45 million

people in the world are living in slavery, according to the Global Slavery Index, the latest report by the United Nations International Labor Organization and Walk Free Foundation. 71% of those trafficked are women and girls. 

Trafficking of women for sexual exploitation is an international human rights crisis and India is an epicenter of the problem. An estimated 18 million of the world’s enslaved population is in India. Women who are victims of human trafficking and repeated rape experience severe trauma, and health issues such as TB, STDs, HIV/AIDS, and pelvic inflammatory disease. The damage to their mental health and self-esteem is extreme. Many victims experience complete disassociation from their bodies. Women who spend decades being exploited in red light areas face an even harsher fate as they age. When they are no longer young and healthy enough to attract even the lowest-paying clients (or those demanding particularly violent or degrading sexual services), they are literally cast out on the streets, where many live on scraps of cardboard begging for food. A more miserable end to a life is hard to imagine.

Ninety-eight percent of brothel based sex workers are illiterate, which is unsurprising given the reality that 49% are trafficked before age 16.

Case Study #1

Sultana was trafficked into a red light area when she was 15. She is now in her early thirties. After a bad crop year her father and stepmother sold her to traffickers.. She was drugged and taken across the border from Bangladesh to India. When she awoke in a brothel in India, she was violently raped by two men for several days to break down her resistance and identity. Sultana became pregnant soon after she was trafficked. She now has four children aged 2-16. While she was no longer literally under lock and key, Sultana was forced to submit to increasingly violent sexual acts in order to survive and care for her children because she is no longer young with a high street value. Sultana’s teenage daughters, Ruhi and Rimi, age 14 and 16, are the children of a pimp/trafficker. He has been grooming them to join their mother in sex work. Every year they perform, scantily clad, in a neighborhood dance competition. 

Case Study #2

Anisha was raped by an uncle when she was a small child. Her parents saw her as broken and felt ashamed of her, so when she was 11, they sent her to work as a domestic servant. In that job, she was sexually assaulted by the father and brothers of the family. She ran away to a city in a neighboring state, and from there was soon trafficked into a brothel. When Anisha was finally rescued at age 18, she trusted no one. Everyone in her life had betrayed or abused her. In the loving environment of a rescue shelter, she has begun to recover. Now 20, she is learning to read and to be a tailor. Anisha loves participating in arts workshops and hopes for more opportunities to heal from her trauma and express her dreams.

Learn More

According to almost every published research study, the root causes of trafficking are poverty and the low status of women. In the poorest parts of South Asia, girls have low status in the family and the community. Female value in much of their society is so low that girl infanticide is a significant problem. In Nepal, where many girls in India’s red light areas come from, married women are traditionally expected to wash their husbands’ feet each night, then to dip a hand in the dirty water and put some water into their mouth, symbolizing their deference and low status. This is merely one illustration of the culturally accepted view of women in areas with high incidence of gender violence. Girls in South Asia are often uneducated. If resources within a family are limited, only the boys are sent to school. Girls who grow up in this environment believe that there is no other option than to obey their parents and others in authority. This is why many girls who are trafficked do not even try to escape.

Given the dreadful conditions victims of trafficking are subjected to, it is no surprise that they suffer from a multitude of negative consequences, even after they’ve been rescued and returned home (if they’re fortunate enough). Women who are coerced into prostitution can suffer from a range of physical issues, such as sexually-transmitted infections (HIV/AIDS, HPV), menstrual irregularities, and other injuries (due to the prevalence of physical violence in brothels and other institutions). But many of the physical impacts come even earlier: during transportation, victims are commonly held in extremely close and unsanitary quarters, which can lead to the outbreak and spread of diseases. Other tactics traffickers use to subdue victims include starvation, beatings, and other forms of physical and sexual trauma—which can lead to a host of physical injuries, such as brain trauma, burns, bruises, and broken bones.

Trafficking also causes severe psychological damage. Some of the mental health consequences include the development of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), anxiety disorders (such as social anxiety), depression, Stockholm Syndrome (a condition that causes hostages to develop a psychological bond, or “feelings”, for their captor), and substance abuse. Such psychological effects can emerge from a wide variety of factors—the initial separation and displacement from their former lives, the physical and sexual abuse they may face at the hands of their traffickers, economic exploitation, and social isolation. Prolonged and debilitating feelings of guilt, shame, hopelessness, and terror are some of the emotional repercussions that may wrestle with—all of which increase stress levels and further exacerbate their mental health. 

However, the suffering that trafficking victims face doesn’t end after their period of captivity (it that period does indeed end). A poignant article published by The Hindu, which focuses on the lives of female trafficking victims in West Bengal after rescue (West Bengal registered the highest number of human trafficking cases in 2016!), sheds light on this issue. For one woman, a victim of sex trafficking, her return home led to a “social boycott” of her and her family—to the extent that even leaving her house became a dangerous and stressful venture. Indeed, social stigma—and the self-stigma that results from internalizing these negative stereotypes—is a huge issue, and ostracizes and re-victimizes women who have already been through immense trauma.

Human trafficking is a violation in every sense of the word: it abuses victims physically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, and at times sexually. This is why it is so important to help survivors rebuild their lives and offer them the support they need—whether that’s medical, educational, or emotional. Women, and children are being trafficked and abused as we read this article—so the time to take action is now.