marriage because they’re desperate to flee the grinding maw of their everyday life. In a society that values women less than men and in which families often view girls as a burden, there are also some who are sold into slavery by their own parents or relatives. “It’s a socioeconomic problem resulting from poverty and illiteracy,” says Tathagata Basu, a police superintendent who has led anti-trafficking investigations in South 24 Parganas, one of the most affected districts in West Bengal.
In this fertile ground for trafficking, criminal networks behind the trade often operate with impunity. Some police officials are apathetic or corrupt, and officers assigned to anti-trafficking units are burdened with investigating all types of crimes in addition to trafficking. In recent years, though, these teams in West Bengal and throughout the country have intensified efforts to find and rescue girls sold to brothels, often under pressure from anti-trafficking activists.
“Whenever children go missing, we have to make sure that the police immediately start an investigation,” says Rishi Kant, a co-founder of Shakti Vahini, a Delhi-based nonprofit that has helped free hundreds of victims.
Nonprofits like the one Kant helped start also have stepped up searches for minors in red-light districts, leading to rescue operations with the police. Undercover investigators for these nonprofits visit brothels and dance bars posing as customers. They pass on the information to police and work with raid teams to plan and conduct rescues. It’s dangerous work.
Dipesh Tank, a social activist and founder of a Mumbai nonprofit, said one of his investigators was beaten up in a brothel after his spy camera was discovered. But the work also pays off, he said, describing a raid on a dance bar in a Mumbai suburb. “These guys had no clue that a raid was going to happen, because they were paying the cops,” Tank said. “When we entered, they were shocked. It was a huge loss for them. They tried to threaten us, to stop us.” The raid freed more than a dozen enslaved girls.
Still, India’s efforts to deal with sex trafficking are the equivalent of using a hammer to raze a fortress: The scale on which trafficking occurs is so huge that the solution requires a far more substantive and sustained law enforcement response, perhaps through a national agency dedicated solely to investigating trafficking cases.
After girls are rescued, many must fend for themselves, receiving little help from their impoverished or embarrassed families. Several nonprofit organizations run programs to rehabilitate victims of sex trafficking in the hope that they might be able to reunite with their families, overcome social stigma, and build decent lives for themselves. But to make a significant difference, state governments need to do much more to support rescued victims. “They should be able to live like you and me,” Kant says. “They should be empowered.”
‘I’ll kill you and dump you in the river’
The day Sayeda left home, the boy she eloped with took her by bus from Khulna to a town near the Indian border. Arriving at night, they walked through a forest until they got to a riverbank. Sayeda noticed others on the same path, including young girls, but didn’t think much of it. At the river’s edge, the boyfriend bribed a policeman, and the two climbed into a boat that dropped them on the other side. They were in India.
The boy took her to a house close to the river, where they stayed for a few nights. There, Sayeda met another girl who also had been brought over from Bangladesh, and she became suspicious. Sayeda confronted her boyfriend, and he told her she was going to work in a brothel. When she refused, he said, “I’ll kill you and dump you in the river.”
Even if she could have escaped, Sayeda didn’t know whom she could have turned to for help. She had entered India illegally, and she didn’t see how she could go to the police. “I got so scared that I said OK,” she said. “I said I’ll work as a dancer, fine. But I won’t do anything else.”
The boy sold Sayeda to a brothel in Mahishadal, a suburb of Haldia, a major river port and industrial city in West Bengal about 40 miles southwest of Kolkata. A dozen girls held captive at this brothel, including Sayeda and Anjali, talked to me about what their lives were like there.
This account is based on those interviews. All the girls told similar stories of their captivity.
One in a row of such establishments along a highway, the brothel was a two-story hotel named Sankalpa with about 24 small rooms and a dance bar located behind a restaurant. According to the girls, it was run by a man named Prasanta Bhakta. He could not be reached, and his lawyer declined to comment.
Sayeda, then 14, still believed she would be able to get away with only dancing for customers. She told me Bhakta disabused her of that notion right away by raping her. Sayeda learned from the other girls that this was his way of assessing what he could charge his customers for having sex with them. He had a color-coded system to advertise the different prices for the 20 or so sex workers he controlled, most of whom were minors. He had them sit on plastic chairs in the dance bar, where clients surveyed the girls and picked out the one they wanted.
New arrivals like Sayeda—deemed closest to virginhood—were the most expensive: 500 rupees, or about seven dollars. They were seated in white chairs. Others were assigned to blue chairs (400 rupees) and green chairs (300 rupees). Girls whom Bhakta judged as overweight or less attractive were made to sit in red chairs, with a price tag of 250 rupees. The clients paid Bhakta, who told the girls he would pay them once he made back what they’d cost him. They said they never saw any money.
The girls said Bhakta forced them to drink alcohol, to make them more pliable. Although Sayeda was resistant, she discovered that being intoxicated helped blunt the trauma of being a sex slave. She began drinking heavily, asking every client who picked her to buy liquor for her. “That’s how I would pass the time—by drinking a lot through the day,” she said.
Sayeda had been there for two years when Anjali, 16 at the time, was sold to the brothel. The man Anjali had expected to marry and the other young man had taken her to Kolkata and then to Mahishadal. They gave Anjali a bottle of beer. She drank it and dozed off. When she awoke, she saw that the boyfriend’s companion had bought her soap, shampoo, a comb, and some makeup. He told her to freshen up, saying he was taking her to meet someone that evening.
Anjali didn’t question the young men and went willingly when they took her to the brothel. When they entered a dimly lit room, she started to feel anxious. “What is this place?” she asked. They told her it was a hotel, and she would be working there. “What kind of work?” Anjali asked, starting to panic. When they explained it to her, tears welled in her eyes. The boyfriend’s friend began pleading with her to accept the situation—as if she had any choice—saying he needed money to pay for the treatment of his sick wife. The men promised to return for her in two months. She never saw them again.
It was clear to Anjali from the first day that resistance was futile. The girls told me they were terrified of Bhakta. If they complained or didn’t obey, they said, he would beat them savagely or stub his lit cigarette on their skin, leaving severe burns.
For the girls, the brothel was a prison. The gate in the fence around the building and the front door were always locked or guarded. The girls were allowed to leave only at midnight to eat at the restaurant in front, escorted by an elderly guard. He would make up nicknames for the girls and joke with them, bringing a touch of kindness to the grim reality of their lives.
Customers came in day and night, and the girls were raped up to 20 times a day. Even at 4 a.m., when the girls were desperate to get some rest, drunk men would stumble into the rooms where they were sleeping to choose one. The girls took painkillers to endure the physical torment, but the emotional suffering was inescapable. After weeks and months of such abuse, they would become numb to it, almost. “We would feel such shame,” Anjali said, “when we had customers who were older men, older than our fathers.”
Bound by the trauma of having been trafficked and the daily horror of their brutal existence, the girls turned to each other for support. Anjali, quiet and shy, couldn’t have been more different from Sayeda, who was so feisty when drunk that she sometimes kicked clients. Despite the contrast in personalities, or perhaps because of it, the two became friends. The pain of having been betrayed by boyfriends they’d eloped with wasn’t all they had in common. Besides being raised by mothers who worked as maids, Anjali shared Sayeda’s passion for music, even though she wasn’t drawn to performing. And like Sayeda, Anjali loved wearing makeup.
Some of the girls who’d been at the brothel for a few years had cell phones, which had been given to them by clients. They sometimes spoke to their families, lying to them that they were employed as factory workers or maids and would come home soon. Once, Sayeda called her mother in Khulna and told her she was in India, working as a dancer, but couldn’t come home. She was too ashamed to reveal the truth, which she felt would devastate her parents. She was too afraid to call the police, but she also didn’t believe it would do any good. The girls knew several police officers visited the brothel as customers and were friends with Bhakta.
Once in a while there would be a police raid, but the girls said Bhakta and his staff always seemed to have advance warning. They would round up the girls and hustle them out an exit in the back, leading them through a field into a safe house. Even that didn’t mean a respite from sex work. Bhakta would bring clients to the temporary hiding place. Sometimes the girls were forced to have sex with them on a bedsheet spread on the ground.
One afternoon in April 2017, though, a police team raided the brothel and another next door, without Bhakta’s being tipped off. Several of the girls, including Anjali and Sayeda, said they ran out the back to flee from the police. They’d heard from Bhakta that the police would lock them up and their families would find out that they’d been working as prostitutes. The police arrested Bhakta and 12 others under laws that prohibit trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. Anjali and Sayeda, along with 18 other girls and women, were rescued.
They were free but not yet free to go home.
Trapping unprotected, vulnerable children
On a fall morning in Diamond Harbour, a small town on the Hooghly River in South 24 Parganas, vegetable vendors and fishmongers sat on the side of a narrow, two-lane highway, selling produce and fish as trucks honked past, releasing trails of exhaust. Most of the vendors were subsistence farmers and small-time fishermen with meager harvests to sell. One elderly woman sat on her haunches, with her produce laid out on a tarp: a basket of okra, a few eggplants, a mound of potatoes. Within an elbow’s distance, a man sat cross-legged with a couple of pails of shrimp, one of several shrimp sellers hawking their catch.
These vendors might be among the more fortunate of the area’s inhabitants, many of whom live in abject poverty. Much of South 24 Parganas, one of India’s largest districts, is underdeveloped, with rough roads and little industry. The southern half is part of a vast delta straddling the India-Bangladesh border where the Hooghly, the Ganges, and other rivers drain into the Bay of Bengal.
Agriculture is not lucrative here because the farmlands are prone to flooding during the monsoon season. The poverty is most extreme in the Sundarbans—nearly 4,000 square miles of islands, swamps, and mangrove forests. Cyclones churned up by climate change make farming and fishing there increasingly unviable.
As a result of this economic hardship, most men and women from villages across South 24 Parganas are forced to travel long distances from home to make a living. Every morning they pack into commuter trains leaving towns such as Diamond Harbour and Canning, pressed against one another with crushing force, and ride to Kolkata and its suburbs to work in factories or at construction sites, or to cook and clean in middle-class homes.
“They don’t return until late evening, so their children are left unprotected and vulnerable,” says Nihar Ranjan Raptan, founder and executive director of Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra, a nonprofit based in Canning that has helped rescue and rehabilitate victims of trafficking. Raptan first worked with the police to recover a trafficked girl in 1995. In the years since, he says, it has become routine for young girls from the area to go missing. “Earlier, armed robberies happened all the time around here. Not anymore,” he says. The trafficking of girls is far more profitable.
Gangs prey on targets they’ve identified, exploiting their destitution and other vulnerabilities. “If I am a trafficker … I’ll have to find out if the girl is starving and desperate for a job or if she’s interested in romance,” says Tapoti Bhowmick of Sanlaap, a Kolkata-based nonprofit that helps victims of trafficking. A woman with strikingly large brown eyes, Bhowmick possesses a fierce humanity that seems necessary in her line of work, exuding a steely kindness when she speaks.
She says teenage boys and young men working for trafficking groups scout villages and towns looking for targets. They often lure adolescent girls by pretending to fall in love with them. “Some might go so far as to arrange a fake marriage with the girl they have trapped,” Bhowmick says. “They might even rent a house and live with the girl for a month or two like a newly married couple.”
These investments are paltry compared with the rewards from the eventual sale. “The madam is waiting to receive the girl in Sonagachi, in Kamathipura, at G.B. Road,” Bhowmick says, citing red-light districts in Kolkata, Mumbai, and Delhi. “If the boy has spent even 20,000 rupees to trap the girl, he’ll be able to sell her for 70,000 rupees,” she says. That’s a substantial profit—about $650, as much as many factory workers make in five months.
For girls raised in poverty, the promise of simple luxuries such as cell phones and beauty products can have a hypnotizing effect. “They want the kind of life for themselves that they have seen in soap operas on television,” Bhowmick explains.
By the time most trafficked girls are sold into a brothel, their spirit is already so broken that resistance is far from their minds. Usually, they’ve suffered violence and rape at the hands of their traffickers. For a newly sold girl, the trauma of having been taken from her home by manipulation or force can be so intense that the brothel environment, with the other young girls, can even seem comforting at first.
“At least she is out of the clutches of her abductors,” says Urmi Basu, the founder of New Light, a nonprofit that helps care for children of sex workers in Kalighat, one of Kolkata’s red-light districts.
In the days after their arrival, Basu says, “their companions at the brothel are telling them, ‘Don’t try to flee because if you do, you will be killed. Don’t think we haven’t tried.’ So there’s fear, and there’s complete loss of hope, and there’s repeated violation.” The brothel owner is keen to quickly recover the money he or she has paid to acquire the girl and knows that the girl’s earning potential will go down with time.
“That’s why young girls are forced to be with clients 20 or 30 times a day,” Basu says, her voice breaking. “There is a huge disconnect between what the person was before and what the person becomes after being left in the brothel for six months. So after being in the brothel for two years, they decide: ‘OK, fine. What choice do I have?’ ”
‘Please rescue me’
Only in rare cases is a trafficked girl able to find a way out before losing the will to return to society, but when the police respond swiftly to a promising tip, it can free a girl from that dismal fate. That’s what happened in the case of Mala not long after the 18-year-old was sold in April 2017 to a brothel in Agra, a city southeast of Delhi. This account is based on interviews with Mala, her mother, and officers investigating the case.
A few days after she was sold to a brothel, Mala managed to persuade a client to let her use his cell phone to call her mother at home in a village in South 24 Parganas. “I’m being held in a bad place,” she said. “Please rescue me.”
Her mother, who had already filed a missing person report with the police, rushed to the Mathurapur Police Station to pass on the number that Mala had called from. Investigators traced that phone to a man in Agra, and he identified the brothel.
About six weeks later, more than a hundred police officials, many in plain clothes, descended on the red-light district where the brothel was located. The man whose phone Mala had used led a team of four policemen, including Prabir Ball, the investigating officer for the case, to the brothel and knocked on the door. Recognizing the man as a client, the brothel staff let them in. Ball and his two colleagues pretended to be customers. After they’d confirmed that Mala was in the brothel, the officers alerted the rescue team with a phone call.
While Ball and the others were waiting to coordinate with the officials outside the building, the brothel staff got wind that a raid was imminent. “They attempted to hide the girls in bunkers under the beds,” Ball said. “They even asked us to hide.” The police found five girls and six young women, including Mala, at the brothel.
Mala provided the police with a description of the young man who’d trafficked her from South 24 Parganas. She said he had a chipped front tooth, wore a bracelet with a blue stone, and had a heart tattooed on his left arm. According to Ball, Mala said the young man had raped her several times at his sister’s house in Delhi, where Mala had stayed before she was sold to the Agra brothel by the man’s sister and her husband. In July 2017, police in South 24 Parganas arrested her alleged trafficker—Farrak Ali Gayen, a gangly 23-year-old who matched her description.
Mala also described the man’s sister and her husband, which enabled the police to create sketches of them. Several months later, Muslima Gayen, who goes by the name Pinky, and her husband, Radhya Gupta, were arrested in Delhi. A lawyer for Gayen, his sister, and her husband declined to comment.
In an interview at the Mathurapur Police Station, Gayen told Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini, which helped with Mala’s rescue, and photographer Smita Sharma how he’d entrapped her. He said he got Mala’s number from a mobile phone recharging shop and then struck up a friendship by calling her. When he proposed to her, Gayen said, she traveled to his sister’s house in Delhi.
Gayen said he was paid 20,000 rupees, or about $260, for trafficking Mala. He said he received that much for each girl he brought to his sister. Gayen and a few associates trafficked 11 girls in a year and a half, he said.
When Mala recounted her story to me, I realized how much courage it had taken for her to beat the odds. She told me that she’d tried to escape from the brothel when the madams and other staff were sleeping, but one of them found out just as she was about to open the door.
“The other girls were afraid of being severely beaten if they were caught,” Mala told me. “I told them I didn’t care if I got a beating. I wanted to get out at any cost.”
After she went home, she married a young man who believed she shouldn’t be shamed or blamed for the ordeal she’d been through. The two have a baby and live with Mala’s family.
‘How much more could I cry?’
Sayeda and Anjali were 17 when I met them at Sneha, a shelter run by Sanlaap in Narendrapur, a suburb of Kolkata—the metropolis where I once was a crime reporter for an English-language daily. Situated in tranquil surroundings, the shelter consists of a small cluster of buildings on a green campus protected by a high boundary wall. At any given time, about 80 to 90 girls live there. The center accepts girls who were rescued from brothels but also those who are vulnerable to being forced into prostitution, such as the children of professional sex workers. Along with counseling, they receive training in trades such as block printing and tailoring in hope of preparing for an easier return to society.
Sayeda and Anjali had arrived just days before, along with 10 other girls rescued from the brothel in Mahishadal. Sanlaap’s staff asked the girls if they would be willing to meet with me, and they all consented. A supervisor in charge of chaperoning the girls ushered them into a large unfurnished room where I was waiting with a representative from Sanlaap. Slipping their footwear off at the door, they filed in, pausing their chatter as they took me in with guarded glances. The awkwardness eased after I joined them in unrolling a rug. We sat down in a circle. As we began conversing in Bengali—the language I grew up speaking at home—the girls became more comfortable.
I explained that I was writing about sex trafficking and wanted to understand what victims go through. I made clear that they were under no obligation to answer my questions. Sayeda, seated to my right, was the keenest to talk. She had mischievous eyes, a bright smile, and an easy confidence that set her apart from the others. When I asked how she’d ended up at the brothel, she told me matter-of-factly that she’d been tricked by the boy she loved. She described how the brothel staff kept a strict watch on the girls and how the owner, Bhakta, routinely beat her and the others.
“He wouldn’t stop until he drew blood,” Anjali, sitting next to Sayeda, interjected.
“He used to tell us—if you don’t sleep with at least 10 customers a day, I’ll beat you,” Sayeda said.
I turned to Anjali, who told me how she’d been trafficked by her boyfriend. “He told me he would marry me,” she said, smiling abashedly, as if apologizing for being so naive. The other girls laughed. It felt like they were being unkind, but over the course of our conversations, I realized they hadn’t been laughing at Anjali as much as laughing with her. Their stories were similar.
Some of them had made feeble attempts to escape. Anjali told me she once asked for help from a client, but the man told another girl at the brothel and word got back to Bhakta. “Then I got a beating,” she said.
The girls from Bangladesh, such as Sayeda, felt more helplessness. Since they were in India illegally, Bhakta had impressed on them that the safest place for them was inside the brothel. “He used to say, ‘You want to run away? Sure, you could try. Then the police will lock you up. You’ll grow old by the time they let you go,’ ” Sayeda told me.
The longer I talked with the girls, the more I realized the impossibility of comprehending the desperation they’d felt. One of them told me she’d asked her father back home in Bangladesh to care for her three-month-old daughter before coming to India with an acquaintance who’d promised to get her a job. Several months after she was sold to the brothel, she got her phone back and was able to speak with her father every few days. She lied to him, saying she was employed at a factory but couldn’t return home until she’d repaid her debts to the owner. As time went on, her father grew frustrated. She told me he would call to say, “It’s been two years. You said you’d come back in six months. I want you to come back because who will take care of your daughter after I die?”
He would ask to speak to her employer, and she would hand the phone to Bhakta. Her father would plead with Bhakta to let her come home. But Bhakta never relented, always replying that she needed to work a few more months. Then, one day, her father called to say that her child had died. “I wept for two days,” she told me. Only when she spoke to her sister did she learn that her daughter wasn’t dead. Her father had lied in desperation, hoping it would sway Bhakta to let her return home.
When I went back to the shelter the next morning, I asked whether Sayeda and Anjali would talk with me again, since they had been the most forthcoming. Sayeda showed up grinning ear to ear, her forehead and cheeks covered in colored powders: red, blue, green. It was just days after Holi, a Hindu holiday that people celebrate by splashing color on one another. I gathered that Sayeda had joyfully accepted a full smearing of her face from other girls at the shelter that morning. Anjali had gotten away with a minor dabbing.
The two told me of the horrors they’d experienced with a detachment that I found unnerving.
They didn’t want to say much about the sexual abuse. Instead, they described the physical violence. Anjali showed me a mark on her lip where she said Bhakta had given her a cigarette burn. Sayeda told me that Bhakta sometimes ordered one of the girls to flog another, with a belt or a stick, while he watched.
Not sure how I could get her to describe her feelings about this abuse, I asked Sayeda how much she’d wept in the three years she’d been enslaved, realizing as soon as I said it how shallow it sounded. “Oh, I’ve cried and cried. How much more could I cry?” she replied in a tone of resignation I’d never heard from someone so young. The sum of her tears would never be enough to convey the measure of her sadness.
She told me how she drank constantly to cope with the pain. Anjali chimed in to say that Sayeda would get into fights when drunk. At other times, Anjali said, she would weep and tell her and other girls how she missed her family.
I asked them what they would do when they returned home. Anjali was unsure.
“Will you fall in love again?” Sayeda asked, laughing.
“No, I will not,” Anjali replied.
“When I get home, I’ll say Allah’s name and learn the Quran,” Sayeda said, adding that she would try to get a job at the beauty parlor where she’d worked. “I won’t go back to dancing. I’ll try to get an education.”
“I might take dance lessons,” Anjali said.
“No, don’t get into dancing,” Sayeda warned. “That could lead to trouble.”
As we came out of the building into the sun, Sayeda asked me if I could use my cell phone to find a satellite view of her city. She wanted to show me the neighborhood where her parents lived, next to a well-known mosque. I couldn’t do that on my phone, but I promised I would visit her in Khulna when she returned to her family.
Smiling, she ran over to a play area in front of the building. I watched her climb to the top of a slide and glide down. Walking toward my car, I could hear her laughing.
‘We refuse to give up’
One afternoon two years ago Giriraj Panda, a lawyer in Haldia who has helped prosecute sex trafficking cases, was eating lunch at a food shack near the courthouse when a sudden commotion disrupted the usual thrum of activity. Panda looked up and saw a man racing away, chased by a couple of policemen. The cops were too slow. The man outran them and climbed on a motorbike driven by an accomplice. The two sped away.
Panda, hired by Sanlaap to represent the girls in the case against Bhakta and the others, recognized the fleeing man. It was Bhakta. He was due in court when he managed to break free from the officers leading him into the building with his hands clasped in theirs. Bhakta had appeared in court before on similar charges, Panda said, but his lawyers had been able to arrange his release on bail. Apparently, Bhakta was risking a daring escape because he hadn’t managed to get out on these new charges. He’d been in jail for more than a year and a half.
Brothel owners and traffickers who exploit minors are often able to get away with their crimes not just because the police fail to enforce the law but also because India’s judicial system leaves open many avenues of escape. Indian courts are inundated with cases, and the backlog is so huge that it’s not unusual for prosecutions to stretch over years. In many instances, courts have no choice but to grant bail to defendants because prosecutors fail to file charges on time, owing to incompetence or corruption.
Panda told me defendants in trafficking cases use money and muscle to try to evade convictions. “They are able to spend millions of rupees on legal fees,” he said. Intimidating or bribing the witnesses is a common tactic. One of the first steps toward a prosecution, after a raid at a brothel, is for the rescued victims to give statements under oath. Panda said it’s not unusual for the defendant’s goons to show up outside the courthouse when the victims are brought in. They threaten the victims, or if they can’t get close enough to be heard, menace them with glares and gestures. “If these girls were trafficked from Bangladesh or Nepal, the men warn them that they might never be able to go back to their country,” Panda said.
Defendants freed on bail can continue the intimidation, trying to coerce the girls’ families. Under pressure from their families, trafficked victims sometimes recant their initial statements at trial or claim to be older than they actually are. Prosecutions also are hampered by weak investigations leading to a lack of incriminating evidence, says Ankita Chakraborty, a doctoral student at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur in West Bengal who has been analyzing the prosecution of sex trafficking cases in India for her Ph.D. thesis.
“Say I raid a brothel, but I don’t procure the electricity bill or something else to prove the ownership of the brothel,” she says. In her study, Chakraborty says, she has found instances in which police filed charges against defendants under sections of the Indian Penal Code that allow bail to be granted easily, rather than under more stringent anti-trafficking or child-protection laws. The majority of cases end in acquittal, she says.
Despite this grim state of affairs, efforts to bring traffickers to justice haven’t been abandoned. Those accused in the trafficking of Mala are on trial in South 24 Parganas. The prosecutor in that case, Debranjan Banerjee, told me that individuals working on behalf of the traffickers had offered him a bribe to bungle the prosecution so that the defendants would be released on bail. At the first few hearings, the traffickers’ henchmen showed up outside the courthouse, some with pistols tucked in their jeans. “The goal was to intimidate me,” Banerjee said. At his request, police increased security. The defendants were not granted bail.
In the past six years, Panda said, he and his team have secured convictions in more than a dozen trafficking cases in the Haldia area. He said he would fight to prove the charges against Bhakta, who Panda said was tracked down and arrested a few weeks after his escape.
The case is ongoing and could last for years. Bhakta did get bail earlier this year—a decision Panda said prosecutors would appeal. “Because traffickers and brothel owners can afford to spend a lot on legal fees, it’s easy for them to get away,” Panda said. “But we refuse to give up.”
‘A simple, innocent heart’
A few months after my visit to Sneha, Sayeda began suffering severe abdominal pains. Just days earlier, she’d performed enthusiastically in a dance show at the shelter. But now she was unable to eat. Her stomach became swollen. Her breathing became labored. Sneha’s staff rushed her to the hospital, where she died hours later. Doctors attributed Sayeda’s death to liver failure, most likely caused by her heavy drinking.
The news was devastating to the girls at the shelter, especially Anjali. “We cried so much,” she told me, recalling how Sayeda used to make everyone laugh. “We wanted to see her one last time.” But they couldn’t. Sayeda’s body was driven in a van to the India-Bangladesh border crossing at Benapole, where her father was waiting. He stood silent and motionless, I was told, as the coffin was transferred to another van to take Sayeda home.
In November 2018, I traveled to Khulna with photographer Smita Sharma to see Sayeda’s family—a trip that Sayeda and I had imagined would be a happy one. Driving past the mosque that Sayeda had wanted to show me, we wended through the streets and parked next to a tea shop. Sayeda’s mother—a short, stocky woman dressed in a salwar kameez—led us along a dirt path to the house where Sayeda had grown up. Her father, a slight, haggard man, greeted us feebly. Since the outer room had no furniture, they invited us into their bedroom. Smita and I sat cross-legged on the bed, the afternoon light pouring in through the window.
This is where Sayeda had spent much of her childhood. When her father brought her coffin home, her mother told me, a crowd gathered outside the house to mourn. “If you go to the market, everybody will tell you how much they loved her,” she said. When she described how much her daughter enjoyed singing and dancing, I showed her a photograph of Sayeda with Anjali and the other girls taken after their dance performance. Wearing a bright magenta sari and a yellow crown, Sayeda is smiling radiantly.
Her mother looked at the photo for a moment and began to weep. “My daughter had such a simple, innocent heart,” she said, wiping her tears. “That is why I lost her.”
She brought out a couple of photo albums to show us pictures of Sayeda when she was younger. “She loved to dress up and look pretty,” her mother said. “She didn’t look like she could be my daughter.” She was proud of how skilled Sayeda was at applying cosmetics. When she had to attend a wedding, it was Sayeda who did her makeup. Sayeda’s cosmetics, saris, and sandals were still stored in a box. Her mother couldn’t bear the thought of parting with them. Sayeda was often trailed by a posse of younger children, her mother said. They’d follow her home, where she would direct them in Bollywood-style performances. When they were finished, she’d send them off with bowls of rice and clothes that no longer fit her. When I heard her mother describe how Sayeda used to give away her old clothes, I imagined that’s what she would have wanted her mother to do with the possessions she’d left behind.
Sayeda’s parents knew their daughter had been trafficked and enslaved in a brothel, but they wanted to know more about what she’d gone through, so I turned on a recording of my interview with Sayeda. Her mother leaned in to listen. Her father listened from the other room, where he sat on the floor, staring blankly at the wall. A few minutes into the recording, as Sayeda started talking about what she’d endured at the brothel, her mother shifted uncomfortably and her father turned his head away.
“Hearing this might hurt,” I said.
Sayeda’s mother looked at me, her eyes brimming. “We are hurting anyway,” she said. “There’s no end to the pain.”
Her father didn’t say a word that afternoon. When I returned the next day to say goodbye to the family, he finally spoke. “My daughter was my world,” he told me. “She used to be happy all the time and make others happy, and now she’s gone.” Since Sayeda’s death, he said, he’d become erratic, skipping meals and baths often, sitting by the roadside for long periods of time, transfixed by grief, instead of ferrying passengers in his rickshaw.
“My daughter’s image floats up before my eyes all the time,” he said.
Sayeda’s mother told me that in her husband’s mind, her decision to let Sayeda enroll at the dance academy was at the root of this tragedy. She’d hoped that Sayeda’s account of how she’d been trafficked would convince him that his daughter’s passion for dancing didn’t cause her death. Sayeda’s father acknowledged that he’d heard her describe how she’d been lured away. But that hadn’t erased the explanation his grief-stricken heart had latched onto.
“If she hadn’t learned dancing,” he said, “my daughter would never have died like this.” Even death, it seemed, had failed to absolve Sayeda from the blame so often laid on trafficking victims—that they are in some way also responsible for ending up in sexual slavery.
‘I don’t love anybody anymore’
After a year and a half at the shelter, Anjali finally returned home to her mother in Siliguri and began working at a factory. When I visited in December 2019, Anjali, then 19, was helping her mother with household chores.
Anjali told me she struggles with loneliness. She misses her friends from the shelter, who understood her anguish as no one else ever will. She hadn’t shared much of her experience with her mother. The neighbors were aware that she’d been gone for more than two years, and some had heard that she’d spent some of that time at a shelter. Anjali said she’d overheard some of the neighbors talking about her being in a dirty profession.
“I don’t respond to them,” she said.
It was evident that the neighbors’ shaming had deepened Anjali’s sense of isolation. But while she could pretend the neighbors didn’t exist, it was harder for her to tune out the words of her mother, who had become intensely protective, causing Anjali to feel stifled.
Her mother, a kind-looking woman, explained that she worried constantly about her daughter’s safety. She had consented to Anjali’s factory job only after being assured there were no young men on the same shift. She was comforted by knowing the factory had security cameras.
“Whenever she’s out of the house, I call her frequently to find out where she is,” she said.
“She doesn’t let me go out anywhere!” Anjali complained.
“I tell her, Sit quietly at home. Be on your phone. Watch TikTok videos if you like,” her mother said. “Don’t ever set foot on the wrong path again.”
I asked what she meant. Wasn’t Anjali the victim? Was it wrong to fall in love?
“Yes, I know she fell in love. But who could have known that the boy had such evil intentions?” her mother said. “I mean that she’s vulnerable. She’s young. She could easily be lured by another boy who might promise to marry her and then go and sell her to another place, like it happened before.”
“A person is only fooled once. Not again and again, you know,” Anjali interjected. “I’m mature now.”
Her mother tried to mollify her. “I’ve been telling her, Don’t elope,” she said. “If you find somebody you like, tell me, and I’ll check out the boy’s background and get you married.”
Anjali cut her off. “I don’t love anybody anymore,” she said in a tone of finality.
What she really wanted, she told me, was to be able to go wherever she wanted whenever she wanted. A few months after her return, she wanted to visit a girlfriend nearby after she got back from work. Her mother told her it wasn’t safe. Anjali got so furious that she hurled an object at their television, shattering the screen.
Anjali wanted a scooter so that she could commute to the factory more easily. She wasn’t happy that her mother was saving up to buy Anjali’s older brother a motorcycle.
“I’ll buy you things when you get married,” her mother said gently.
Anjali gave her an exasperated smile. Despite her annoyance, she knew she was a lot more fortunate than many trafficking victims whose families don’t want them back because of the fear of being shamed by relatives and neighbors. Anjali’s struggle to rebuild her life was clearly far from over, yet seeing the support of her family and her quiet resolve, I left with the hope that she would someday find the freedom she has been seeking.