From Mumbai to Magsaysay

When six of her 10 children died young like chickens in autumn, Sunita Danuwar’s mother thought it was a witch’s doing and the family decided to move out of Dailekh to Jammu and Kashmir in India. Once there, the family built a hut on a land leased from the locals and worked on potato farms and apple orchards. Danuwar’s father was also a mason and a carpenter and the little girl trailing behind him picked up his skills. But what Danuwar, then Ban Sanyasi, remembers the most about Kashmir is snow and how they used to make chatpate out of it to enjoy on hot days. She was five when she moved to Kashmir.

Nine years later, her 16-year-old brother would go missing. Danuwar’s uncle had come to visit and when he left, her brother went with him, no one knew where. The family decided to follow a lead that surmised the two might have gone to Nainital. On their way down, they stopped at Almora, Uttarakhand, to make money for the journey. For a month there, Danuwar’s parents, her older sister and her husband, and Danuwar herself started piling rocks and pebbles from the riverside for tractors to haul away.

Danuwar was 14 then, with her cheeks often compared to Kashmiri apples by young men, especially by two tractor drivers in their early-twenties. The men had no names, or at least none that Danuwaur remembers, but they were Nepalis. The Indians called them ‘bahadur’ and her parents ‘babu’, she just ‘dai’. They too addressed her as they would a sister and even went as far as to dole out free advice. “You are a grown up now. You shouldn’t be a burden to your family when you could work and look after them. Come with us and we will find you a job.” To which, Danuwar would reply, “If you know so much about jobs, how come you are driving tractors?” By the end of the month in Almora, the family had earned around IRs 5000 in wages. On their last night in the district, Danuwar’s family rented a room at a roadside lodging in fear of missing the early bus out, but they were not alone. The two tractor drivers said they too were leaving for Nainital and bought laddoos to commemorate the start of the journey.

Danuwar hesitated. So did her father, but eventually he gave in and took a laddoo. After her father seemed fine, Danuwar followed suit. When she woke up, she was no longer in Almora.

Danuwar began to scream. A Tamang woman told her that two young men had brought her on a trip and that they were out buying new clothes for her. “Take a bath and make yourself comfortable,” the woman said.

When the day went by and the two did not return, the woman told Danuwar to get ready for ‘dhanda’, by which Danuwar thought she meant cleaning dishes and washing clothes. When the woman added, “Look pretty and made-up”, and Danuwar still seemed confused, the woman flung her hands in the air and cried, “This is Mumbai. You have to look pretty and keep men satisfied.”

Danuwar understood. She had been sold for around IRs 80,000 to a brothel in Mumbai, but she would never be ready for any dhanda regardless of threats of death. The fight with the ‘gharwali’ continued for a month until the day one of the tractor drivers walked in with a nine-year-old girl. After depositing the little girl, the man went inside the bathroom. When he walked out, she slapped him, and received one from the gharwali standing behind her.  Soon after, Danuwar was sold to another galli, five minutes away, for double the amount. There, to get her ‘used to’ dhanda, a gang raped her. She only felt numb.

For five months she remained in that galli, along with around 30 other Nepali girls who weren’t allowed to talk to each other or go outside beyond the chain-gates guarded by men, unless you had resigned to fate and accepted prostitution as your sole profession. An Indian client was charged IRs 300 an hour, IRs 3,000 a night and a foreigner IRs 2,000-5,000 an hour, more than double that for a night. Nepali men were not allowed. Ironically, the gharwali thought these men would save the Nepali women trapped in those gallis.

The actual knights in shining armour, however, would be the Indian government and seven Nepali organisations—Women’s Rehabilitation Centre, Maiti Nepal, Child Workers in Nepal, Navajyoti Training Centre, Shanti Rehabilitation Shelter, Stri Shakti and the Agroforestry, Basic health and Cooperative Nepal—which in 1996, six months after Danuwar was sold into prostitution, raided these gallis and rescued children under the age of 18. Of around 200 rescued, only 128 were able to eventually return home to Nepal; the rest were denied entry either for lack of citizenship or for being a ‘poko of HIV/AIDS’. The Nepali government could not even pay for the airfare—Bollywood actor Sunil Shetty did.

Once in Nepal, the road to recovery and reconciliation with the past began. Danuwar wrote a letter to her uncle in Dailekh, but they refused to come visit her in Kathmandu. She tried travelling to Dailekh in search of her kin, but the fear that she might not be welcome after what had happened or that she might once again find herself in Mumbai prevented her, until last year. But by then it would be too late; her mother had been dead for eight years and her father for three. The only consolation: they had at least found her older brother in Nainital with her uncle.

Her eldest sister in Bardia told her they did look for her as well after she went missing, but because they had no pictures of her, the search could get nowhere. Danuwar finds it a poor excuse: They should have kept looking, like she is, for those two faces that changed her life.

“I can never forget them. Even now, I pause to check when I think I’ve seen them. They must look different now, but their young faces are engrained in my memory,” says Danuwar, now 31 and chairperson of the Shakti Group, a non-government organisation, formed soon after her return from India, dedicated to fighting human trafficking.

Shakti Group was selected as the recipient of the 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Award.

Published: 03-08-2013, The Kathmandu Post