India set to unveil human trafficking law to help sex workers

India’s government is planning to unveil its first comprehensive law on human trafficking by the end of the year. It's set to make a dent in the country's huge illegal sex trade.

In South Asia’s largest red-light district, a young woman who goes by the name Ria Singh sits in front of a decayed mirror in a small, grim room combing her long black hair and applying make-up to attract clients.

Competition is fierce among the estimated 7,000 prostitutes who work in this northern Kolkata neighbourhood, known as Sonagachi.

Some of Ria’s story is written on her body – she was malnourished as a child and her frame is fragile, as though she may snap. Her fingernails are chewed to the quick. 

Ria was only 15 when she became a sex worker, an age when she barely knew what sex was.

A family friend, a man she called ‘uncle’, lured Ria from her impoverished village in West Bengal to Kolkata with the promise of a job.

He could get her work as a domestic helper, he promised. Instead he sold her to a madam at a brothel.

"In the beginning I had to attend to four to five customers a day, after that it was seven to eight men a day."

“That day my uncle left, a man came to my room. I did not agree to do what he wanted so he bit me and burned me with a cigarette," she said.

"It continued for two to three days and I was told if I didn’t do the job they would stop feeding me.”

It was the threat of starvation that scared Ria the most; in her village there often wasn’t enough food to eat.

The fear of hunger was greater for her than the pain she suffered from the beatings.

“Madam locked me in a room for three to four years. I couldn’t go anywhere; I wasn’t allowed to contact anyone," she said.

"I repeatedly asked to talk to my uncle. I was a prisoner and madam only sent men.

“The men forced themselves on me. I wasn’t used to this kind of thing. In the beginning I had to attend to four to five customers a day, after that it was seven to eight men a day. It was so painful.”

Perhaps the most troubling thing about Ria Singh’s story is that it’s not unique.

Every year thousands of Indian girls, mostly from poor villages, are lured away from their families, dazzled by the promise of jobs and a brighter future, and then sold into sex slavery.

The age of the girls who are trafficked is usually between 11 and 14 years, according to Smarita Sengupta, a Kolkata-based trafficking expert, although there are reports girls as young as seven are being sold. 

“They’re drugged, they’re beaten, they’re raped repeatedly and they are transferred from one place to another, they lose their confidence totally,” Ms Sengupta said.

“They lose their identity, they forget who they were after one or two years being in the brothel.”

There were almost 7,000 cases of human trafficking reported across India last year, but the real figure is probably much higher.

It’s not just Indian girls being sold to the country’s brothels; Nepali and Bangladeshi girls are also trafficked across international borders into West Bengal.

The girls, both Indian and foreign, are usually transported via the country’s massive railway network from one city to another, handed from one pimp to the next, victims of a highly organised crime.

A new bill aims to change the law so that survivors’ needs are prioritised, traffickers face harsher penalties and existing laws are unified. 

India's Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi said the draft bill, which has been revised at least five times since it was released in May, would prevent victims, such as those found in brothel raids, from being arrested and jailed.

"The bill shows far more compassion and makes a very clear distinction between the trafficked and the trafficker, which is a nuance that should have been made 60 years ago," she said.

Twenty-three survivors of human trafficking recently wrote a letter to Ms Gandhi to express their hopes and fears about the proposed bill.

The women, all from villages in West Bengal, are concerned that girls who are rescued face a terrible stigma when they return home. 

“A girl is often tortured by her very own family members after she is back,” they wrote.

Ria Singh’s family did not torture her. She never told her parents what happened to her because she feared "nobody will respect me".

After three to four years as a prisoner, she managed to escape the madam who controlled her.

“When I was about 18 or 19, a woman from Durbar (an organisation of sex workers) came to madam’s house. She asked me if I was new but I was too afraid to explain," she said.

"She took me to Durbar’s office and told me I didn’t have to work for Madam, that I could be independent.”

And so Ria set herself up an independent sex worker and is now earning her own money, which she shares with her family.  

She has told her parents she couldn’t see them for all those years because she was working for a sick, elderly man who needed her. 

Ria doesn’t know if the madam, who locked her up, or the man she called uncle were ever punished.

Chances are they weren’t.  

“The main thing is I can’t trust anybody, not a single person,” she said.