KOLKATA, INDIA – Six years after 15-year-old Shefali* was rescued from a brothel in Kolkata's largest red-light district, the woman who trafficked her was sentenced to prison for her crimes. The conviction brings closure to a lengthy trial riddled with obstacles, and, according to IJM Kolkata Field Office Director Biju Mathew, "justice means this brave survivor can keep thriving in freedom."
"My soul and body are gone"
Shefali grew up in poverty and never had the chance to go to school. Shefali was only 12 years old when she was married off to an older man. Her "husband" abandoned his child bride just a few years later, telling her that she was "dark" and not "beautiful enough." Shefali was ashamed and afraid, more alone than ever before.
So when she met a woman who offered her a ticket out of her tiny village to get a better job in a bigger city, Shefali took it. The job was a trap, and that woman was a trafficker. Shefali was sold to a brothel, where she was exploited by men who paid as little as 160 rupees (about $3) for one hour with her.
As the months passed, Shefali started to believe the lies that had begun when she was a child bride. She resigned herself to a life in the brothel and confessed: "My soul and body [are] gone."
One in Ten Thousand
IJM discovered Shefali one night when she was standing on the street, waiting for the brothel's customers. Armed with evidence that she was a minor—and therefore a trafficking victim—IJM took the case to Kolkata Police.
The brothel where Shefali was being held is in the heart of Kolkata's largest, most notorious red-light district. More than 10,000 sex workers are crammed into hundreds of brothels, and planning an operation to rescue one girl would be a challenge. It was also the first time IJM had attempted a rescue operation in this area.
But on a Tuesday night in December 2007, IJM worked with police to rescue Shefali from that brothel. She was taken to a safe location, and the woman who had trafficked her was arrested.
Shefali's rescue was just the beginning of a long road to restoration. Shefali told IJM that she couldn't do anything but sell her body. She said she had endured so much hardship that she no longer had any fear or love of life.
But with consistent support from IJM and the staff in the aftercare shelters where she lived, Shefali slowly started to believe that her life could have meaning again. She gave birth to a healthy baby boy, and both started to get the care they desperately needed.
A Bold Gesture Brings Justice
The trafficker arrested the night of the rescue operation was granted bail soon after. She fled, and for two years IJM helped police search for her. Finally, on January 1, 2011, she was re-arrested, once again restrained.
“Shefali is learning to move on. She wants to move on. She has dreams of a future now. That is a huge thing for us.” Shefali was gaining confidence in herself and decided it was time to share her story. She chose to testify in the trial. She told the court how she had been trafficked from her home, promised a good job in Kolkata that turned out to be something very different. She also pointed out the trafficker and the alleged brothel manager—"a bold gesture that provided important evidence in the case and affirmed Shefali's value as a young woman with rights to be protected under the law," according to Biju Mathew.
After a multi-year trial full of false starts and many re-starts, cancelled hearings and transferred judges and lawyers, the trafficker was convicted on August 16, 2013. The next day she was sentenced to seven years in prison and ordered to pay a fine.
A Life Transformed
Shefali has moved into a transition home—it's a supportive community of other survivors and counselors who will keep walking with her, and it's a step closer to the independence she longs for. She has taken classes and gotten the education she never dared to dream of. Her son, who turns 6 this month, goes to school, and Shefali loves sitting with him as he does his homework.
Shefali is working at a local boutique that employs sex trafficking survivors. She started as an intern there, but now she is salaried and doing work that she loves. She is saving money, she says, so that she can provide for her son.
Shefali's IJM caseworker, Anju, says, "Shefali is learning to move on. She wants to move on. She has dreams of a future now. That is a huge thing for us." Anju adds, "Shefali's story truly illustrates the transformation that is taking place in Kolkata right now."