Anita was trafficked from Nepal to India in 1998 at the age of 27. Her narrative emphasizes the uniquely female elements of slavery. She describes her pain as a mother separated from her children, mentions the idea that the women in the brothel are her “sisters,” seeks escape by offering an earring to one woman, and finally escapes when another woman accidentally leaves a gate open. She gains empathy from a client by telling him: “I am like your daughter.” Even Anita’s psychological turning-point from freedom to slavery is female specific. “They cut off my hair,” she remembers. “I could not leave the brothel without everyone identifying me as a prostitute…short hair is the sign of a wild woman.” Thousands of Nepali women and children are trafficked every year across the border into Indian brothels, and Nepal has an unknown number of internal sex trafficking victims as well. In response to a dowry practice, where they must offer gifts that could be worth several years’ income, some parents sell their daughters rather than have them married. Other women are drugged and taken across the border, like Anita. Once enslaved, Nepali girls and women are more likely to be arrested than rescued by the police, and most Nepalese victims never leave India, even after liberation. Those who do are often shunned by their families and remain in Kathmandu at shelters. Anita describes such familial rejection in the wake of her experience.
My name is Anita Sharma Bhattarai. I am 28 years old. I am from Nepal. Last year, my husband took another wife. Soon after, he began to beat me, torment me, and disregard my children. I decided it would be best if I and my children moved out of our home. I made money by buying vegetables from farmers and selling them in the village market. On November 22, last year, I boarded the bus in order to go pay for my vegetables. I sat next to a Nepali man and woman. They offered me a banana to eat and I took it. Soon after I ate the banana, while I was still on the bus, I got a very bad headache. I told the man and woman that I had a headache and they offered me a pill and a bottle of mineral water to help me swallow the medicine. Immediately, I felt myself becoming groggy and then I fell unconscious.
The next thing that I remember is waking up in the train station in Gorakhpur, India. I am from a mountain village. I did not know what a train was and, of course, I had never been to India. I asked the man where I was. I was confused by the long cars that I was riding and the strange surroundings. The man told me not to cry out. He informed me that there were drugs tied around my waist and that I had just smuggled them across an international border. He told me that if I brought the attention of the police, I would be in trouble for smuggling the drugs. I did not remember the drugs being tied around my waist but I could feel plastic bags under my dress. The man also told me that if I stayed with him, I would receive 20,000 rupees [$400] from the sale of the drugs when we arrived in Bombay. I did not know how to get back to Nepal, I do not speak any of the Indian languages, and I believed that I was already in trouble for carrying drugs. The man told me he was my friend and that I could refer to him as my brother. I decided to stay with him. It was a five-day journey to Bombay by train.
When we got to Bombay, he told me to wait at the train station while he went to sell the drugs. When he returned, he told me that the police had confiscated his drugs and that he did not have any money. He said that I would have to go to his friend’s house and wait while he got us some money. He called his friend on the phone from the train station, and she came to meet us there. She was a Nepali woman. She said her name was Renu Lama. I left the train station with Renu Lama. My “brother” told me that he would meet me at her house at 4pm that afternoon.
As I walked with Renu Lama, she told me not to look at people because she lived in a very dangerous neighborhood and there were some bad people that I should not make eye contact with. When we arrived at her house, Renu Lama told me that I should take a bath. I told her that I would wait until 4pm when my “brother” came because he was carrying my clothes. She told me my “brother” was not coming. I waited until evening but he never came. Finally, I took a bath and Renu Lama gave me some of her old clothes to wear.
Renu Lama then asked if I could write a letter for her. I did. She dictated what she wanted to say to her family, and I wrote the letter. When I had finished writing the letter, Renu Lama took away the ink pen. She went to my room and took away all of the pens, pencils, and paper that I could possibly write with. I realized that the writing of the letter had been a test. Now that they knew I was literate, they were keen to keep me from communicating with anyone outside.
I felt very scared that evening and I refused to eat anything. I soon noticed that many men were coming in and out of the house and I realized it was a brothel. I began howling and shouting. I said that I wanted to leave. Renu Lama told me that I was ignorant. She said that I did not just come easily and I could not go easily. She said that I had been bought and I would have to work as a prostitute in order to pay them back. I was never told how much they had paid for me. Renu Lama and two of her associates told me that all the women in the house were “sisters” and that we had to support each other. I cried a lot, but they comforted me and brought me a fine dinner, complete with chutney and a pickle.
The next day, though, I insisted that I wanted to leave. The women began to slap me on the face. They cut off my hair. It was shoulder length in the back with short bangs in the front. Now that I had short hair, I knew that I could not leave the brothel without everyone identifying me as a prostitute. In my culture, short hair is the sign of a wild woman. Then, I was told that all of the women in the brothel had to bathe three or four times each day. The women all bathe nude and they bathed together—four or five girls at a time. I had never bathed nude before and I had never bathed with other naked women. When I expressed my shyness, the other women mocked me. They grabbed me and stripped off my clothes. They forced me to bathe with them.
For the next couple of days the women beat me often. They slapped me on the face and head with their hands and hit me about the waist and thighs with metal rods. I begged to be let go. I said that I wanted to return to my children in time for the biggest holiday of our culture. The women mocked me. They told me that if I worked with them for a couple of days, they would send me home with three bricks of gold and 30,000-40,000 rupees [$600-850] for the festival. I was also forced to learn Hindi—the language of most of the customers. When I couldn’t speak enough Hindi, I was beaten about the waist and thighs with iron rods. When I was alone with one of the other women, I offered her my gold earring if she would let me go. She said no.
Later I learned that three of the women were in the brothel voluntarily and they were in charge. The six other women in the brothel, I learned, had all been tricked and forced like me. Renu Lama and the woman to whom I had offered my earring were in the brothel voluntarily. All of the women in the brothel were from Nepal. The six who were forced had all been brought from Nepal but under different pretenses. One girl married a man who said he was taking her to Bombay to buy gold. He then left her in a brothel. None of the other girls could read or write. I am literate because I am Brahmin and the women in my community are educated.
The women tried to reassure me that being a prostitute was not that bad. All of my food, housing, and clothes were provided. All I would have to do, they said, was sell my body. On the fourth day that I was in the brothel, my first client came to me. I refused to have sex with him. He had already paid so he grabbed me and tried to rape me. I fought him off. He had managed to get my clothes off but he was very frustrated because I was resisting him so much. He stormed out and asked for his money back. A couple of the brothel owners came in and beat me. When they were done, the same man came back in. I then said that I would have sex with him only if he wore a condom. I knew about the need for condoms since I had learned that some of the other victims had very bad diseases. At first he refused but after another fight he finally agreed. By the time he left he had used three condoms.
I only had one client my first day. But the next day, and everyday after, I had three or four clients each day. I managed to get an ink pen. I would write messages to the police on the inside of cigarette boxes and send them out with my clients. Many clients promised to help but none did.
Still, I was not able to go out to buy the condoms myself. In fact, for the entire month-and-a-half that I was in the brothel, I was never allowed to go out into the sun. Some of the other girls got to go to the hospital when they fell ill. But I never got sick, so I could never leave. I lived on the second floor of the brothel. The six of us who had been brought there against our will were kept on the second floor. There were no windows on our floor. The three who ran the brothel lived downstairs.
Downstairs there was a door that led outside. Several iron rods used for beating were leaned against the wall beside the door. One of the owners always guarded the door. Outside the door was a metal gate. When customers were not coming in and out, the gate was closed. The gate was held by a heavy chain that was locked by a large padlock. One night I tried to run away with one of my associates. We were caught by the brothel owners before we even made it to the gate. My friend was sold to another brothel in Sarat where the brothels are said to be even more tortuous than the ones in Colaba, Bombay, where I was held.
After serving clients for about eight days, an elderly man came to me as a client. When I was alone with him in the room, I told him that he was old enough to be my father. I told him, “I am like your daughter.” I told him my story. He said that he had plenty of money and a Nepali friend. He promised to help me escape. He spent the entire night with me. That was the first time I had been with a client for more than an hour. I cried on him all night long. The next morning, he left with a promise that he would send his Nepali friend to help me. He said that I would know his friend had come when a Nepali man came to the brothel, asking to be with Anita, and carrying a gift of candies.
A few days later, a young Nepali man came to see me. He brought a gift of candy. I told him my story. He promised to help me escape. I told him that I did not trust anyone. In order for me to trust him, he would have to go to Nepal, report about me to my father and brother, and bring back some of my personal photographs as a result. The elderly client paid for him to go to Nepal. Before he left, the boy gave me his address in Bombay.
Some of my associates overheard the owners saying that they were also planning to sell me to a brothel in Sarat because I was too much trouble. I decided that I could not wait until the boy returned from Nepal. I had to try again to run away. I asked some of the other girls to run with me, but they were too afraid. We had been told that we would be killed if we tried to run away. But I had determined that I would rather die than stay in the brothel. The other girls pooled their money together and came up with 200 rupees [$4]. In exchange for the 200 rupees, I promised that if I made it out alive, I would get help for them.
A couple of days later, I had a perfect opportunity. Renu Lama was out of town again. The owner who was watching the gate was drunk. A new maid had just been hired to clean and cook in the brothel. The new maid was doing chores and had left the gate open just a little bit. In the middle of the night, I would guess about 4am, I ran out of the brothel. I was wearing only my nightgown and carrying my slip in my hand. I ran down the street as fast as I could.
As I was running I saw two police officers. There were in civilian clothes but I knew they were police officers by the belts they were wearing. I ran to them, told them my story, and handed them the address of the Nepali boy. They took 100 rupees [$2] from me in order to pay for a taxi. They put me in a taxi that took me to the Nepali boy’s house. When I arrived at the house, the Nepali boy was not there. But another Nepali man and his wife were. They were friends of the Nepali boy and they agreed to take me in. The police left me with that family. I did not know it at that time, but that same day, the Nepali boy had met Bob—Robert Mosier, director of investigations at the International Justice Mission. He told Bob my story. Soon after I ran away from the brothel, Bob and the police raided the brothel where I had been. After searching the brothel, they learned that I had run away earlier that night. They came with Bob and met me at the house where I was staying.
Bob told me that I could go back to the brothel to get my things. I was too scared to go back because I thought I might be forced to be a prostitute again. But Bob assured me that I was safe. I went back to the brothel with Bob. I showed him hiding places where they found the other girls. All of the girls who were forced were released from the brothel and a way was provided for them to go back home. The two owners who were there that night are now in jail. Bob also arranged for me to return home to my family in Nepal.
When I first went home to my family, it was very uncomfortable. The people in the village laughed at me. In my culture, a woman is scorned if she is missing for just one night. I had been missing for two months. It was very hard for my family, especially since we are members of the Brahmin caste. So, today I live in Kathmandu. I work as a domestic servant in the city. I am still without my children since they went to live with their father when I was taken away. I am told that my husband’s new wife is very cruel to my children, but my husband does not want my children to be with me because of where I have been.
I know that my story will help other women who are forced into prostitution. I am proud that I was able to help Bob free the other girls in the brothel where I worked. Though I am grateful to be here to share my story, I am sad that I am not with my children—that my children cannot be here with me.
Narrative as told to the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, session on Trafficking of Women and Children in the International Sex Trade, September 14, 1999.