How two women survived human trafficking and turned into leaders for their communities

Anita Lahre is a labour trafficking survivor from Chhattisgarh and Farah (name changed) is a survivor of sex trafficking from West Bengal. They now fight against trafficking and help their communities.
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For a long time, the two women hesitated to step out of their homes. For when they did, they faced taunts from people of their community. Ever since, they have battled stigma and their past, and are now helping other human trafficking survivors turn into leaders.

From forced labour to social work: The story of Anita Lahre

Anita Lahre, 26, hails from Pachri village in Chhattisgarh’s Mahasamund district. She survived labour trafficking in 2017.

A local contractor looking for daily-wagers to work at a brick kiln in Odisha was an opportunity that Lahre’s village folk could not afford to miss. For Lahre, it was more like a family tradition, given her parents and elder sisters had worked at brick kilns earlier.

Lahre had completed her Class 12 and was working as a computer operator, when her family wanted her to stop venturing out for work. The contractor’s job offer and a promise of ₹20,000 as advance payment felt more appealing to the family.

Paucity of work in the village prompted Lahre and 12 others, including a minor girl, to head to Odisha. But instead of reaching the designated Talcher in Odisha, they were loaded onto a bus and taken to an unknown location near a sea.

There was a house of unbaked bricks and a platform. We were told to stay there. The first day was fine but the next morning each one of us were allocated work without a word on the advance payment we were supposed to be given,” Lahre recalled.

The owner of the kiln told Lahre's group that the contractor who promised them their advance had fled with his ₹5 lakh and that they would have to work at his kiln to compensate him.

Feeling cheated, the workers protested, and were met with physical cruelty at the hands of the owner’s men. The group would be physically assaulted with sticks during the harsh December winters. One woman suffered a broken hand as a result of the blows. This instilled a sense of fear in the workers, who since then, followed the brick kiln owner’s diktat.

At one point, the owner sensed revolt and divided the group into two. Four persons were rounded up and taken to a different location whereas the remaining nine members of the group were forced to start work at the kiln.

Uncertain about the coming days, the group started working.

Our demand of daily wages was met with abuse on our caste. They also hurled expletives.
Anita Lahre

Our demand of daily wages was met with abuse on our caste. They also hurled expletives. We understood only half of what they said because they spoke in a different language,” revealed Lahre, then 22.

Lahre's group were either given dal (lentils) or potatoes for consumption. Their phones and Aadhaar cards had been taken by their operators when they had arrived at the kiln. But Lahre had wrapped her smartphone within a scarf, hidden from the sight of the owner and his men.

A considerable time elapsed since they had put into forced labour. The women workers often faced molestation and eve-teasing from the owner and his men.

The kiln owner and his son used to keep a vigil on everyone and even eve-teased the women. He also tried to molest us. We drank water from a pit and weren’t allowed to go anywhere,” shared Lahre.

Unable to continue any longer, one day, she secretly made a phone call to her sister in Pachri.

Following the phone call, Lahre’s sister approached local members of a local NGO. Lahre narrated her ordeal to them over the phone, but had no idea where exactly she was.

There was a gate near the sea. I clicked its photo and sent it to my sister. After someone translated the word written in Odia, the place was found to be Nerada,” said Lahre.

After 45 days of forced labour in a remote location, Lahre and others in her group were rescued.

"We slept for 6-7 hours and worked the remaining hours. I had only one pair of clothes that I washed and wore repeatedly for 45 days," she said.

A new lease on life

Though she was relieved to return home safely, barbs from her neighbours brought Lahre another bout of indignation.

After a spending a week in the village, people gibed that we had been sold off and no one would marry us,” she said.

The only regret Lahre felt was that the brick-kiln owner went unpunished and the authorities had failed to get her and other survivors any compensation.

Anita Lahre (extreme right) during an awareness program
Anita Lahre (extreme right) during an awareness program

Lahre’s experience at the kiln, followed by the ill-treatment meted out to her by people in her own community, prompted her to join a local NGO as a survivor leader in 2018.

She later founded an anti-trafficking collective called Shramik Adhikar Aur Nyay Sangathan (SAANS) along with other survivor leaders like her in 2020, following training from Kolkata-based NGO Sanjog, which provides support to survivors of human trafficking.

As an anti-trafficking activist, Lahre has helped trafficking survivors and their families cope with stigma, spread awareness about their legal rights and the various government schemes.

We work with victims of trafficking and counsel people, providing them with information on government schemes. We also try to turn them into leaders in their respective communities,” she pointed out.

As a part of SAANS, Lahre's collective is currently working on an awareness campaign for 1,200 families in three districts of Chhattisgarh - Mahadamund, Baloda Bazaar and Janjgir Chapa. SAANS is also carrying out research on the various aspects of labour trafficking.

Faisal Khan, an activist from Sanjog who coordinates with SAANS, highlighted that there are a huge number of labour trafficking cases in Chhattisgarh.

Victims don’t even realise that they are being trafficked,” he noted.

Khan illustrated that recently, he came across a labour trafficking case from Raigad where the victims did not want to return to their homes.

Perhaps they were under debt and feared for the consequences if they left the place of work,” he pointed out.

Victims don’t even realise that they are being trafficked
Over 4,700 victims were trafficked for various purposes in 2020. The two primary motives, reported by the national crime records bureau, behind it were forced labour and sexual exploitation with 1,452 and 1,466 instances, respectively.

Lahre felt a sense of achievement after helping in the rescue of a girl who was trafficked to Jharkhand and was about to be married off to the brick kiln owner there by her father

She received threatening calls after the girl was rescued.

I have seen many survivors and listened to their stories. I know how to deal with a tough situation now. Members of my matrimonial home do not want me to work in this field, but my husband is supportive,” she responded when asked if she feared for her safety.

Anita Lahre with her community members
Anita Lahre with her community members

Her efforts were instrumental in the setting up of three education centres in the three districts with the help of crowdfunding. Children here are schooled with the aid of projectors and sound systems, free of cost.

Lahre hopes for all survivors to turn into leaders in the fight against trafficking. She plans to start a computer centre on her own to help people avail government schemes.

Survivor leaders like Lahre, belonging to different states, formed the Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking (ILFAT) on realising that trafficking does not get the required attention and redressal. ILFAT has leaders working from 11 states.

We started awareness programmes against trafficking and how we can stop it,” Lahre said, speaking of the work.

From victim to leader: How Farah turned things around

Like Lahre, sex trafficking victim Farah (name changed) was not spared the stigma after coming back to her village in North 24 Parganas in West Bengal.

She was lured into a trip to Maharashtra and sold to a hotel in 2014.

The trafficker was my relative. He took me to Kolkata first and then to Maharashtra on the pretext of taking me on a trip. As I understood only Bengali, I did not know where I was and why,” she remembered.

Farah was looking for answers when someone at the hotel who spoke her language told her she had been sold to the hotel. The man offered to help reunite her with her family, but demanded money in return.

Farah was not willing to trust him at that point in time.

I trusted the relative earlier and travelled with him. I didn’t know what to do,” she said.

The man’s offer seemed like the only option she had.

My father sold a small patch of land in our village so that I could return home
Farah, a sex trafficking survivor

He made a phone call to Farah’s father, demanding ₹50,000 for sending her back home.

My father sold a small patch of land in our village so that I could return home,” said Farah, looking back.

Upon her return to the village, Farah endured people's snide remarks, such as "she does dirty work” and was “bad influence on our children”.

She recollected,

Nobody wanted to interact with me or visit home. Even my schoolmates stopped talking to me. The teacher asked me not to come to school."

A local NGO in her village helped survivors of sex trafficking. Its members counselled Farah and her family, suggesting ways to tackle the stigma. The members also went to her school and counselled teachers, but to little effect.

Shrugging off stigma

With the help of support groups, Farah took training to help other survivors who had similar experiences to hers. In 2016, she joined Utthan, a collective that focuses on the rights and issues of trafficking survivors. She now participates in outreach programmes, organises meetings in her village and helps victims with medical aid.

Farah with her community members.
Farah with her community members.

Despite her best efforts, Farah's trafficker walked out on bail after being arrested and spending three months in jail.

I put up a serious fight. I went to the police station many times for identification purposes. Some of the witnesses testified falsely as they had been bribed. The traffickers had conspired with several others in order to weaken my case,” she said.

In 2018, the case was dismissed by a local court, but Farah filed an appeal in the High Court subsequently. The case is still pending before the Calcutta High Court, and she is yet to receive victim compensation.

During the initial days of her social work, Farah faced resentment in her village and often heard people say that she was going to the same place where she was trafficked.

I had to hear this a lot. But I stopped paying heed to what the people in the village said about me and thought to myself that if I did, then I would lose my battle then and there,” she emphasised.

Through Utthan, Farah found a girl who was trafficked and required help to come back home. A case was filed with the police against the trafficker and the girl was rescued.

The tale of Farah’s deed spread in the community.

They started to think that I was doing good work and not what they thought of me. As I was able to create that space in people’s minds, slowly whatever problems were there in the community - child marriage, domestic violence, trafficking - people started to seek my help,” she said.

For someone who previously found it challenging to even step out of her home, Farah's work demands her to travel to Kolkata.

"When I visited Kolkata and worked with my organisation, I saw there were many like me. They are doing leadership work,” she mentioned.

During the COVID-19 induced lockdown, Farah helped migrant workers and even stopped a child marriage in her neighbourhood. The financial aid came from the crowdfunding carried out by ILFAT, which Utthan is also a part of.

Two to three months later, Farah followed up with the beneficiaries and saw that they were able to earn a livelihood and support their families.

When I saw helpless people earn money and stand on their own two feet, I felt happy. This is how I want to be there for my community.”

Sanjog’s Sampriti Mukherjee, who is Utthan’s coordinator in West Bengal, has witnessed a change in the survivors, who now work as leaders in their respective anti-trafficking collectives.

These leaders were once victims who did not the correct sections of the law. But now, after being a part of this network, where we work with at least 200 survivor leaders in West Bengal, they are able to give the right information on sections of law and other rights,” Mukherjee outlined.

Both Lahre and Farah felt that the newly-introduced, Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2021, will go a long way in preventing human trafficking if enacted.

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