In the scenic villages on the Indo-Nepal border, poverty connives against women. Dozens of impoverished young women, between 14 and 25 years of age, from Lakhimpur Kheri, Gorakhpur and other districts of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and neighboring villages of Nepal have been lured by promises of big city jobs only to end up being trafficked. According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), 2005, out of every 100 women trafficked in India, 26 hail from the UP. While many victims remain untraceable, those rescued live to narrate horrific tales of being sold and abused, even as they return to lives robbed of hope and opportunities.
"Marriage for me means being sold off. I do not want to believe in the institution of marriage anymore," says 22-year-old Ganga Devi. A native of Nepal, Ganga was sold off by her lover in Lakhimpur Kheri. Having managed to escape, she now lives in the Thakkar Bappa Sewa Ashram, run by the UP Banwasi Sewa Sansthan, in Palia Kalan. Even though Ganga knows the identity of her trafficker and is keen that he is nabbed and stops the trafficking of other girls, she finds it difficult to lodge a formal complaint against him.
For Ganga, life has not been a bed of roses. With her mother and father working in Mumbai, as a housemaid and security guard, respectively, Ganga and her four siblings lived with their paternal aunt and uncle in village Nalkoda, Nepal. A class VIII drop-out, she was married off at an early age only to return home a year into the marriage, when her husband left her.
In October 2006, Ganga met young Radheyshyam Gupta, who would often come from his village Ahibaran in Lakhimpur. Radheyshyam wooed Ganga a number of times, but she managed to spurn his advances. However, as Ganga's aunt was desperate to marry her off at the earliest, she finally accepted his proposal in marriage. "He told me that he would marry me in Lakhimpur, as his mother stayed there," she recalls. However, even after two days of arriving in Lakhimpur there was no sign of Radheyshyam's mother. "Eventually, he took me to the court to get married. There he introduced me to Sher Singh, a local businessman. When we were signing the register, Sher Singh signed too." To Ganga's horror, Radheyshyam promptly handed her over to Singh. "It is then that I learnt that I had been married off to Sher Singh. Radheyshyam told me that he had sold me to Sher Singh for Rs 35,000 and that I would have to live with him," she says.
Shattered, Ganga accompanied Sher Singh to his home where she was "physically and sexually abused almost everyday" by him. Oddly enough, Radheyshyam continued to visit Ganga. During one such visit, he admitted to selling Nepali girls, as young as 10 and 12 years, to men in the district.
In January this year, three months after being tricked into marriage, Ganga escaped from Sher Singh's house. "When all the male members were away from home, I asked my mother-in-law to allow me to go to the temple. Once out of the house, I ran as fast as I could and then took a tempo to Palia Kalan," she recalls. An exhausted and confused Ganga, finally, took refuge near a shop in the city and began to cry. Local shopkeepers noticed her and informed the helpline of Manav Sewa Sansthan (MSS). Headquartered in Gorakhpur, the MSS works towards the prevention of trafficking and HIV/AIDS in the cross-border regions along the Indo-Nepal border.
Ganga refuses to return home or to Sher Singh. Declares the determined woman, "I want to study and support myself." Her other ambition is to "have Radheyshyam punished"
Kusuma, 23, is from Gorakhpur, UP. Coming from an impoverished family of nine school-going children, she said 'yes' to a job in a big city, just as seven other peers from her village did. "We were told that we would initially be taken to Nepal, where a big employer would come and select us for various jobs in India, based on our talents," recalls the junior school drop-out. However, Kusuma was kept in a house on the border for three days during which her trafficker raped her. On the fourth day, two more men arrived. Kusuma was informed that she and three other girls had been sold to those men for Rs 15,000 each. "The men took us with them. We stayed in a hotel in Sanauli (UP). But when we were caught and rescued," says Kusuma, who has been welcomed back by her family but ostracized by the village.
"We will move to another village as soon as my father gets work in the city. Everyone in the village knows I was sold. They feel my parents were involved," elaborates the woman, who wishes to make the most of her golden voice and become an accomplished singer.
Rajesh Mani of MSS, which rescued Kusuma, says rehabilitation is a challenge and "since they come from poor backgrounds, rescued women are always vulnerable to being sold off again."
The 'big city' bait also caught Rani, Jaya and Vidhya, aged between 15 and 18 years, unawares. Hailing form different villages in Nepal, the girls were rescued from a circus in Kushinagar (UP), where they said they were forced to perform in skimpy clothes and were sexually abused by their employer. "Our families were given Rs 500 each as a salary advance but we received no money at all," clarifies Jaya, rescued by Bachpan Bachao Andolan, a group of NGOs working in the area of child rights in UP. Life will never be the same for the three teenagers. "Neither our parents nor our neighbors knew what we were forced to do. Now everyone in our village is aware. The financial condition of our families remains the same... we still need to contribute to the family income," says Vidhya.
The district administration of both Lakhimpur and Gorakhpur profess to be doing their best to stop trafficking in the areas. "We have special police cells on the borders that work with various NGOs to rescue girls. But we have just two options once the girls are rescued: either to send them to state-run homes or send them to their own homes. It is difficult to find another option to rehabilitate them," says Navdeep Rinwa, District Magistrate, Lakhimpur Kheri.
"But unfortunately, even though the state government has set up posts to check trafficking and has alerted the border police, traffickers find a way to run their business," claims Sunil Singh of Rahi Foundation, that works towards creating awareness about trafficking and HIV in Lakhimpur Kheri district.