Warning: this article contains mentions of sexual and gender-based violence that some readers may find upsetting.
Alisha* had been living and working for her sister in Kathmandu, Nepal when she was targeted by her sister’s work colleague. She was told she could earn more money, as well as food and a place to live, doing the same kind of housework she was currently doing for her sister.
The offer was appealing, but the promises were empty. Alisha was sold into slavery.
‘I did not understand what was happening and asked the brothel owner to call my friend so I could go home,’ shares Alisha. ‘The brothel owner told me that I had been sold and was not allowed to leave until I had paid back her debt, which was the amount the brothel owner had paid for me.
‘I was not even aware that India existed until I was told that I was there.’
Every morning, starting at 7.00am, Alisha and the other girls had to line up on the street outside the brothel to wait for their customers. They were forced to wear make-up and dress in a way that was appealing to their male clients.
Many, like Alisha, were just children.
Within two months she was sold to another brothel, twenty minutes away, where she suffered even more abuse.
Punishments like this were common. They were often refused food, locked in the toilets, hit by the brothel owner, as well as many other forms of torture and punishment.
On an average day, the women and girls would have anywhere from 35-40 customers between the morning and the afternoon, and another two to three customers during the night.
Rescued – but not free
Police raids at the brothels were frequent. But the owners would just hide the girls. Then, finally – after three and a half years of working there – Alisha was rescued.
It happened during a mass raid on the brothels in the area carried out by the police, where 500 other women and girls were rescued. Many of them were from Nepal – like Alisha – or from Bangladesh. But, because they had no formal identification, they were unable to travel home.
With nowhere to go, the girls were forced to stay in a prison in India for the next seven months. Many of the girls either died in the jail, or tried to escape.
During this time seven Nepali organisations had been advocating on behalf of these women and girls to allow them to be able to return home. It proved successful, and the surviving 128 women and girls were brought back home to Nepal.
Alisha was reunited with her family. But word got out in the community that she had been trafficked, and also that she was living with HIV. She had contracted this at the brothel.
‘While my family welcomed me home, my community discriminated against me,’ says Alisha. She was not allowed to go to the temple, and no one would eat the food she would make.
‘I went to play on the swing but afterwards, no one else would touch the swing as the community believed if they touch the swing the HIV will be transmitted to them,’ she shared.
‘Our community then pressured my family that they either had to disown me, or leave the village with me. I made the choice to leave the village myself so that my family would no longer suffer the discrimination along with me.’
Life continued to be a struggle for Alisha. She tried running her own business – a tea shop – in a new village, but soon gave up. Men would continue to harass her while she was working because she was single.
Alisha decided to get married to avoid the abuse. She was just 16.
When Alisha was six months pregnant, her husband went abroad to work. She never saw him again. When he left, she was kicked out of his family’s home. Alisha was forced to move again to find a new place to live.
Then, when her daughter was nine months old, Alisha made the decision to move back to Kathmandu – where there was more work – so she could support her daughter.
‘I finally met a friend’
In Kathmandu, Alisha met Shanti, who became her mentor and like a sister to her. ‘She took me to an organisation… which became my turning point in life,’ explains Alisha.
The organisation – the Shanti Foundation – is supported by Tearfund’s local partner in Nepal. It is doing incredible work with survivors of trafficking. Staff and mentors from the foundation work with survivors to help them build up their skills and confidence, as well as advocating for their rights, and helping them to integrate back into society.
‘I started to develop myself; I saw a hope for my daughter,’ says Alisha. ‘Shanti Foundation has always taught me that women like us also can make a difference.’
A few years later, Alisha joined the foundation as a board member.