Sandeshkhali, West Bengal — As the sun rose above the horizon in the village of Adhia, Bilkes Bano had already finished all the household chores. She put on a bright red saree and left for her weekly training at , an Indian NGO working to fight human trafficking. They help rescue and rehabilitate trafficking survivors and provide legal, financial, and mental health counseling.
Bilkes was just 13 years old when she was trafficked to Delhi. She lost consciousness after having the candy the trafficker offered her, and when she woke up, she found herself at a railway station. The trafficker threatened to kill her if she would talk to anyone or try to run away. “It was dark and it was the time of monsoon,” she recalled the day vividly. “When we reached Delhi, I was introduced to a fat woman. She treated me nicely, giving me food and new clothes to wear. Later I was taken to a beautician, who worked on my hair and face for hours.”
Bilkes was sold to a brothel where she was sexually exploited for months. After some difficult days and months, she was rescued after the police raided the brothel. After GGBK confirmed that she was from West Bengal, she was handed over to her family, who were quick to get her married within just months.
Human trafficking is considered one of the most profitable criminal activities worldwide and the second largest organized crime in India, after drug trafficking. It’s particularly prevalent in the eastern regions of the country, which face extreme weather events like cyclones and floods. Many human trafficking victims, mostly girls, are forced into prostitution.
In 2021, over were reported across India. The state of Maharashtra had the highest number of human trafficking cases in the country with over 260 cases. ordered the police to register trafficking cases as kidnapping or missing persons to reduce trafficking cases in official statistics. Government data shows that court delays and lack of prioritization of trafficking have left 93% of trafficking cases pending trial in West Bengal.
As a sexual trafficking victim, Bilkes has been facing a lot of shaming and stigma. “Whenever I would go out people would not talk to me and would look down at me. Even if I would greet them they would never respond but would taunt me,” she said. “I never understood why am I get punishment for a crime that I never committed.”
But what Bilkes did during a cyclone season changed her life for good. In 2020, when cyclone Amphan hit West Bengal, she helped people in her community apply for a government aid program. “People here are not literate and are simple too when it comes to official affairs. I helped 60 families to apply and all of them got compensated by the government,” she said. "I hardly had thought a small help would change my life. People treated me badly once but now the same people treat me with respect. If there is any issue in the village they come to me for help now.”
In an adjoining village of Hatgachhi lives Ajila Khatoon, who was only 15 years old when she was forced into prostitution after being trafficked to the western city of Pune. She ran away from the brothel twice before the police raided it.
After the rescue Ajila’s family didn’t want her back. They arranged for her to be married in a month. “My family spoke highly of me to my in-laws about how I worked in the city for a year and how good I was at work. I was not allowed to talk but forced to smile,” she said. “I wanted to shout and cry loudly.”
To seek justice, Ajila fought to attend the hearings of her case remotely and ended up getting the trafficker convicted for two years. As she was trafficked out of her home state, she was originally required to travel to Pune for the court hearings.
Advocate Rahul Patra, who works with GGBK and practices at Alipore court in West Bengal said, “As most cases of trafficking happen between states it becomes difficult for the survivor to follow the case or to attend the hearings and so the conviction rate is very low. But in this case, the survivor was confident enough to speak through an online medium and she was ready to do anything that would get her trafficker convicted.”
Ajila now offers a class in her community teaching young children and women how to use the Internet to study, search for information, and use online video conferencing tools. “Most of us were trafficked because we were not aware, my purpose in life is to sensitize these young women about their surroundings and what it could bring,” she said “This gives me peace, I still feel the pain and trauma I went through and I would not want anyone to go through that.”
“When I was trapped I hardly believed anything good would happen in life now,” she said. “I want to erase that phase because it still haunts me. At times I get up in the middle of the night and cry but then I think about my present life and it feels like a miracle.”
Subhashree Raptan, Senior Program Manager at GGBK said it’s not easy for the survivors to manage trauma and face the world. Most survivors, under family pressure, chose not to pursue their case as it brings shame to the family.
“After rescue we do counseling and provide legal assistance. We see what is the capability of the person rescued and then develop interventions and provide training,” she said. “We have to help survivors become independent by giving them skill training and using them to sensitize people and these small initiatives to teach them to use the internet and technology is one of them.”
TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)
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