This was me at the age of 11. Hiding amongst the shadows, fearful of the light and what it could bring with it. I've come a long way since then but the journey hasn't been easy. During the years I was held captive, I used to think about the life that I could have had if I were free. What would my childhood have been like if it hadn't been robbed of me? What would my hobbies have been? Would I have done well at school? Who would I have had the chance to become?
These thoughts would run through my mind, day after day, during those dark times. I would imagine myself transported back to my life as if nothing had happened.
Today, I invite you to witness my journey through the eyes of the innocent 11 year old I once was, when everything was taken away from me.
It was a warm morning, in the middle of summer, the doorbell rang and there was a woman standing in front of me, I had seen her before, in pictures - could this really be my mother? The woman who had abandoned me when I was only a baby, was standing in front of me. Everyone was tense, she said she wanted to take me and my brother to go live with her now. I had a good life in the village but I had never known my mother's love so I craved it. My father told her she could take me if she wanted to but to leave my brother behind.
I was excited, I was taken to the city to live with my mother and stepfather. They immediately took me out of school and started sending me to work as a housemaid. But I didn't mind, I was finally living with my mother and every time I came home with my salary, she would have the biggest smile on her face. That is exactly what I wanted!
The years passed and soon I was 11 years old. One day I saw my mother and stepfather speaking in hushed tones. Shortly after, they called me back and announced that there was a job opportunity for me in Mumbai and they wanted me to take it. I didn't think twice before saying yes - anything to get the approval of my mother. As we started making arrangements for my travels, my Mum took me on a fun day out, we watched a movie and went to a toy store where I picked a teddy bear to take with me so I could hug it tight every time I missed my mother and my home.
I was taken to a strange dingy place in Mumbai which I later found out was a brothel, two days later my virginity was sold to the highest bidder. I felt like one of the toys that I had picked up at the shop - I was being sold for a price.
I no longer had a say in what I wanted to do, I was nothing more than a plaything. I didn't want to grow up so quickly, I held on to my teddy so tight as they took away my childhood. Surely, my mother couldn't have done this to me, could she?
Traffickers are manipulative and cruel and will use any and all forms of force, fraud and coercion to lure young girls. About 70% of girls are trafficked by someone they know. They often do so by picking on the vulnerabilities that a girl is going through - they may pose as a lover promising to give them happiness, an enabler who gets them hooked on drugs or alcohol, a role model whose life they want to emulate, a caregiver who gives them off to the highest bidder or simply a violent trafficker who abuses and intimidates young girls. Though there are different methods of recruiting young girls into sex trafficking, they all lead to a path of rape and violence.
Disrupting the source of trafficking can cripple the supply of young girls into this ever growing underground industry. By protecting rural source areas, (like the village that Shehnaz was trafficked from), that supply young girls into cities, we can maximize our ability to achieve 80% reduction in child sex trafficking in our areas of operation.
Our 'Protect the Children' operates in areas where children are most vulnerable to exploitation. Children are entered into a database and actively monitored by a child protection unit so they aren't able to end up in brothels.
Working at a grassroots level across 100 villages over the course of the next 5 years, in the same regions as our criminal network disruption, we will prevent as many as 6000 children from being trafficked.
If 8 year old Shehnaz had been safeguarded by the Protect the Children program, she may never have been trafficked.
I loved playing hide and seek as a kid with friends. The thrill of finding that one place where I could outwit all the others, where no one could find me. When I was held captive, I used to think back to those times and wish that if only they would count to 10, maybe I could find that hiding place again. Instead I would keep struggling. They might have taken me from my home but they can't make me their slave. Every time someone came into the room where I was held captive, I fought with every last bit of strength left in me, only to be met with violence. They gave me food but I used to refuse it; although some days hunger would get the better of me. I would eat the plate full of food in front of me and before I knew it I would start feeling drowsy When I came to, I would be restrained or held down by the madam or pimp while strange men would have their way with me - one after another, until I couldn't feel anymore. I was in pieces, broken. Hidden from the world, I asked myself daily, "Will I ever be found?"
While some trafficking occurs when a girl is permanently taken from her home, often it occurs while she is living under the same roof as her captors who are sometimes her parents, guardians or caregivers. This observation corroborates the studies which indicate that 60% of trafficking happens in private residences. Many victims are deceived and manipulated, lured by false promises and brighter futures, sometimes even by families. Social, economic, or parental pressures often create a sense of powerlessness among victims. This is particularly pronounced in Asian cultures, where social obligations and a keen sense of duty combined with extreme poverty can force young girls into sexual exploitation.
Spending a prolonged period of time in captivity and facing physical, mental, and emotional torture is a traumatising experience for young girls and women. Providing survivors of human trafficking with adequate support systems and opportunities to heal themselves is paramount for them to be able to rebuild their lives as well as to help protect other women from similar experiences.
Marici's Aftercare Team develops personalised Individual Care Plans (ICPs) for every survivor, ensuring a curated plan is developed for their successful rehabilitation and reintegration into society. This includes psychological counselling which heals survivors from their trauma.
"Are you ready?" my friend would call out to me as I used to spend hours standing in front of my closet choosing my outfit for the day. I didn't have many clothes but I always took care to dress well. I found the process relaxing and exciting. When I was trafficked, the question "Are you ready?" was not a question but more of a warning bell. Can one really ever be ready to be assaulted by 15-20 men everyday? After a point, I simply got ready, wearing the skimpy outfit, cheap stilettos and that horrific red lipstick. I was 11. The tears stopped rolling down my mascara-laden eyes, this was my truth now. I wasn't ready, I was almost defeated.
Any estimations on the true scale of child sexual abuse cases worldwide are often inaccurate due to the underground nature of this industry. Girls are often coerced or lured into sex work and illegally taken across country borders, many of whom fail to ever return. Reports measure the global human trafficking industry to be valued around $200 billion. It is the fastest growing crime in the world.
The Asia-Pacific region alone has 80% of the world's child sex trafficking cases.
Disrupting criminal and trafficking networks in areas where women and young girls are vulnerable to exploitation is critical to ensure a safe environment. Our "Intelligence Teams" are experts with backgrounds in military affairs, narcotics and counterterrorism and have been instrumental in saving thousands of children so far.
Despite the pandemic affecting mobility throughout 2021, our teams managed to eliminate 41 criminal networks that directly saved 2,460 girls from being trafficked. We have mapped over 175+ additional networks and 1,000+ criminals in 200+ locations for future disruption. By dedicating our expertise towards driving an 80% reduction in child sex trafficking in some of the worst-affected APAC cities over the next few years, we are saving lives in the hardest hit parts of the world.
When I was a kid, I was known amongst my family for being a deep sleeper. My grandma used to laugh at how I would move around the bed all night and would jokingly complain how difficult it was to wake me up.
When I was trafficked, nighttime became a source of dread. As the darkness got closer, my living nightmare would be replayed each night. One man after another, every hour, for 8 hours straight. When I closed my eyes, I couldn't sleep. I was anxious and scared of what would happen the next night or sometimes the next hour.
Dreams seemed like a luxury for the free. For me, just existing was a daily struggle.
Will this ever stop, I would wonder? Will I sleep peacefully again? Will I ever dream again?
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the percentage of children among trafficking victims has tripled in the past 15 years. There are 5.4 victims of modern slavery for every 1,000 people in the world. However, given the hidden nature of this crime, it is predicted that the actual number of victims trafficked is far higher. Estimates suggest that only about 0.04% survivors of human trafficking cases are identified and fewer than 1% of all victims of child sex trafficking are rescued.
The other life I could have had as a child was taken away from me, but no one can take today from me.
Today and every day, I choose to raise awareness for this cause that is sometimes so painful to hear about that we don't want to believe it's happening. But that doesn't make it go away.
Join me as we take more steps towards tackling this heinous crime to give freedom to so many. No other girl needs to go through this journey whilst she yearns for what could have been a beautiful life.
There must be no other life for a child, just a wonderful one with love, laughter and innocence