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Documentary | Rise: Tales of Sundarbans' Trafficking Survivors

The story of how survivors are fighting back not only against their traffickers but also society.

Published
Documentaries
6 min read
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics, every eight minutes, a child goes missing in India. Often, they are the victims of trafficking, unwillingly pushed into sex work.

As per the NCRB, of the 16 million women trafficked in India till 2020, 51% were minors at the time they were trafficked – just like Rehmat (name changed ) and Rohima who feature in this documentary.

We bring you the story of Rohima, Rehmat and many like them who were trafficked by their neighbours and distant relatives when they were minors. They were taken from the Sundarbans to brothels on the other side of the country and forced into sex work against their will.

Their fall, and their rise

(Photo: Debayan Dutta/The Quint)

This is also the story of how they were rescued and rehabilitated, and how they are now fighting back, not only for justice against their traffickers, but also to find a place back in society.

Rehmat was just 10 when she was trafficked by a distant relative. She was kept in a brothel in Delhi for almost two months.

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'They Took Me Away'

"Due to the floods, we didn't have any money. The madrasa was closed so I had gone to my relative's house to study. From there, a distant relative invited me to their place. She lured me and offered me a biscuit, consuming which I became so drowsy I couldn't understand anything. When I woke up, I was on a train. I was crying and asking her where she was taking me, she asked me to shut up and come along wherever she was taking me to. She would beat me."
Rehmat

Rehmat (name changed) enjoying a chocolate bar

(Photo: Debayan Dutta/The Quint)

While Rehmat was trafficked to Delhi by a distant relative, Rohima was trafficked by three locals from her own village, who kidnapped her and took her to Pune.

"I was coming back from school, crossing the Basanti bridge to visit my relative in Sonakhali. My three traffickers were standing there in a red car. When I was passing by them, they covered my mouth and put me in the car. I didn't know where they took me because I lost consciousness. I saw that I was near Sonarpur railway station. The only thing I could understand was that I was at Sonarpur station. I tried to scream but the car windows were tinted black."
Rohima

Rohima enjoying a candid moment. 

(Photo: Debayan Dutta/The Quint)

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"When I regained consciousness, I saw that I was at another train station. I was so drowsy that I couldn't speak. But I understood that I was at Pune station. A Nepali woman who covered her face arrived, and they handed me over to her. The woman took me to the brothel."
Rohima

From being hit with sticks and rods, to being tied up and forcing clients on them, the trafficked girls and women are made to go through all sorts of torture tactics. The brothel owners aim to break their victims mentally so that they don't resist anymore.

"They would keep me in a room where many men would visit. They would pull my clothes. They would abuse or hit me if I cried. They would strip my clothes and touch me everywhere."
Rehmat
"It happened several times that they would force me to consume alcohol if I refused to work. There have even been times when they tied my hands and legs and asked the customer to go about their business. I was very young back then, so they would give me steroids to make me look more mature."
Rohima
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West Bengal is a state notorious for trafficking. In 2020, over 6,000 girls went missing in the state, and 32% of them came from the two districts in the Sundarbans.

While the geography of the Sundarbans and the area being prone to climate disasters makes it vulnerable to trafficking, it is in fact the presence of traffickers that is the main reason behind the crime.

"There are so many places that are poverty-stricken but then there's no trafficking there because there are no traffickers. Every time a cyclone hits, the people here lose their kaccha homes and livelihood. That's when traffickers lure the women in the name of a good job or marriage. Basically, the trafficker preys on the needs of the families."
Subhashree Raptan, Goranbose Gram Bikas Kendra (GGBK)

A survivor seeks help from GGBK after her rescue. 

(Photo: Debayan Dutta/The Quint)

Goranbose Gram Bikas Kendra (GGBK) is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works for the rescue and rehabilitation of persons trafficked from the Sundarbans. It is with their help that Rohima and Rehmat managed to escape and return home.

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GGBK liaises with other organisations to conduct search and rescue operations. They even send agents undercover to identify victims.

The Long Battle

But the battle isn't over even after the rescue. The survivors need to be rehabilitated; their mental health taken care of; they need to be given protection from their traffickers; and the villagers need to be convinced to not ostracise them in society.

A counselling session at the GGBK.

(Photo: Debayan Dutta/The Quint)

"Once a girl has been rescued, the first thing we need to do is build trust with her. We must understand her situation, her family background, what she has been through, and her current mental state. We have built a sixth sense to understand her whereby it isn't just verbal but also the body language that we gauge to understand her mental state."
Kakoli Das, GGBK

The GGBK conducts several types of sessions with the survivors and devises unique methods for each survivor's rehabilitation. The methods vary from using the survivors' hobbies as a starting point to using family support.

But the process isn't easy. The survivors have gone through pain and agony that is extremely hard to fathom. So even after coming back, when they are ostracised by the village, and sometimes their own family, their hearts break.

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"I was stigmatised and anxious. I thought that I made a huge mistake coming back here. My family also hadn't accepted me initially. I would think that I made a huge mistake coming back here and that if I died, no one would care. Angry, I tried to take my own life."
Rohima

It's a slow process of recovery, often hindered by threats from the traffickers, the village administration wanting to settle the matter amicably without taking it to court, political pressure and more. Every step of the way, the odds are stacked against the survivor.

"The kin of the victims face a lot of trouble. When they try to lodge a complaint, the FIR isn't registered properly. They don't know what details are to be added to the FIR. No one guides them for that. Most cases are shunned as a case of eloping. In many cases, there's no medical examination conducted for the victims who have been raped."
Rahul Patra, Lawyer
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They Fight Back

Bandhanmukti Survivors Collective Leaders sharing a candid moment

(Photo: Debayan Dutta/The Quint)

But they refuse to give up. They fight, fight, and fight – every step of the way.

Bandhanmukti Survivors Collective Leaders

(Photo: Debayan Dutta/The Quint)

They form self-help groups like 'Bandhanmukti Survivors Collective,' which literally means ‘Free from Shackles.’ As a group, the survivors teach each other to be independent and fight for their justice without any additional support. They also help each other rebuild their lives.

Rohima, while fighting her own case is also a leader at the survivors' collective where she guides other survivors to stand on their own feet, encourage them to take up the case against their traffickers, and also live with dignity. She has inspired several survivors to not give in to the pressure.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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