When Naina and Jyothi were born in the small community of Nat in India's Bihar state, it seemed their lives would follow the same path, the one traversed by their mothers, aunts, grandmothers and every woman they'd known. They were born in a brothel, into a system of intergenerational prostitution which, along with sex trafficking, enslaves over one million women in India.
As a child, Naina was repeatedly sold, beaten and raped, submersed in a world of sexual abuse and drug addiction. She had little contact with anyone outside of the sex trade.
Jyothi avoided this fate.
Apne Aap, a New Delhi-based NGO that combats sex trafficking, found Jyothi when she was still a child and took her to a "safe space" -- in Bihar, it's a girl's hostel, in other communities it might be a mud hut or community classroom -- where women are free from bondage to heal, build relationships and receive livelihood training.
It's a cruel and reckless lottery that would save Jyothi and enslave Naina. When police conduct raids in India's seedy red light districts, some girls are rescued; others are moved, or hidden in the brothel's labyrinthine corridors when the manager, or "madam," is tipped off by officers seeking bribes. Those rescued are sometimes lured back by the guardians, manipulative or forceful brothel owners who come to reclaim their property.
Ruchira Gupta, president of Apne Aap and a fearless activist we intensely admire, told us about her harrowing battle -- waged since she founded the organization in 2002 -- to free girls from prostitution, and the death threats she's received from brothel owners upset by lost business.
"It's just hell. It's just hell on earth," she told us.
For 10 years, Naina endured this hell. Not even her own mother could help her. There's a Hindi word for prostitutes that have aged past their worth, adhiya. It means "half person," Gupta tells us. Unless a daughter is supplied as a replacement, they're left in the streets -- broke and often disease ridden -- to die. The cycle becomes a sickening sort of family business.
When Naina's mother finally escaped, she went back for then-15-year-old Naina, and with the help of Bihar's safe spaces program they left the brothel. They broke the cycle.
But we know that many other girls are still trapped in India's sex trade; we've spoken to them in our travels. To look into the eyes of a beautiful, pregnant teen girl and hear her say matter-of-factly that her unborn child has already been sold into prostitution is gut-wrenching to the very core. She was 16 years old with a down payment on her womb. This is a modern-day slave trade.
When the U.S. State Department released its Trafficking in Persons report last month, an annual ranking of anti-trafficking measures by country, it took India off of the Tier 2 Watch List for the first time since 2004, in part for its ratification this past May of the UN Trafficking Protocol, which will oblige the country to expand its laws. But the report also found that "pervasive corruption" impedes progress.
India's sex trafficking industry is a sophisticated machine. Agents, pimps and crooked border guards will "wink, wink, nod nod" girls across borders, Gupta explains. It's a ritual so pervasive and refined that once captured, girls don't bother running away.
"There's nowhere to run to."
That's why safe spaces are vital. Apne Aap now reaches over 10,000 girls in India's red light districts with legal advice, access to education and mentorships, someone to tell them for the first time in their lives that they don't exist for someone else's pleasure.
Pamela Shifman, Director of Initiatives for Women and Girls at the NoVo Foundation, told us the physical location doesn't matter as much as the sense of hope that fills the space, or, "who girls are allowed to be and what they're allowed to feel." Jyothi and Naina dance and laugh and practice karate. It's not just a building that provides refuge from violence; it's a safe space for the whole person.
Now 20, Naina has learned to read and write Hindi and is practicing her English. She has dreams for her future now; she wants to be a filmmaker, get married and have children of her own. For the first time, free from the violence and exploitation she grew up with, Naina has a real chance to achieve that dream.