Therapy Workshops Help Survivors in Mumbai Gain Confidence and Build Trust

MUMBAI, INDIA – Teenage girls are seated in a small circle, each one holding a section of the newspaper. But they're not reading; they're thinking. A therapist instructs the girls to imagine all the "bad news" in their lives and to picture the negative things they've been told, as if they were printed on the page. Then, the girls tear up that newspaper and toss the pieces into the middle of the room.

The girls in the circle are survivors of sex trafficking —most were rescued out of brothels just a few months earlier. IJM sponsors Dance Movement Therapy at their aftercare home—workshops like this one designed to supplement individualized, trauma-focused therapy with creative, therapeutic activities.

IJM Mumbai social worker Shalini Newbigging says there is "a stillness in the room" as the girls remember the lies and fears from their days trapped in brothels in Mumbai's red-light districts. After the pieces of paper are crumpled and tossed in the center of the circle, the therapist asks how the girls are feeling. Some say they felt angry and sad while they were tearing up the paper; others have chosen not to tear up the paper at all, saying that they didn't want to destroy the good news along with the bad.

Later, Shalini explains that the exercise is a powerful metaphor for the survivors who are starting to understand that "they are more than what other people have said about them, what other people have labeled them as."

Therapy: The Post-Rescue Challenges

When a girl is rescued from a brothel and placed in an aftercare home, the violence and psychological abuse stops—but a new process of restoration and re-learning begins. In the aftercare homes, survivors will receive counseling for psychological and emotional trauma to rebuild their sense of self-worth and independence.

When a girl is rescued from a brothel and placed in an aftercare home, the violence and psychological abuse stops—but a new process of restoration and re-learning begins.

IJM social workers will help provide this trauma-focused counseling, and they customize treatment plans based on each survivor's needs. IJM also sponsors a variety of programs in aftercare homes, from basic education to skills-training like computer classes.

In India, courts mandate how long girls should stay in an aftercare home—so maximizing the quality of care during that timeframe is critical. Some survivors will only be in the aftercare home for a few weeks, while others may stay for several years. Most of the survivors are very guarded and slow to trust, especially those who were trafficked by people they trusted. Some young women do not want to be at the aftercare homes at all and resist the rehabilitation efforts altogether. One of the biggest challenges aftercare providers face is building the trust that is foundational to treatment in a relatively short amount of time.

IJM Mumbai started sponsoring Dance Movement Therapy workshops in 2011, in an effort to more quickly and effectively connect survivors of sex trafficking. The name, Dance Movement Therapy, can be a bit misleading, because the workshops are not all traditional dance classes. While dancing is involved, there are also workshops dedicated to arts and crafts, theatrical improvisation, games, and relaxation exercises. At the end of each activity, the girls make connections for themselves between the activity and their life, applying lessons that they have a role in shaping.

Transformation: Celebrating Dance Movement Therapy

On a Tuesday in October, eleven survivors gathered for their final session of the Dance Movement Therapy. The workshop focused on celebrating all they had accomplished together over the course of twelve workshops.

As the young women laughed together and chatted like teenagers would anywhere in the world, Shalini said the "normalcy" represented a remarkable transformation. She said that over the twelve workshops, she had observed "a real sense of belonging," and she added that each girl's "uniqueness began to show, as well as a growing trust in each other."

The superintendent of the aftercare home was also present, and she too had seen positive change, a "genuine expression of self from girls who couldn't or wouldn't talk before." She added that many of the survivors seemed to have a newfound sense of "independence and ownership" that had allowed them to connect with other staff in the aftercare home. The superintendent said she is eager to keep offering these workshops with IJM's help, and they are now planning a new series of workshops for girls who choose to testify in court.

The survivors themselves said they had grown and healed through the Dance Movement Therapy. One survivor said she "found her confidence" through the process, and another shared that "when I first came to the aftercare home, I didn't like anyone here and would constantly be thinking about going home. But now I feel all the shame in my heart has been removed."

IJM will follow up with the survivors who participated in the Dance Movement Therapy workshops, and Shalini says she is hopeful that the survivors' self-expression and openness will carry over to the group counseling sessions that continue.

Aftercare, Sex Trafficking, South Asia