This unlinkable article tells one of those oh-my-god stories, the kind where you really don’t want to believe it’s true. Could a woman really do this kind of thing to her own niece?
Slavery in Our Time
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: January 22, 2006
Historians will look back in puzzlement at the way our 21st century world tolerates the slavery of more than a million children in brothels around the world.
India alone may have half a million children in its brothels, more than any other country in the world. Visit the brothel district in almost any city in India, and you can meet 14-year-old girls who have been kidnapped off the street, or drugged, or offered jobs as maids, and then sold into a world that they often escape only by dying of AIDS.
When I’ve written about “sex slavery” in the past, from Cambodia, I’ve sensed that readers assume the term is hyperbole. See if you still think so after hearing the story of Geeta Ghosh.
Geeta grew up in a village in rural India and attended only two months of school; like many of the girls who are trafficked, she is illiterate. Her own family abused her, but at age 11 she found refuge with her best friend’s aunt.
For a year, “Auntie” looked after Geeta with a warmth that she had never found at home. Then one day when Geeta was 12 – but still physically a little girl, well short of puberty – the aunt took her to a beauty parlor. “You look a bit ugly, so why not try to look prettier?” Auntie suggested.
Then the aunt locked her in a soundproof room in a brothel with an Arab man who bought her virginity. “I was very terrified to see this huge man in front of me,” Geeta remembers, adding, “I cried a lot and fell to his feet, pleading.”
“He pulled off my dress, and the rapes went on for a month like that. He made me sleep naked beside him, and he drank a lot, and he hurt me so much.”
After that, the brothel owner peddled Geeta daily for five years – and only after eight months as a prostitute did she mature enough to get her first period. The brothel owner kept her confined in the brothel for the first three years, beating her with sticks and threatening her with a knife to warn what would happen if Geeta tried to escape.
“There was a big drain in the house for sewage,” Geeta remembers. “The madam said, ‘If you ever try to run away, we’ll chop you up and throw the pieces down this drain.’ ”
After three years, Geeta was allowed on the street in front of the brothel. But although police officers sometimes walked by, she says that running to them would have been pointless – the madam paid them good bribes, so they would simply have returned her to the brothel.
One taxi driver regularly visited Geeta, and gradually they became close. “It may not have been love, but he was sympathetic,” she says. Finally, he helped her escape from the brothel, and now they are married and have four children.
In the five years in which Geeta was imprisoned in the brothel, she never was given any money. Every single rupee she earned went to her owner.
I visited the one-room hovel where Geeta and her family now live in a Calcutta slum. The home is the size of a walk-in American closet, mostly taken up by a bed raised up on bricks. Three of the children sleep on the bed, and the parents and the youngest child sleep underneath it. The slum is squalid, and a nearby sewage canal sometimes floods their home – but Geeta is happy, because she is free.
All around India and the world, girls are still locked up in brothels as Geeta was. Indeed, sex trafficking is one problem that appears to have become worse around the globe, as organized crime, increased mobility and the rise of markets have turned pubescent flesh into a tradable international commodity. Moreover, fear of AIDS has nurtured markets for virgins and younger children who customers think are less likely to have H.I.V.
The Lancet, the British medical journal, has estimated: “The number of prostituted children is thought to be increasing and could be as high as 10 million.”
Of course, not all can realistically be called “slaves.” There is a continuum of coercion among under-age prostitutes that runs all the way from older teenagers who choose prostitution to 10-year-olds who are kidnapped off the street and locked up in cages.
In my next column, I’ll talk about what can be done to help sex trafficking victims like Geeta. It’s time to emancipate them.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.