Rita was drugged and trafficked from Nepal into India in 1998 at the age of 19. She was eventually helped by the NGO “Maiti Nepal.” Here she narrates a series of experiences that are rooted in her identity as a woman. The traffickers tricked her by explaining that they needed her to help smuggle diamonds—because “girls were not checked as thoroughly as men” by border guards. One of the first incidents in India is the replacement of her trousers for a long skirt. She notes that when women are enslaved they are “made ‘sisters.’” She goes on to observe the psychology of women who refuse to leave because they “will not be accepted by society.” She describes the horror of public questioning about her experiences in sex slavery. And she tells the stories of two other women—Vidhya and Maili. 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 Rita. 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. Another aspect of this enslavement is HIV and AIDS. Some 50 percent of those who return to Nepal are HIV-positive, and Rita makes reference to these “girls with AIDS.”
My home in the hills is in Gorkha. My father died when I was two years old. After that my mother kept me at my aunt’s place and got married again. I was fine at my aunt’s place. A foreigner sent money for my education. I was studying in a government school at the beginning. Later I was admitted into an English school in class eight. I had difficulty adjusting, and failed. My sponsor stopped sending money. I discontinued my studies because of financial hardship.
A few months later my uncle remarried. I went back to my mother because it was very difficult staying there. I thought of looking for a job and I told the neighborhood elders that I was interested in working if I could get a job. Then one man arranged a job for me in a hotel. There in the hotel I got acquainted with a friend. We came to know each other because she was a dancer and I a waitress…Some months later my friend said: “Look, how long am I going to be dancer in this dance restaurant and how long are you going to be a waitress here? Let us look for some other work or business.” I was attracted by the idea because of the greed to earn more and because of poverty. Then I asked my friend what kind of business she was talking about. She said she knew some young men. My friend said they were really good people and that they dealt in diamonds.
Two days later two men came and my friend introduced me to them, saying these were “the brothers.” The friend said that these brothers would give us diamonds and we had to carry them to India. I asked the brothers why they needed to take us girls. Because men wouldn’t go, they said. They said they had to take girls because girls were not checked as thoroughly as men. Mainly because I trusted my friend and because she said the men were really good and she knew them well, I agreed. So I said “Fine!”
We went to Manakamana, before going to India. After performing prayers we came and sat down to have tea. While waiting for something to eat they gave us soda. We never thought about what might happen to us, whether those men could be trusted, and after drinking it, we felt very sleepy and sick. I remember getting into a truck. After that, where they took us, what they did…I don’t know anything. We were taken to a very quiet place through some internal routes.
After crossing into India they kept us in a hotel. Then the main man took us to a big house. We hadn’t even climbed the stairs and there was a fat woman sitting there. They said she was the owner. We greeted her and they took us into a room and kept us there. Then the main man said they were going to get money and we were to stay there. I was a bit frightened and held onto the hand of one of the boys. I asked him why we were being kept in the room like this and what was really happening. “It’s nothing,” he said, “you two shouldn’t panic. Stay calm here, the brothers will come back with the money and then we can all return to Kathmandu.” And so we stayed inside.
In the adjoining room we heard a boy and a girl talking. There was a place from where one could peek in, and so I looked and said to that boy: “There is a boy and a girl in there. What’s going on in this hotel?” “It’s nothing, this is a hotel and these things happen,” the boy said. And after that, all of a sudden I suspected that we are being sold and I asked the boy. It wasn’t like that and I shouldn’t worry, he said.
Shortly after that, the fat woman came. She told the two of us to wait in the room and left with the boy. “The brothers are going to come back with money,” she said, and locked us from the outside. And we kept on sitting there. We felt like crying, for this had never happened to us before. Then around evening, they sent us off to freshen up and have a bath saying: “You must be tired.” Then they took us to another room and said: “Wait here, the brothers will come.”
A woman entered at one o’clock in the morning. “The brothers have come, let’s go,” she said. We were so happy then. But the woman said: “The two of you shouldn’t go together, you must go one at a time else the police will suspect.” She left my friend there and took me alone to another house. I asked her where the brothers were. She said: “They will never come back again. They have sold you and left.” I felt as if I had fallen off a cliff. I just couldn’t believe it. I collapsed when that woman said I had been sold.
I still find it difficult to talk about this matter. And I found it extremely difficult at that time. All I could think of was: what am I to do and how do I escape? I had no interest in the food they served. There were many Nepali girls, sisters, in another big room. On the other side, some were watching a movie, some were sleeping. I was kept in a separate room. Then they snatched my citizenship papers. I had gone wearing a T-shirt and trousers and I was asked to remove them. They made me wear a long skirt.
I was trying to run away. There was only netting on the window, no windowpanes. At times like that one seems to gain strength. I had managed to take out half the netting after locking the room from inside. Somebody knocked and asked who was inside. “I am here, didi,I am here didi, I am going to sleep here. I don’t like sleeping outside, I will sleep here,” I said. I was frightened. “Come outside fast, my customer has come,” she said. After that I had to open the door. They realized I was trying to run away. Two, three of them beat me very badly, all were women. And the Madam to whom the boys had sold me first, sold me to a second Madam the next day. She beat me with this big stick. I was beaten until that stick broke. My condition was really bad. They banged my head on the wall. I can’t tell you now how I felt then. I told them: “I won’t do such work. Please, let me go from here.” I pleaded with them. They told me people who come here can never return. They said: “you work hard, and if you work well we will send you back in two years.” I didn’t even eat for two or three days.
I suffered a lot, and was forced by circumstances to do that work. Once you come to a house like that, you can forget about not wanting to do bad things. They tell you what to do. They force us, when the man is sent for the first time. In the beginning a Muslim man came and told me to go with him. And I went. I felt like crying, and I cried. He asked me why I was crying, what had happened. And I had to talk, though it was frightening. I told him how I was sold. I told him to take me away from there: “I want to go, and don’t want to work like this.” I spoke to him like that. Some men are gentlemen. I told the first man everything. He said: “you are a beginner, you are new. Since somebody has sold you I will not do this to you.” The man who came some days later did it. When I didn’t agree he went to tell the Madam and I was frightened. He asked me to remove my clothes and I removed them. If I didn’t agree I would be beaten. Whether we could or not, whether it was painful or not, we had to do it. And if we complained of pain they would give us medicine.
You sit all by yourself. They put on the television, and if a customer comes we have to go with the customer. We are sitting there and they say: “Let’s go.” Inside, there are rooms. There were 13 small rooms in that place. A big room is partitioned into smaller rooms…girls are made up and kept here. They also provide cosmetics. The boys come themselves, it’s not like other places where old women sit and call, not like that. The customers come and if they like, they take the girls. When a man comes there once, he tells his friends about it. That friend comes, and he tells his friend. Like this, the number of customers increases.
I stayed there for about four months. Customers do not like old workers, and there are many customers when new recruits arrive. I had to service 20-30 customers in a day. A customer is charged 75 rupees [$1.5] during the day, and it takes about five minutes, ten minutes. The Madams tells us not give too much time to men who pay 75. But if the person books for three, four hours, then you have to stay for three, four hours. If I have five, six customers, I have to service them one by one. They wait. We don’t get a single paisa [0.1 rupee].
It is very difficult. Customers come even when we are sleeping. We had to service customers from five o’clock till one o’clock in the morning. I can’t describe how we felt...It was very painful for me down there but when I couldn’t service customers, they would ask for the reason. If they found out about my pain, they would immediately take me for injections. Everybody used to go. And for new girls, on the way we used to be accompanied by two people—one on each side. They used to do that to me.
We never knew anything about HIV/AIDS. We knew that we could get pregnant having sex without a condom. We didn’t know about other things…I asked two, three friends of mine what happens to girls with AIDS. “They are not kept here,” they said. “They are sent home.” And if somebody gets pregnant after having been careless, they will keep that girl also, the mother in one place and the child in another. Or they make them abort the baby. If the girls don’t say anything even after conception, signs of pregnancy show up after three, four months. When abortion becomes difficult they are allowed to deliver the baby.
They pretend to love us because we bring them money. The more customers serviced the more money earned. They coaxed me to work when I was new, by pretending to love me. We were coaxed all the time. “We were also sold like you,” they used to say. “We are doing this kind of work because we were not able to return to Nepal. You shouldn’t have come but you have; now do your work well, pay back the money, then if you feel like going home you can go. If you don’t want to go, you stay back here. If you insist on going back you will be sent back in two years time.” But from top to bottom, there wasn’t a place where I was not beaten. I had blue marks all over my body. And after a beating we were forbidden to tell the customer. If they asked, we have to say we fell down the stairs. There was an ointment available to remove the marks, and they would themselves apply that ointment on me. Two or three days after the application of medicine the marks would disappear.
The windows and doors there have steel grills. The windows have grills. There is one door to come in and go out of and male guards on both sides. The Madam sits outside 24 hours a day. The old girls are sitting outside 24 hours. Twenty-four hours, the guards are sitting outside. There is absolutely no chance of getting out. When they were first taking me to give me an injection I tried to escape on the way. But when you try to escape, no matter from which direction you go, you are still in the same place. It looks the same. After that I thought: even if I run away from this place I will probably reach the same type of place. So I didn’t run away. Suppose somebody is kept in a tank full of water—how suffocating it would be. Just like that, I also felt absolutely suffocated and longed to escape from there. You couldn’t speak to anyone, couldn’t make friends with anyone.
There was this younger sister, Maili, in the place I was staying. Poor thing, she didn’t have customers coming to her. She was abused verbally, and she tried to run away one day. That time I was sick and sleeping. She tried to run away, and succeeded, too. But she was caught and brought back by the people who bring the tea. A person went to grind salt and chili. The paste was applied to the girl’s genitals. That girl was beaten so badly. I was sleeping. She was beaten black and blue all over the body and hands, and on top of that chili was put inside her. The Madam told everyone not to give her water even if she asked for it. That poor girl got up, crying, and came to me. She asked me what to do and said: “This is what they have done to me.” There was talk going around about selling her to another place.
Three months after that one Indian man came. I had asked many men who came there to help me get out. “I want to get away from here,” I had said. Most of the men were too frightened to help me get out of there. It was a very dangerous place. There were thugs and if anybody came to help girls escape, they would kill the helpers. That’s the kind of place it was. But I told him everything. He said he would help me and asked me for my home address. After that he went to Maiti Nepal, which has an office in Bombay. And they came to get us out.
There are so many other sisters in the place where I was sold. I told them we shouldn’t stay there. “Let’s go! We will go to Nepal instead. We shouldn’t do this kind of work, let’s go,” I begged. The newcomers agreed to come, but the girls who had been there for 15-16 years didn’t want to come. When the police arrived I begged them to leave the place. “Let’s go, let’s not stay here,” I said. But they said they wouldn’t go. “What will we get if we go to Nepal? We’ll get nothing but misery. We’ve been sold like this, we’ve become prostitutes. We will not be accepted by society. We won’t go,” they said. “Even if we go, we will go only with money.” And even the policemen who came to raid said they will take only those who wish to go.
Vidhya, the friend who had gone with me from Kathmandu, was in another house. I told them that my friend was in that house and to go get her too. But they couldn’t find my friend. The Madam found out the police was coming and hid her elsewhere. When they have information about the arrival of police, the girls are immediately shifted to another place. In the beginning I was shifted to another house when the police came. And later I was hidden in the interiors inside the cupboard on the wall. When it’s time for the police to come we are hidden deep inside as if we are buried in the earth. They have made such places to hide the girls. Somehow they get information even before the police arrive. They don’t call the police “police” but call them “uncle”…I think the police of the lower ranks provide information. That’s how it was with them. We would be hidden inside, and the police would go back with nothing.
Vidhya was left behind. I still feel sad thinking about her. I couldn’t help set her free. They didn’t find her. And I found out from other friends later that she was sold to some other place. If they find that someone is trying to run away then that’s what they do, it seems.
We were harassed by lawyers and police after we come back to Nepal. The way they question—it is like scratching a wound. They question us as if we went knowingly. “They have done this willingly,” that’s what they think. We have come back from that sort of place with all the pain and suffering, and even then we have to file a complaint with the police. The men there question us and ask: “How many did you sleep with?” After I came back from there, when I went to the Jawalakhel police station and a man was writing down the complaint, there were many boys and other men present. Those policemen should have thought about how awkward it would be for this girl, being questioned like that in the presence of everyone, but they don’t. Forget about giving us justice—instead, in front of everyone they ask us questions. They shame us in public. It’s more painful because of this.
I had suffered as much as I could take. But thanks to the support of Maiti Nepal we were able to come here to Kathmandu. I work as a counselor. Those who have been sold and have returned are suffering lots of pain and grief. They aren’t able to tell others or share this with anybody. We go to them and talk to them, hoping to lessen their grief, and we give them advice. People may detest me, but I always wished to return to Nepal. That wish of mine has been fulfilled. When I arrived at Maiti Nepal the brothers and sisters here gave me encouragement.
I had come to totally detest Nepalis because I was taken to India and sold by a Nepali. After coming back from there I used to get angry just looking at Nepali people. But there is training at Maiti Nepal for up to six months. As one by one the days passed by, I felt like making friends. After that, slowly, I got used to it. Or, after coming out of that place in India I used to be afraid of talking to important people at first. Now I am not frightened to talk. I wasn’t able to study earlier, now what I feel is that since I can read a little, now I wish to do something in life. And my pain, my past, if somebody understands, if he is willing to accept me even after knowing everything, I will get married.
This happened to me because I trusted my good friend. To say that only the uneducated are sold is wrong. Because even many educated ones are being sold. There are many educated girls, too; they are coaxed, misled and taken. Many are taken away with the promise of marriage and later sold. We were made “sisters” and taken.
From very young I never got my own mother’s affection, nor a father’s love. If anyone had given me a little bit of affection probably I, too, might have become something. That’s how I feel. Even at Auntie’s I couldn’t get much affection, couldn’t get a mother’s love, either—forget about getting that of a father. Since I was very young, I was running about in search of affection. I wished somebody would give me a little love. I went trusting a friend, and it’s turned out like this now.
You have to try and compare yourself with others. I consider myself lucky. The way others have contracted HIV has not happened to me. I was able to come back fast. That is what makes me very happy. But I don’t like to remember the days I spent there. I want to forget the things that happened.
Narrative as told to Sangeeta Lama for the Panos Oral Testimony Programme, 2002, in Kathmandu, Nepal.