Where Were You? By Matthew Friedman
Discovering Sexual Slavery
May 1992. My assignment to Kathmandu, Nepal, seemed a valuable two-year opportunity for a 30-year-old man. Since I had several overseas jobs before this one, I arrived with no particular expectations about this ancient country, but high interest in my future duties. I was a public health officer working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Part of my job involved creating a range of programs that would help to improve the overall health status of the Nepalese people on a national scale. We’d identify an important health issue, work with the government and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) to construct a response, and then put this initiative into place. I usually took part in every step of the process, including data collection, program design, implementation, and evaluation. It became a great learning experience for me.
We discovered something very unusual. We came across a significant number of teenage girls between the ages of 13 and 17 who had contracted HIV/AIDS. In a traditional Hindu society like theirs, we couldn’t understand how these girls transmitted this terrible disease. We thought at first they had received blood transfusions tainted with HIV.
To understand the problem, we visited a number of shelters where these girls lived. What we learned shocked us. The girls repeatedly told the same story—how someone had tricked and deceived each of them into leaving their community, only to face a life of sexual slavery in neighboring India.
A typical story went like this: A trafficker, often a young, handsome man in his mid-twenties, would enter a village and begin flashing money around to show that he was rich. While hanging out at tea stalls, he’d talk about how he wanted to find a rural wife. He would state that he didn’t want an urban wife; they were “too much trouble.” After locating a young girl he found attractive, he would befriend her and eventually ask for her hand in marriage. Seeing this as an opportunity to benefit their daughter and the entire family, the parents agreed without hesitation. The wedding would take place immediately, with the entire village in attendance.
After the marriage, the trafficker would tell the family he was taking their daughter to the capital, Kathmandu, to live. He would say he’d return in three or four months for another visit. But instead, he’d take her to Mumbai, India. The uneducated teenage “bride” who had never traveled more than 20 kilometers from home, wouldn’t even realize they had left Nepal.
Upon arriving in Mumbai, the man would immediately take his bride to the red light district. Once there, he’d put her in a small room and say he’d return shortly. By this point, the wife began to wonder what was happening. Seeing all of these young girls dressed in revealing clothes didn’t make any sense to her. But accepting her husband’s word, she’d do as she was told.
The man would then go off to meet the madam and collect US$600 from the sale of his wife to the brothel. Depending on her age and attractiveness, this number could be higher or lower. The money stood as profit on top of the gold he acquired from the wedding ceremony. He’d also hand over a few wedding photos. Upon completing this transaction, he’d return to Nepal to carry out this same scam again and again. Some traffickers sold over 60 young girls a year.
The madam would then enter the room and tell the girl that her husband had just sold her to the brothel and that she would now have to have sex with many men every day. The girl’s initial reaction would invariably be utter disbelief. “My husband wouldn’t do this to me! He loves me! This is a mistake!” The madam’s stern response would quickly bring this attitude into check.
After the young girl finally comprehended her fate, she would declare she’d rather kill herself before doing those shameful things. In response to this tactic, the madam would pull out the wedding photos and start pointing at the girl’s family members: “Is this your mother, your father, your brother? If you hurt yourself, we will hurt them. Do you understand me?” At this point, the girl began to truly fathom that she had been trapped in a living hell with no hope of escape.
To transform her into a prostitute, five or six professional rapists would be brought in to “break” her. During this process, they’d beat her, swear at her, rape her, and do everything they could to humiliate and shame her. The more she resisted, the more they pushed back. Within 48 hours, she might be raped up to 30 times. The objective of this process was to completely destroy her will so that she’d lay back and accept whomever they brought to her. Nearly all the girls I interviewed suffered a variation of this horrific “training” process.
Once the girl had been broken, she’d be forced to have sex every day with up to ten men. She would receive no respite, even during her menstrual period or if she grew ill. To get through the days, many girls would turn to drugs or alcohol to dull the edge of their misery. Since they couldn’t make customers use condoms, most would acquire a vast array of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.
I remember one girl telling me how hard it was to cope with this daily hell: “Three o’clock in the morning was the hardest time for me. I would have been with at least eight or nine men by this time. I was expected to see one or two more. I was so tired. My body smelled of sweat and semen. All I wanted was to climb into bed and die.”
To maintain order and ensure the madam’s absolute authority, the brothel community had a small army of thugs called goondas. They ensured that the girls did whatever they were told. If a girl showed any sign of resistance, she would be severely beaten or even tortured with cigarettes, electric shocks, or by having a knife placed up against her throat. Common scare tactics included exposing the girls to snakes and cockroaches. The more a girl resisted, the more she would be punished.
In addition to providing security within the brothels, musclemen regularly patrolled the narrow lanes, bus depots, and train stations, searching for runaway girls like packs of wild dogs in search of prey. With this kind of surveillance, those on the run had little hope of escape. If one managed to get away, it was usually not long before a goonda squad picked her up and returned her to the brothel for punishment. Now and then, an escapee would be brutally murdered to send a message to the others: “If you go against us, this will happen to you.” The madams often showed photographs of these murders to get the point across to new victims.
After two or three years of abuse, most girls would be so used up that they’d eventually stop attracting customers. One survivor described it like this: “The girls who had been there for a long time began to get what we called “black eye.” It is this vacant stare that seemed as if she was not even alive anymore. Her soul had already taken flight. Her body just went through the motions.”
To make room for new girls who could bring in more money, the older ones were kicked out—forced to fend for themselves on the street. In some cases, they’d be sold to a lesser brothel where the number of customers could actually be even higher. By her mid-to late-teens, she’d have a body that was completely ravaged from the effects of a disease, alcohol, drugs, and poor nutrition. If she was lucky, she’d somehow make it back to Nepal and to a shelter. Because of the shame they endured, the idea of facing their families was usually not a possibility. For most of these young girls I encountered, their stories ended in death from an AIDS-related illness.
As I continued to visit these shelters, I heard the same themes of horror over and over again. I remember one 15-year-old girl telling me she was raped over 7,000 times. She described that each sexual act she was forced to commit was against her will; for her this was rape. She was raped on schedule, 3,650 times a year. She did this for two years until she was forced to leave because she was suffering from a range of diseases that turned customers away. I remember this girl repeatedly asking me, “How can a 15-year-old girl be raped 7,000 times without anyone doing something to help? How can this happen?” Even after 25 years, I still don’t have an answer to this question.
Some of the stories these victims told were so horrific that they would make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I am still haunted by their tales. While I listened to these stories more than 25 years ago, the situation is still very much the same in Mumbai and throughout other parts of India.
If it hadn’t been for the AIDS epidemic, we probably wouldn’t have known anything about these human rights abuses. Until then, most people looked at prostitutes as criminals or bad girls, morally deficient people who were somehow less than human. Few people ever bothered to go up to them to hear their stories. The idea that they could be victims was never considered. But with each tale, the truth of their suffering was revealed and people like myself came to understand this was a major human rights abuse that urgently needed to be addressed. In time, this led to the creation of the human trafficking movement.
To read the rest of the book, get it here.
Matt Friedman’s TEDx talk on sex trafficking: