“When I regained consciousness, I didn’t know where I was. Around me were staring men and scantily clad girls with heavy makeup. I had never seen this, not even in movies. I was scared, very scared. I had never left my parents before. I was afraid of what would come. It was evening, more men came, they started teasing the girls and ‘playing’ with them. I wanted to leave, I wanted to escape.”
Sunita Danuwar (41) was 14 when she was trafficked and ended up in prostitution in Mumbai (India). Because of poverty and malnutrition, she had lost six brothers and sisters at the age of five. Her mother blamed the cause of death of her children on witchcraft and black magic. Because of this, the family decided to leave their village in western Nepal and try to find luck in Jammu & Kashmir, in north-west India. They lived happily for nine years, but then Sunita’s only living brother together with her uncle disappeared. Again they moved in the hope of finding the missing brother and uncle, this time to Nainital in Uttarakhand. On their way, they met two Nepalese men who became friends with the family.
“They stayed close to me, they tried to be nice to me and said they were my brothers. My parents called them babu which is a nice and respectful word for men in Nepalese society. One evening the babu’s offered me an Indian candy, a laddoo. At first, I didn’t want to accept it, but my parents said it was ok. My father also took one. At that moment, my parents and I didn’t know that the laddoo was mixed with drugs that would make me unconscious. I did not realize that this would be the last time I would see my parents and that my life would never be the same again.”
When Sunita became conscious, she was quickly told that she had to make herself beautiful, cut her hair, wash, and put on makeup, that she had to prepare herself for dhanda. Dhanda is Nepali for cleaning, cooking and all kinds of household activities. “I can’t do that,” she said. “My mother always did that.” The owner of the brothel told her that she was in the red light district of Mumbai and that dhanda means that you must please men sexually. “My heart stopped, I cried. I repeated non-stop that I wanted to go to my parents and asked to be released. As an answer, the manager started to beat me.”
The first month, Sunita refused to sleep with men, in exchange she was mentally and physically tortured. She considered suicide, but she found nothing to hang herself or to use as a poison, nor did she see any way to escape. She found out she was traded for 40,000 Indian rupees (€ 500). Because the brothel owner couldn’t make Sunita work as a sex slave, she had been sold to another brothel for double price. There she fought further. Again she was tortured and even more, threatened with death. They would chop her into pieces by means of a Khukuri, a Nepalese machete. “Rather chopped into pieces than sex with men,” she thought. Subsequently, the owner of the brothel asked five employees to rape her. After this gang rape, she lost the battle and considered that her life stopped here. “Every day I had to sleep with 20 to 30 men. Men of the Indian army, policemen, businessmen and foreigners.”
February 5th, 1996, around seven to eight o’clock in the morning.
“The brothel owner called me. I noticed that for the first time she spoke softly. We would go to the cinema. When we came outside I realized that I didn’t want to go to the movies in the clothes that I was wearing at the time. I wanted to go back inside. That wasn’t allowed. I kept urging and finally, I got permission. When I opened the door of my room, the police stood there in front of me. I was so happy, I thought I was finally saved.”
Afterwards, Sunita learned that because of international pressure from many children’s rights organizations, a raid in order to save underage children from forced sex labour had taken place in the red light district of Mumbai. She realized that the owner had wanted to hide her so she wouldn’t be found by the police. 500 children from India, Bangladesh and Nepal were saved. 200 of them were Nepalese girls. They were housed in government shelters.
“It soon became clear that the six months in the shelter weren’t that much better than in the brothel. One hundred girls were put into one room. There were no beds, there was hardly any food or sanitation. Also, the Nepalese government didn’t allow us into the country because we couldn’t prove, due to the lack of a passport, that we were Nepalese citizens. The real reason was that the government was afraid that we were infected with HIV.”
The pressure of seven Nepalese NGOs enabled 128 Nepalese girls to fly back to Nepal’s capital Kathmandu. There was a lot of media attention, from newspapers, TV and radio. The newspapers wrote: ‘Tomorrow prostitutes from Mumbai will arrive’.
“When we arrived at the airport there was press everywhere. We covered our faces with hands or a scarf, we didn’t want to be recognized. When we were still in the shelter in India, with 12 girls we had decided to stay together. Now, we were suddenly divided like cattle between the various NGOs. We didn’t want that, we asked them not to separate us. A female doctor and also president of WOREC Nepal (Women’s Rehabilitation Center) made sure this didn’t happen. After a week we received a medical check-up. Doctors put five pairs of gloves on top of each other. We didn’t understand it. We wondered why they did this, why they acted like that. Somewhat later it was revealed that most of the girls were infected with HIV. There were a lot of tears. Me too, I was afraid of being infected and of dying. Not only in the hospital were we confronted with discrimination, but also in the shelter and in society, everywhere. Because of this, we thought that what happened was our fault.”
WOREC‘s female doctor organized a ‘basic health training’, 15 girls were trained for 10 days. They learned, among other things, about children’s rights, human rights and human trafficking. “Through the training, we learned that we weren’t the cause of what happened to us, that we shouldn’t feel guilty nor blame ourselves. We realized that we wanted to fight together, that we wanted to form a group that would stand up against the injustice, that we would punish human traffickers. We wanted to prevent even more girls from having the same fate. We were determined to turn our tears into power and that is why our group is called Shakti Samuha, which means ‘powerful group’.
“We were still very young, a group of girls between 16 and 18 years old. To start up Shakti Samuha, we needed permission from the government. They didn’t believe in it. We had no money, were not trained and had no experience. For four years we have tried unofficially to help victims. We did volunteer work in carpet factories and slums.”
In 2000 it was time for Sunita and the other girls to realize their goal to officially help victims of human trafficking. On the basis of (role) plays, in which Sunita once played the brothel owner and then again the dealer, they tried to sensitize the people in the villages. They told their story but couldn’t say that they themselves were victims, otherwise, society wouldn’t accept them. In the meantime, fortunately, this is possible.
Shakti Samuha is the world’s first anti-trafficking organization run by survivors of trafficking. Within the organization, Sunita has a key role and multi-functional tasks. She is a counsellor for the rescued girls and women, she teaches and empowers them. She is the chairman of the organization and has been the second president and program director since 2011. She is also involved in policy development, strategy development and the organization of training programs. “Our organization has two main objectives. The first is to prevent human trafficking, a second to help the trafficked people re-integrate into their own society with respect. We offer them a shelter and try to show them through our stories that everything is going to be okay again.”
“Still, every time I tell my story, I can’t sleep for a week. I visualise everything and feel the pain again. But I also know that the story must be told in order to make people aware and help other girls and women.”
I got acquainted with Shakti Samuha through my visit to UNICEF Nepal. I was very shocked and at the same time full of admiration of how they were able to set up this organization. The story horrified me, got stuck in my head, I wanted to know more about it. I was fascinated by the power of Sunita and her willpower to help others, I wanted to learn from her and wanted to speak with her. I am grateful I was able to have interviewed her and I hope I can help her spread the message to stop trafficking.
Do you want to support Sunita and her colleagues? Do you want to help the many victims of trafficking? Then go to the website of Shakti Samuha.
Special thanks to photographer and filmmaker Natalia Atkins. She is currently working on a documentary about trafficking in Nepal. She provided me with the beautiful stills of the Nepalese girls. Be sure to keep an eye on her website to watch the documentary. Or follow her on Instagram to see how many beautiful projects she is working on.
- interview with Sunita Danuwar on January 23, 2018,
- interview with Sunita Danuwar by BBC World Service – Outlook,
- website Sunita Danuwar,
- website Shakti Samuha
- website Human Trafficking Center