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'No girl should go through such torture'

By NEETA KOLHATKAR
August 18, 2022 08:30 IST
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She was kidnapped by child traffickers when she was 14.
Today, this 17 year old wants to become a lawyer so that she can help the survivors of such heinous acts.

Kindly note the image has only been published for representational purposes. Photograph: Kind courtesy Kat Jayne/Pexels

This interview will not be easy to read.

But read it you must.

In doing so, you honour a young girl's bravery.

Her determination to pick up the threads of her shattered life after she was kidnapped to be sold to the sex trade.

Her desire to help those who have not been able to escape, like she did.

You honour her parents, who have stood by their daughter even as members in their known circle, and even strangers, sought to humiliate the three of them.

And you honour the selfless members of the NGO who fight every day to rescue victims of sex trafficking.

This child, who originally belonged to a village in West Bengal's 24 Parganas district, once wanted to become a part of India's national throwball team.

Today, after scoring 83 per cent in her Class 12 exam, her dream, she tells Rediff.com Senior Contributor Neeta Kolhatkar, has changed.

 

Congratulations! You must be so proud of your marks.

I have been able to get these high scores only because of the support of my parents and the World Vision NGO.

I would never have reached here without them.

More than anything, it has been overwhelming to see the entire room with my colleagues, the media, volunteers and guardians wish me a bright future.

I have no choice now but to create that bright future for myself (smiles); I will become a lawyer and a very good one at that.

IMAGE: The NGO that rescued her gifted her a smartwatch to celebrate her Class 12 result. Photograph: Neeta Kolhatkar

Why do you want to become a lawyer?

It is not in my control to completely stop child trafficking; I have to be realistic.

However, in the future, if any girl needs help to get out of child trafficking and wants to book the accused, I promise to be there for her.

I want to be there for fellow survivors and I will ensure the accused are punished under the law so that they will never be able to traffic another girl again.

How has your personal experience influenced your decision? Do you believe the law can make a difference?

My life changed because I was a victim. There are other survivors like me, but there many more who are still trapped in this evil and are struggling to be free.

I don't want any girl to face what I have faced. No girl should be put through such torture (breaks down).

Like many girls who have fallen victim to this horrific trade, I am still being stigmatised in my community.

I am lucky to have my family's support; many survivors don't have that.

I want these families and communities to know that girls like me deserve to live freely, without guilt.

I have faced a lot of barbed comments. I have been sarcastically asked where I had run away to, with whom, what I had done for so many days and why I was back now.

My parents have been extremely supportive; they have told these questioners that I had been kidnapped. But these people behave as if my parents had lied to cover up my 'wrongdoings'.

My parents have been amazing. They tell me to ignore such gossip and not to get affected by it.

How old are you now? How did you get trafficked?

I am a little over 17 years now.

I was trapped in this evil cesspool at the age of 14.

I was always an outdoors person; I loved sports. I used to play chuckball (throwball) very well in my school days.

My school sent me to the national throwball national selections; I was supposed to go to Bengaluru with some other girls from my village.

On the scheduled day of my departure, I was waiting at the station for my train. A lady sitting next to me had been waiting for some time as well. Though we hadn't talked, she offered me some water. I don't have any memory of what happened after I drank it.

When I woke up, we were travelling in a bus.

I saw three women in burqas. I was terrified; I didn't know who they or where we were.

When I started crying, they threatened to kill me if I made any noise. They added that no one would ever know about my whereabouts and nobody would come looking for me. They warned me to keep quiet and follow their instructions.

But I could not stop crying because I was really missing my parents.

Kindly note the image has only been published for representational purposes. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sammis Reachers/Pixabay

Can you tell us what happened next?

I remember being taken to a room in a broken-down temple.

My hands were tied; they gagged me so that I could not scream for help.

I was locked in this room for four days.

I was given dal bhaati to eat twice a day; that's it.

Till the time I lost consciousness, I was in touch with my parents on my cell phone. When they didn't hear from me, my parents started calling. That's when my captors snatched my phone.

Later, I overheard some boys who had come at night to ask my 'rate'. They could not afford the amount so they went away and I was spared.

Did you overhear the rate?

Yes. I heard the woman say my price was Rs 2 lakhs because virgins are more expensive.

I'm sorry to ask you this, but were you sexually assaulted?

No. I was fortunate to be spared.

Were you physically tortured?

They beat me, but could not do anything more as they wanted to sell me as a virgin child prostitute.

This would have fetched them a lot of money, which meant they had to present me in an attractive manner.

I thought my life was over. I could not begin to wrap my head around the fact that I was being sold as a child prostitute.

It was heart-breaking to think I had missed the national selection and would never play throwball again.

But what I feared most was never meeting my parents; I just wanted to see them, touch them, hug them one last time.

Never in my worst nightmare could I have imagined something like this happening to me or my other friend or any other girl.

How did your parents react when you went missing?

My parents, I learnt later, panicked when they could not reach me on the phone and went to the police station to file a missing person's complaint.

The police behaved very badly with my mother. They told her, 'Your daughter has gone to play. Now you will see how she plays and comes back with a man she has eloped with.'

It's this kind of thinking that leads to the stigma that children who are kidnapped for such vile purposes face.

My parents didn't give up. My mother went to the village level child protection committee of the Rupantaran Foundation, a local NGO that helps in such matters.

They gave her the CID's number and my parents asked them for help. The CID filed a complaint. They traced my phone number to a place between Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

The MP police deployed a search team to find me.

One day, my captors suddenly locked in the room alone. Later, I heard the police banging on the door and calling my name. I stamped my feet and shouted in response.

They broke open the door and showed me a photograph of my parents.

My captors, they told me later, had absconded.

They sent me to a girl's orphanage, where I was kept for four days before being sent home. I had become very weak. Though they gave me food, I could not eat; I was mentally disturbed because of what had happened to me.

Once I reached West Bengal, I was again sent to a girls' home.

I had my Class 10 exams in a fortnight and didn't want to lose a year. I asked the police for help and they agreed to let me go early.

At the police station, my parents could not recognise me. I was so weak and dirty and my hair was unkempt. It was only when we spoke that my parents realised their daughter was alive.

They took me home immediately. Two weeks later, I appeared for my exams. I knew I was not going to do well. I scored 60 per cent.

Kindly note the image has only been published for representational purposes. Photograph: Kind courtesy Shibari Kinbaku/Pixabay

Despite your ordeal, you did well.

Yes. I could not believe I had scored 60 per cent.

I promised myself that I would do so well in my Class 12 exams that the world would have to take notice of me and my capabilities.

And I did it (smiles)!

Do you find yourself distrusting people now?

I have learnt the world is not a safe place.

At the same time, I was helped by good people. There are NGOs out there doing good work. The volunteers have equipped me with knowledge and skills. The world is not entirely bad.

While I have to still learn much more in order to figure out who's good and who's bad, I think I have gained enough experience and knowledge to understand what is good and right for me.

I am not scared anymore but, yes, I am very cautious and very alert about people, especially strangers.

I do speak to people on the bus and train when I am travelling so it is not that I am completely cut off. At the same time, I understand a lot more than I did earlier.

And yes, I will never accept food or drink from a stranger.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

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