Some of the rescued girls in the children's home run by Mukta’s husband /

Girls and women who are sold into slavery lead torturous lives of rape and abuse, while those who attempt to rescue them risk their own and their families’ lives in doing so, as Leslie Absher discovers

I don’t know the whole story. All I know is that I’m going to meet a woman named Mukta* whose husband was killed saving girls from sex trafficking. She survived but her husband – a pastor and part of India’s Christian minority, a man who ran a home for children, many of whom were rescued from the gangs – did not.

Ayush*, another Christian Indian pastor who runs an orphanage I donate $35 (£26) to every month, sits beside me as we rock along a dirt road lined with sugar cane fields. He talks in hushed tones into his phone while the driver watches the road behind dark glasses. We pull up to a small collection of cement buildings. Scrubby trees wave to us from the side of the road.

“Wait here,” Ayush says. He gets out and disappears inside a small house.

A moment later, he opens the door and says, “You can come.”

I climb out into a dry, hot day and walk to the front of the car. Ayush moves toward the doorway of a low ceilinged house, pushes back a cloth curtain and motions for me to follow. I try to ready myself to meet someone who has just lost their husband, a man who was killed for trying to save girls. I tell myself I won’t stay long, just long enough to greet her, ask if she has anything she’d like to share. I imagine we’ll sit around a small table in plastic chairs and she’ll offer snacks or a soft drink. Then I’ll leave. After all, what can one say to a woman who has lost her husband, the father of four daughters, in such a violent way?

I step into a shaded room. It is empty except for a narrow cot. I see a woman lying on the cot beneath a single, floral sheet. Her face is turned toward the wall. I immediately want to back out of the room. This is a mistake. This woman is sick. This is a house with a very sick person. But I know it’s her – Mukta, the pastor’s wife. Suddenly the room feels crowded with people staring down on her.

There is no air. Ayush motions for me to move toward the head of the cot. Mukta turns her gaze from the wall, sees us, shakes her head and murmurs, “No, no, no.” Her hair is limp, plastered against her head, fragile, the bones of her face so thin. Her lips are chapped. Flies sputter around the room oblivious. Did she know we were coming? Did she have any say in this visit? Her eyes seem fixed on something I can’t see, something beyond this small, dark room. I’m not at all sure she can hear or see us.

“These are visitors from America,” Ayush tells her. “They are here to see you.”

I have no smile or appropriate facial expression to offer. I sit down beside her and stumble through a few words. “I am sorry for your pain,” I say. They are useless words, irrelevant. My lungs tighten while she stares toward the ceiling.

mukta-recovery-several-weeks-after-visit.jpg
Mukta recovering in hospital in India after she was found in the jungle when she had been dumped 

A few minutes later, Ayush signals it’s time to go.

We move out to the road and back into the car. The village shrinks behind us. Everyone in the car is silent. I don’t ask what happened to her, why she is in this condition. I take my cue from the mood in the car, from the silence. In the months I’ve been traveling the world, I’ve learned to be patient, to not always look for explanations.

“She was taken after he was shot,” Ayush says later. We are back in his home, and his children are lounging on a blanket in the common room. “They put her into prostitution. Then they took her somewhere and many men rape her,” he says this in a low voice, while his children are distracted, playing with my smart phone. My breath catches in my throat. He says acid was thrown onto her vagina and then she was thrown off a wall into the jungle. Discarded. Later, she was found and brought to a hospital.

Human Trafficking of Girls and Women in India

Human trafficking is big business worldwide, generating $32bn (£24bn) annually. Of the approximately 800,000 people trafficked each year, 80 per cent are female.

The border between India and Nepal is especially vulnerable and saw a 500 per cent increase in human trafficking in 2015, following the devastating earthquake.

A deep devaluing of females is at the root of women and girls being trafficked in India. The UN estimates India has lost 50 million girls to infanticide and feticide due to the wide spread practice of using ultra sound technology to determine the gender of a child and then aborting female fetuses. The lower numbers of girls being born has led to a dearth of available brides, which in turn feeds the human trafficking industry. Girls of lower castes or tribes are at an increased risk of being exploited.

According to the State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Person’s Report, the Indian government has for the first time included information on human trafficking investigations, prosecutions and convictions in its National Crime Records Bureau’s Crime in India Report. Other steps have also been taken in an effort to track and to standardize sentencing and punishment for human trafficking, but corruption is prevalent. 

“Where are her daughters?” I ask.

“Gone.”

Later Ayush says more.

“They took the daughters,” he says.

The daughters, four of them, were young, barely teenagers, and they disappeared inside some system of torture that is normal here along the border between India and Nepal. It’s a normal danger for girls and for anyone who objects to the selling of girls. My mind can’t comprehend what Ayush has just told me. I nod but I can’t really feel. Not tears. Not rage. Just nothing.

Ayush pulls out his flip phone and shows us the photographs of the pastor’s body. In them, the pastor is shirtless and lies on his side, already dead from a gunshot wound to his chest. I wonder if it helps Ayush in some way to share this with us.  He’s a young man, barely thirty, with a wife and two daughters of his own. And even though I am too overwhelmed to feel, I act normal, make sure Ayush sees that I am not a weak Western woman, too spoiled or entitled to see the world for what it is.

I ask if there is any official information about the pastor’s murder, such as a newspaper article, police report or coroner’s report. He shakes his head. There is nothing giving the pastor’s name or the day he was killed or by whom. Just like there is no information on the abduction and rape Mukta endured. No record on the abduction of their daughters. Only silence.

A week later, my wife and I are about to leave India when we get another message from Ayush. We’ve been messaging back and forth about the wire transfer we’re trying to send, our attempt to allay some of the cost of the Mukta’s medical care, so she can heal. Ayush sends a series of grainy photographs of one of the daughters. She was found in the jungle not far from where her mother was found. I look at the image, a teenager with acid burns splashed across her left cheek. She lies on a bed inside some clinic, eyes closed, face swollen. One girl brought back from the brink. Not her sisters but her. Now she is just like all the children her father rescued.

Later, I find out from Ayush that two more of the pastor’s four daughters have been found. They are safe and in hiding. Mukta is also in hiding and has recovered enough to walk.

* Pseudonyms are used to protect the safety of the people I met

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