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Dawn Robertson, Founder/Director, Grab Them By The Ballot

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From Trafficking Victim to Leadership

My parents brought ten children into the world. Only four of the ten survived. I was one of them.  By modern standards, this high death toll could readily be attributed to malnutrition, poor hygiene, and other conditions attendant to poverty, but people in my village believed that a witch had cursed them.


My mother feared that some supernatural evil could also claim her surviving children—most importantly, her only son. Consequently,  the family fled their village for another one. As in most Asian cultures, sons had prime importance in the scheme of family life. Sons were looked upon as those who would eventually lead the family and take care of parents in their old age. 


My entire family left the village primarily to save my brother. The family included my father, mother, an unmarried sister, and a married sister who brought along her husband and their two children. At that time, I was 14 years old.


We migrated to a town called Jammu Kashmir in India and became potato farmers. We cultivated land borrowed from an Indian family and from this made a small living. One day, a drunken uncle kidnapped Sunita’s brother. The reason for the migration to India had now disappeared.


There was a common belief that his uncle had kidnapped him to put him to work as a laborer. The uncle had been a drunken layabout that no good had ever come from. My mother and family were devastated. News of the son turned up from time to time. Rumor had it that he had been seen in Nainital, a town in northern India.


My family’s travails continued. It happened that two Nepali boys were hired to break up the stones, load them into a tractor, and take the stones to the market. These boys had just hit their twenties and took an interest in me.  Both started courting me and tried to get close to my family. They also fed me strange ideas—they began telling me how I was a burden to my family and offered to find me a good job so I would cease to be a liability. A plucky young girl, I quickly quipped, “if you know so much about good jobs, why are you still driving a tractor?” 


The two boys persisted. They succeeded in gaining my father’s trust and positioned themselves as proxies for the son that was missing. They offered to help find the son, and my father took to the idea. He figured that these two Nepali boys, being new to India as they were, would stay and be of help to the family.


The boys would give the family sweetmeats during breaks from their work. Everyone in my family partook of the treats. Everyone except me.  My father reproached her, saying “you know these boys are being kind, why don’t you take one as well?”  So, I took a bite. 


When I awoke, I was in a brothel in Mumbai. I did not know where I was. All I could see were scantily-clad girls all around me. It was the first time I had experienced seeing such a scene, and it frightened me. I had never been away from my parents even for a day, and there I was alone.


The madam of the house, a Nepali woman, told me that I had to start working right away. I didn’t know what she meant by “working”.  The woman used the word tanda, a term used to mean either housework or prostitution. “I took it to mean housework,” and I told her that I’ve never done work, I’ve never done housework. It’s always my mother who did it. I repeatedly told the woman that I did not want to do the “work”, and I told the woman that I wanted to go home, back to my parents. 


The woman kept asking me to dress up and clean up because I had to start working. And I still didn’t do it. The woman told me that my captors had gone to the market to do some shopping for me, by way of clothes and accessories, and that they would take me away when they returned. The woman told me that I was going away with them that afternoon. In the afternoon, they still didn’t come, and in the evening, they still didn’t come, and this woman kept coming back and telling me “look, you need to get dressed and make people happy. You have to work.”


It finally dawned on me that I had been sold by the two men who had insinuated their way into my family. I did not know how much they had sold me for but estimated the sum to be between 70,000 to 80,000 rupees.  I was told that they paid for me and that now I had to pay them back by doing what they called work.


My obstinate refusals went on for a month. My parents taught me how to question, and how to fight back. Eventually, my captors took to violent measures. One of the boys showed me a big knife and put it to my neck and said "if you don’t do it, if you don’t entertain the clients, we’ll kill you". I was told that the men would chop off my head, that they would throw my body away and nobody would recognize it. “They said, ‘no one will recognize your body, and they will spit on you’.” And I said to them, okay, fine, it’s better to be killed than to live this life. I offered my neck to the man’s threatening blade but was spared.


By way of forcibly initiating me into her new life, as well as to break my will, five men gang-raped me. They were all Indian men, in their early to mid-thirties. So began my life as sexual prey—a painful reality that lasted for five months. There was no time to eat, no time to sleep. The girls would be in a sitting room, and the clients would come to take their pick. They could buy us by the hour, or two hours, or the whole night. Indians paid about 300 rupees per hour. Foreigners were charged 2000 rupees. They would select the girl and tell the madam and pay the money. Sometimes, the client gave the girl money directly, and if the madam found out, she would also take the money from us.


Then came the raid.  I and two girls had just been bought by another prostitute named Julie who ran another prostitution house. She changed my name from Sunita to Usha.


My life would again change soon after. I remember that the girls and I were praying that there was going to be a raid. I already heard that a police raid was about to take place, and they were moving out as many girls as possible. Julie, the madam, also tried to get me out of the house by acting nice to me and enticing me with excuses like taking me to a movie. But I had not slept the night before. I told her I was tired and I’m not interested in going out, in doing all that stuff, but the madam was persistent. 


As soon as I came back from changing, I saw that the police had arrived and had arrested the madam. I realized the reason behind Julie’s kindness was her fear of the raid. “The police told Julie, ‘You’re not going anywhere.”


The worst of my young experience was over – though my struggles were to continue, as I would quickly find out.  Plucky and resilient for her years, my story is quite my own, but it is a window as well into the dark, tragic story of thousands of other innocent victims.


The police raid in the brothels of Mumbai in 1996 rescued two hundred trafficked girls.  I was among them and brought to a government-run shelter in the company of thirty-five other Nepali girls. 


To add insult to injury, Nepal’s government refused to take me and the other Nepali girls back to Nepal. Excuses were made—there was no proof that we were Nepalese; we could be suffering from infectious diseases, and bring these diseases back and infect people back home. 


Our questions were answered soon after when it was disclosed that a Bollywood superstar, Sunil Shetty, offered to fund our trip home through an organization called Save the Children-India. News of their arrival spread—headlines carried insensitive, sensationalizing titles: “Prostitutes come back from India,” or “Prostitutes returning home with HIV.” 


When we arrived home, what ensued was a public spectacle—crowds of people had gathered to see them at the airport, so had reporters from various media units. Cameras were shoved in our faces. 


We lived with their shame, we were very afraid and started thinking, what are we going to do? What are we going to do? We were worried that people would point their fingers at us and make fun of us because we were prostitutes. We started covering our faces with the clothes we were wearing. We didn’t want to be known.  We wanted to stay there at the airport, at immigration, but we realized we couldn’t stay there forever.  So we had no choice but to come out.


The situation took a positive turn when Dr. Renu Rajbhandari, president of the Women’s Rehabilitation Center(WOREC), took us under her wing. Well-known in Nepal, Dr. Renu is a Moscow-educated physician active in preventive health programs for marginalized Nepali women, including former prostitutes with AIDS.


Dr. Renu was the one who made the decision to take us all to the shelter. The girls were herded into a van and the press followed them all the way. We were followed by the press until Dr. Renu basically took a big stone and threw it at the media. After that, they left. Dr. Renu remains in Nepal. She is a medical doctor by profession and a human rights activist by reputation.


I started Shakti Samuha in 1996, out of the training of fifteen girls, then only 15 to 18 years old, under human rights activist Dr. Renu Rajbhandari. It came out of the girls’ conviction that they could band together, encourage each other, empower each other, and later on empower others who had gone through the same atrocities and hardship they experienced


Thus Shakti Samuha was born.  The name man’s the Power Group as shakti means power, and samuha means ‘group.


A group of traumatized teenagers, raised in rural areas with little formal education, and with little support from their own families -- it is amazing that we would find in ourselves the strength, confidence, and vision to take matters into our own hands and initiate an organization that would not only help us but other victims, in the fight against human trafficking.


Initially, the focus of the group, with the help of its partners, was on capacitating its young members in running a non-government organization, with skills in leadership and governance and such matters as research, report writing, accounting, and fund sourcing.


Now Shakti Samuha has embarked on addressing problems in the repatriation, rehabilitation, and reintegration of trafficking victims.  It was particularly important to the group that trafficking victims get the proper psycho-social support. Professional counselors and therapists were tapped to help the victims identify what it is exactly they are feeling, and then help them make plans for the future. 


Thus we opened two shelters, one is an emergency shelter in Pokhara, Kathmandu, for street and working children, victims of physical and sexual abuse, and women-at-risk.  


From rehabilitation and reintegration, Shakti Samuha widened its advocacy by addressing problems of prosecution, prevention, and policy reforms.


Specifically, the group conducts awareness-raising activities is also addressing public policy. We train people in those areas and make them aware that human trafficking is a reality, and that it could happen to them. For us, protection basically means creating awareness. That’s what will prevent them from being in a vulnerable position.


Shakti Samuha teaches hope and redemption in the wake of one of the most pernicious social diseases. If you are willing to work hard, you will achieve what you want. These are powerful words, especially as they have come from women who have traveled a difficult path and have survived dire odds. These words send out the message that however life breaks you, you can reconstruct the broken pieces and achieve your dreams.



We would like to see the end of trafficking and prostitution in Nepal.

We want to reconstruct the lives of people who have had no control over what has happened to them. We needed not only to focus on repatriated victims but victims and girls-at-risk within Nepal.