The struggle of Nepalese sex workers escaping Delhi's brothels | The Probe investigation - The Probe

The struggle of Nepalese sex workers escaping Delhi’s brothels | The Probe investigation

Rescued sex trafficking survivors, Savitri and Daisy, have now pledged to take on their captors, become witnesses in the case and help other women escape Delhi’s abominable brothels

It was almost midnight on a rainy day in May 2021 when Nirmala Walter’s phone suddenly rang. As she picked up the phone, she heard the voice of an anxious lady on the other side, announcing, “I need your help, didi”.

The lady on the other side of the call was 21-year-old Daisy (name changed), a sex trafficking survivor from Nepal, who had run away six months ago from the brothel house of Garstin Bastion Road (GB Road) in Delhi and was now seeking help for her friend, Savitri (name changed), who was still stuck there.

The rescue of Savitri from a brothel in GB Road, Delhi | Video courtesy: Pari Saikia

“My friend is caught in a bad place. Will you help me rescue her?” Daisy pleaded to Nirmala over the call in a nervous tone.

Nirmala Walter is a social worker with Delhi-based Catalyst NGO and often helps sex trafficking victims come out of the life of exploitation. She has rescued more than 50 Nepalese girls who were victims of sex trafficking from the red-light areas of Delhi’s GB Road.

Nirmala Walter speaks on Savitri’s rescue | Video courtesy: Pari Saikia

As the rest of Delhi was still reeling under a devastating second wave of Covid-19, 39-year-old Savitri, who was trafficked from Nepal in 2016, was planning her escape with the help of her friend Daisy.

On the same night, Savitri had secretly sent a video message to Daisy from her mobile phone, which she was stealthily using, away from the sights of her ‘didi’ (in-charge of the brothel). In the SOS recording, Savitri can be seen pleading for help. It had already been two days since Savitri had food or water. She had no money and nowhere to go.

Daisy, a sex trafficking survivor speaks on Savitri’s rescue | Video courtesy: Pari Saikia

“I was in regular contact with her even after I left that place. When I saw the video where she said she was starving and desperate to get out, I decided that I must help her at any cost. Come what may,” said Daisy.

As soon as the video reached Nirmala, she promptly assured Daisy that she would help her friend come out of the brothel. Savitri was rescued within 24 hours. Both Savitri and Daisy have now pledged to take on their captors, become witnesses in the case as well as help other women escape from Delhi’s abominable brothels.

Daisy and Savitri’s cases are just one amongst a growing pile of stories of thousands of women who get trafficked every year and are pushed into flesh trade in India.

The unforgiving life of GB Road brothels

Daisy was 15-years-old when she was trafficked in 2016 to India from Nepal. Never did she think in her wildest dreams that one day, she would be living among hundreds of sex workers in one of the busiest brothels of India’s national capital, Delhi – Garstin Bastion Road, more popularly known as GB Road.

Coming from a poor background in Nepal, Daisy was left at Manju’s brothel when a few people forcibly brought her to Delhi six years ago. From there, they took her to Kotha No. 59, where she was forced to do sex work against her will.

“Initially, I refused to work. Manju asked her pimps to use any tactic and make me comply with their demands. Then after 2-3 months, they took me to Kotha No. 64. I was forced to work there too. They made life hell for every sex worker there. We were not given enough money for food or other expenses. We weren’t allowed to talk on the phone by Manju,” claims Daisy.

“I was clueless about what to do with the customers in the beginning. The customers would ask me where I was from and why I was doing this work? I didn’t know how to answer them. Few customers would force themselves on me and I would cry. I would tell them that I was conned into coming here and if I didn’t do sex work, I would be assaulted,” Daisy narrates.

Saying no to prostitution is never an option for most sex workers. Many face severe mental and physical harassment and are threatened with dire consequences if they don’t comply with their customers’ demands.

“They used to beat us with wooden sticks. We used to run for safety, but they would follow us and beat us up. When we were sick or tried to rest, they would say we were pretending. In these 6-7 years, we weren’t even allowed to talk to our families back in our villages. We used to live in so much pain. They never cared for us, and we were just treated like commodities to be used and trashed,” she adds.

Daisy claims that the brothel was filled with restrictions and regulations. The girls were prohibited from talking amongst themselves. “When we complained of pain, they used to say we were faking it. They would say, do what you have come here to do; you will not be fed by your parents here. You have to earn your bread.”

Many Nepalese girls indulge in sex work in the brothels of GB Road. Most are confined against their will. While some choose to stay in these hell-homes for reasons best known to them, some others are constantly in the lookout for help. Daisy seemed visibly concerned about such girls being unable to find help and return to their homes.

“Girls from Nepal come here. They aren’t even allowed to meet their parents. They cry a lot, and they are refused access to phones even in dire situations. The girls are not allowed to move out of the brothels,” Daisy asserts.

She claims the sex workers are never given breaks even during their monthly periods. According to her, the women are treated as ‘cash-vending machines’.

Daisy saved herself from the harsh life of sexual slavery and helped Savitri win freedom too. Savitri’s story was no different, and both had to endure years of physical and sexual exploitation at the hands of pimps, brothel owners and their clients.

The SOS recording that Savitri sent to her rescuers | Video courtesy: Pari Saikia

Savitri still remembers the day a friend promised her a job in Nepal and later conned her into coming to Delhi six years ago. She says she was asked to sit in a bus that would take her to a specific place in Nepal for a job, but to her utter dismay, the bus landed in Delhi.

“The man said I can secure a job as a cleaner for a salary of 10,000 rupees per month in Kathmandu. The next morning they made me board a bus. So, I asked him where he was taking me, and he kept saying we were about to arrive in a few minutes until we finally landed in Delhi. Then he left me with Manju didi in GB Road,” rues Savitri.

Now rescued by the NGO, she narrates the appalling conditions at GB Road, which forced her to seek outside help. She, too, like Daisy, was not allowed to talk to her friends or family members, and whatever little she earned went to Manju.

“I used to ask for the money I had earned in the last many years so that I could send it back to my family in Nepal, but Manju would always refuse. Imagine my plight. I have not spoken with my two sons and family members for six years in a row now. Manju would keep my hard-earned money and my Nepali citizenship documents with her so that I don’t escape,” says Savitri.

Savitri, a sex trafficking survivor speaks on her rescue from Delhi’s brothel in GB Road | Video courtesy: Pari Saikia

Denied rations during lockdown

Both Savitri and Daisy told us that the sex workers at the brothels are often deprived of free food donated by NGOs and other help groups. The groceries and other utility items would often land up at the homes of their captors, pimps and brothel owners. According to the women, during the pandemic, when men stopped frequenting the brothels, the women were in dire need for money and some had to even look to the streets and beg for survival.

“They (brothel owners) used to take all our ration and we would be left with nothing. Not just that, we would be charged for food. We had to pay 100 rupees for a meal that would consist of lentils, rice and sabzi and 200 rupees for non-vegetarian food. We didn’t have access to drinking water either. They would charge us 30 to 50 rupees for a 500 ml bottle of water,” explains Savitri.

Covid-19 pandemic had been particularly harsh for the sex workers in the National Capital because of the migration of tens of thousands of migrant workers in 2020 to their home states. These migrant workers were a major chunk of their clientele. The consecutive lockdowns announced by the Delhi government made their situation worse, with brothel owners slashing their wages by over 75 percent on an income which was already paltry.

The Supreme Court had on September 29, 2020, directed states to make dry rations available for sex workers without insisting on any proof of identity. The court, a year later, also asked the centre and the states to issue identity cards (aadhar, ration and voter id cards) to sex workers to ensure their fundamental rights are guaranteed.

During the investigation by the NGO and the local police, it was also found that the brothel owners were providing the sex workers with fake aadhar cards without having to record any biometric data. The sex workers had to pay a bribe of 300-500 rupees per fake id card.

Daisy, who was clueless that her Aadhaar card was fake, said, “We just paid the amount to the brothel owners and were handed the cards. We were never asked to provide any biometric details or any other supporting documents”.

Nirmala Poudel, Coordinator of Shakti Samuha, an NGO in Nepal speaks on sex trafficking | Video courtesy: Pari Saikia

We spoke to multiple NGOs involved in rescuing Nepalese victims of sex trafficking in Delhi, all of whom said the pandemic had exacerbated the problem of trafficking. The ensuing lockdowns created significant economic distress among the poorest families in South Asian countries, forcing many to resort to desperate measures. The children were particularly at risk of trafficking with the closure of schools and dwindling income in their homes.

Walter informed this reporter that during the start of the pandemic in 2020, she received around 20 complaints about minor girls being missing from Nepal.

“Out of the many girls we rescued from various brothels of India between 2020-21, we found that most had been freshly trafficked from Nepal to India. Further, while counselling these girls we found that many girls like them between the ages of 14-17 had left their homes during Covid-19 lockdown with unknown men looking for sources of livelihood with their parents having no clue about their whereabouts. Their revelations were utterly shocking and disturbing,” shares Nirmala.

Naveen Joshi, Project Coordinator of KIN Nepal in Delhi speaks on sex trafficking | Video courtesy: Pari Saikia

Similar views were echoed by Naveen Joshi, who is the Project Coordinator of KIN Nepal in Delhi. He claims that cross-border trafficking had surged beyond anyone’s expectations during the pandemic.

“There is no doubt that trafficking had taken place during Covid-19. The fact is that this issue tremendously increased during the pandemic. We were first hand witnesses to the surge after March 2020, with over 60 youth rescued by our NGO itself in that year. During the September 2020 lockdown, we again rescued around 19 children between the ages 12 and 16. These children were trafficked from Nepal in a bus,” he claims.

Naveen says that despite the borders being shut, they continued to get information about cross-border trafficking, which points to the involvement of powerful entities and the mafia that keeps the problem of trafficking alive. “We continued to rescue survivors, and we have rescued more than 100 youths this past year, which included both boys and girls,” he added.

Nepal-based KIN has been tracking trafficking activities from Nepal to the Indian cities for many years now. “The girls are mainly bought for ‘immoral’ activities on the pretext of marriage or jobs,” remarks Naveen.

“We had anticipated some increase in trafficking because of Covid-19 but we were not expecting it to be this much. The people in our field usually say that every time there was a Covid-19 wave, there was a parallel trafficking wave too,” he added.

With restrictions imposed and shutting down of the borders during the lockdown, many anticipated that the number of human trafficking cases would reduce but on the contrary the cases saw an unimaginable rise. The police investigations also reveal that the traffickers resorted to social media to lure potential victims.

Many Indian states too witnessed a surge in trafficking cases after the imposition of lockdown in 2020. States like Assam saw an uptick in such cases. Rights activists believe that the pandemic worsened the economic condition of people and made them more vulnerable.

While Savitri and Daisy’s story ends on a good note not many sex workers in India are as fortunate. These two women not just escaped from their brothels but today they are actively assisting the law enforcement agencies to get their captors and other perpetrators booked.

Six months after her rescue, a cheerful Savitri speaks on how reassuring it is to get back to her country, Nepal | Video courtesy: Pari Saikia

Savitri and Daisy also ensure that their tormentor Manju faces the wrath of the law. With the help of Catalyst NGO, Savitri filed an FIR in the Kamla Market police station implicating Manju, while Daisy decided to become the witness in the case.

According to Nirmala Walter, the most difficult part was filing an FIR in the police station, which took them more than 72 hours. “It was only after the intervention of the District Magistrate that they finally agreed to file the FIR. Such is the power of the mafia. Even when it is such a genuine case, we faced multiple problems in getting an FIR filed, which is actually the first step towards justice for the survivors.”

However, it was the persistence, grit and determination of the two survivors that ensured at least some legal action against the offenders.

“I want them punished. They used to make me work a lot. They used to hide us during police visits. We used to work hard but all the money used to go to them. Ranu, Chaya, Manju used to keep all our hard-earned money. They never provided us with decent food, water or basic amenities,” says Savitri.

This reporter met Savitri again in January 2022, six months after she was rescued from Delhi’s GB Road to know about her current situation. Savitri is currently being rehabilitated at Shakti Samuha NGO in Nepal and travels back to India just for court hearings in the case. She says she’s lucky to be back home in Nepal and is happy to be reunited with her family.

“I am learning things; sometimes I make tea here and cook food. It feels good to be here. You won’t find a sense of belonging anywhere except your own home and your homeland,” she remarks.

Nirmala Poudel, Coordinator of Shakti Samuha NGO in Nepal, fears that the journey ahead for Savitri is still filled with challenges.

“Our Nepali society blames the girls who get trafficked without realising they are victims who need help. Sometimes, even when we send them back to their homes, the villagers don’t accept them. They are not welcomed in their own homes. So we provide counselling to them to make them strong, and prepare them for unexpected eventualities,” Poudel says.

In Savitri’s case, after she returned home, she came face-to-face with a truth that sent chills down her spine – it was her own husband that had secretly sold her to the trafficker for 1,60,000 Nepalese rupees. Both her husband and the trafficker have been nabbed now. But Savitri’s life will never be the same again.

Pari Saikia is an independent human rights journalist from New Delhi, India. She is a recipient of the European Commission’s Lorenzo Natali Media Prize 2021 for her story on trafficking of Rohingya women. In association with YouTube and Google News Initiative, she has launched Asia’s first human trafficking news channel.

sex

Younis Dar is an independent journalist from New Delhi, India. He writes on issues related to human rights, environment and defence.

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