Sunday, April 22, 2007

Neina's Story

The shelter is a narrow two-story, cement building on a crowded street in the middle of one of Kolkata's red light districts, Khidderpore. The dirt road in front of it is littered with crumpled water bottles, the rotted remains of food, and other garbage. A river of brown water snakes through the dust, pooling in stagnant, foul-smelling puddles on the edge of the road. Men lounge along the sides of buildings dressed in lungis, some of them soiled, while groups of young women stand in the shade, decked out in brightly colored saris. The women on average look to be between the ages of 13 and 20, while the men range in age from young children to old men in their 50s or 60s.

I follow my new friend, a woman who has been doing community outreach to women in the red light district for the past three years, down a narrow alley to the door of the shelter. It's covered with a steel grate and pad locked for good measure. My friend explains that the area is very dangerous, both for the young girls living in the shelter and for the community workers. Threats from pimps and brothel owners against her and her organization are common, but they don't dissuade her from her work. She calls up through the grate to another woman, the field worker who resides in the shelter and cares for the young women staying there. I hear delighted cries from up above and the sound of footsteps tripping down the stairs. The women of the shelter are happy that my friend has come to visit.

Upstairs, I enter a small room, dimly lit by the sunlight filtering through the half-covered, and also barred, windows. A ceiling fan turns lazily in the heat, sending a gentle breeze through the room. The room is furnished simply with a woven carpet that covers about half of the floor space. A pile of cooking pots is set up in a corner, the preparations of the midday meal well underway.

On the carpet sits the young girl my friend has come to visit, a girl recently rescued from a brothel in Bihar, India. She's coloring in a coloring book. Colored pencils and crayons are spread out around her. She's coloring a picture of a family with a mom, dad, and two children. She's made the faces neon yellow, and has stayed within the lines of the picture. She's slight of build with very thin arms and legs, and looks to be abut the age of 12. Her skin is light brown and smooth, her eyes large and beautiful. Two of her front teeth are broken. When we enter the room, she greets us with a huge smile and a barrage of questions about the new "Auntie," me, who has come to visit. She tells me her name is Neina*, and insists that food should be brought for me even though I tell her several times that I'm not hungry or thirsty. Her smile is infectious, she's bubbling with happy energy, and she won't take no for an answer regarding her offer of food. The woman in the shelter obliges her requests, and plates of white rice, egg curry, and dahl are brought for my friend and me.

As my friend and I enjoy our meal, using our fingers to shape the rice into bite-sized balls, the young girl continues a steady stream of animated chatter with my friend. She wants to know where I'm from, whether I'm married, and if I have any sisters and brothers. She's worried the food will be too spicy for me but I assure her that it's delicious. She says repeatedly that I'm beautiful and I tell her that she's the one who is beautiful. Our exchanges are in bits of broken English and Hindi translated by my friend, and peppered with frequent smiles. Naina tells my friend that the other girls staying in the shelter have been talking to some of the neighborhood boys on the phone. She's concerned because she knows what the boys of the red light district can do. She has seen it and she has experienced it first hand. The other girls living in the shelter have also grown up in a red light district, but as Neina explains, they have not yet been forced into prostitution so they do not fully understand the risks. She's tattling on the girls, and my friend says she will place more limits on the phone. My friend says to me, "In addition to everything else, we also have to struggle with these things - the behaviors and needs of teenagers - like parents."

After we've finished our food and talked with Neina for a little while longer, we take our leave. Neina is dissapointed to see us go, but says it's ok. She knows that she will see my friend again soon. She follows us down the steps and says to me in English, "Thank you Auntie for come." I look back and catch a glimpse of her radiant smile through the bars shutting behind us and say in Hindi, "Shukriya," one word of thanks for her hospitality and warmth.

In the taxi ride away from the shelter to my hotel, I hear from my friend the details of Neina's life. Her mother was kidnapped and sold to a brothel at the age of 9, where she worked as a domestic servant for several years. At the age of 12, Neina's mother was forcibly raped by a client who had bought the right to do so. Subsequently, she was forced to have sex with men every day. When she was 15 or 16, she gave birth do Neina. The brothel owners separated mother from daughter, fearing that the mother would make trouble for them and speak up on her daughter's behalf, if she was allowed to stay close to her daughter. Over the course of the next 10 years, Neina's mother was repeatedly tortured and raped while forced to prostitute herself. Finally, no longer being able to stand the torture, and having learned of my friend's organization's efforts to reach out to the women of the red light district, she escaped from the brothel and sought the help of my friend's organization. It took her almost a year to be rehabilitated, so deep were the effects of the trauma that she had been forced to endure. Eventually, she began working for my friend's organization, advocating for the rights of women in the red light district.

Once she had freed herself, she asked my friend's organization if rescue could be arranged for her daughter, Neina. She begged the organization to get Neina out. She said that she did not want Neina to suffer as she had, and said that she would not feel like a mother until she had saved her daughter. It took months of planning to arrange the rescue, most of which was spent convincing the police to assist in the raid. Corruption is a huge problem; brothel owners and pimps pay a lot of money to the police so that they will not interfere in the red light district. The organization pressured the police by bringing the mother before them and forcing them to hear her story, and involving the media to raise awareness about Neina's plight. On the day of the raid, members of the police and my friend's organization, along with a cameraman to document the raid, entered the brothel.

Inside the brothel, they found Neina just where her mother had told them she would be, in a small dark room in the back of the brothel. Two other young girls were in the room with her. Neina's mother pointed her out, but Neina, afraid of the brothel owners refused to recognize her mother. She appeared to be in a state of shock, she was withdrawn, fearful, and did not speak. When tested by medical staff later on, it was found that all three of the girls had traces of drugs in their systems. It wasn't until a week later, once Neina began to realize that she was safe and that the brothel owners would not be able to get to her, that she started speaking, recognized her mother, and admitted that she had been forced to work as a prostitute for the past year.

Neina told her rescuers that while growing up in the brothel, she and other young girls had been forced to watch the brothel owners and pimps brutally beat prostitutes who had refused to have sex. That was how the brothel owners trained the young girls to accept their fate to become prostitutes, by making them understand what the consequences would be if they refused. Neina said that the brothel owners would beat the prostitutes with bamboo rods and steel pipes all over their body. The would beat the women's vaginas until their vaginas bled.

When Neina was 12, the brothel owners drugged her and gave her to a man in his 50s who raped her. Neina struggled and cried out, but she could do nothing to stop it. She felt helpless. During the next year, brothel owners, pimps, and men repeatedly raped and beat her. Neina considered killing herself, but then thought why should she kill herself when she knew that it was not her who had done something wrong. Neina was rescued two months ago, at the age of 14. She was malnourished, sick with tuberculosis, and drugged, and had to spend almost two months in a hospital in order to heal. My friend picked Neina up from the hospital and brought her to the shelter only two days before I first met Neina.

After Neina's rescue the brothel owners filed a court case demanding her return. One of them alleges that Neina is his daughter and that she has been stolen from him. My friend' organization suspects that large sums of money have been given to the police and the judge involved in the case to persuade them to return Neina to the brothel. My friend's organization is currently battling the brothel owners in court. On their side they have the testimony of Neina and her mother, and the video footage of the raid. My friend believes they have a strong case and says allowing Neina to be forced to go back to the brothel is not an option. Instead, they are going to keep Neina safe, provide her with medical treatment, education, and some life and skills training so that she will be able to earn a livelihood outside of the walls of the brothel.

* Name changed to protect her identity.


sisterfriend said...

How heart-breaking! That kind of corruption is nothing short of pure evil.

I am so glad that you are there hearing their stories and writing about girls like Neina. They need a voice to speak for them!

Buttercup, your heart for human rights is so very evident. I am thrilled that you are able to use your gifts to volunteer in India this week.

wordnerd said...

OMG....that made me weep....I am so glad you are hearing these stories, although how must have been so hard to meet this young woman.

Travel safe my friend and keep sending us these updates. We'll be thinking of you.

Gypsy said...

I am disgusted and horrified. But I'm also very, very proud of you. And especially of Neina.

Buttercup said...

Sister-Friend, Wordnerd, and Gypsy - Thank you all for being interested in Neina's story! It was my absolute pleasure to meet her. She is a wonderful girl full of warmth with a resiliant spirit. That is what I'm continually amazed by, that people who have undergone such immense trauma can come out of it with such inner beauty and dignity, and that they can heal. It gives me hope and it reminds me that if all that you can do is save one life, you should do it because it's worth it.

Anonymous said...

That is an awful story and one I imagine that isn't all that uncommon in many parts of the world. I'm glad for those woman who are rescued and feel deeply sad about those who remain victims.

Thank you for sharing it with the world. One more voice of goodness can't hurt.