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A story of slavery in the brothels of India

Libby Swenson first experienced oppression and actual injustice in her early twenties.

Libby worked in an orphanage with special needs children who were rejected by society and allowed to starve to death while on a mission trip to a developing nation.

"For the first time in my life," Libby relates, "I was confronted with the stark reality of the oppression of the poor and how systems of injustice take away the lives and dignity of the underprivileged and defenseless. Because they weren't considered "necessary to society," many of the kids I worked with perished from famine after I left. This encounter significantly impacted my life, and as a result I pledged to contribute to the effort to end serious injustices in the world.

Then, 14 years ago, Libby learned about the issue of contemporary slavery, which stoked her desire to make a difference in the fight to eradicate human trafficking. She finally joined Love Justice International (LJI) in 2018 as a regional director of development as a result of her trip.

Libby initially encountered Asha* and her son Raman* through an LJI investigator during her first trip to India with the organization, and it was then that she saw firsthand the destruction that human trafficking does to its victims' lives.

Story of Asha

Asha lived in Mumbai, India, just over 20 years ago. She had siblings, was married, and was expecting a boy. and parents who live close by. Then one day, her husband made the abrupt decision to leave Asha and their unborn child behind and travel to Delhi.

In traditional Indian culture, a failed marriage is seen as a tremendous source of shame and humiliation, with the wife frequently held exclusively responsible. Asha's family abandoned her, blaming her for her failed marriage and leaving her unprotected and in need.

Asha, who was unsure of what to do, went to Delhi by herself in an effort to locate her husband. She traveled from Mumbai to Delhi, a city with tens of millions of residents, in an effort to locate her spouse, and now she is pregnant. She had no relationships, no connections, a job, or any other source of cash, says Libby.

Asha, pregnant and homeless, ended up in a Delhi train station, where she survived by eating food scraps from the trash and sleeping on a bench. She didn't take long to get sick. A family came up to her at this point and offered to cover her medical bills in order to aid in her recovery. She had to accept the money and purchase the medication she needed.

The unthinkable transpired at that point. That same family came back after Asha had recovered completely from her illness and requested that she pay them back the money they had given her. Asha was abducted by the family and sold to a prostitute in the Red Light District on that day, scared and bewildered. GB Road, or Garstin Bastion Road, is a 10-minute walk from the train station. Asha was coerced into selling her body into prostitution at the brothel after being raped and beaten to obedience. Both the birth and upbringing of her son Raman would take place at this location.

Over 20 years have passed since then. Asha, who is 48 years old, is still required to assist at least five clients each day.

At the age of 24, Raman is still living with his mother in the brothel. He has never known anything other, and because of the stigma that goes along with that, it is incredibly difficult for him to get regular, honest work. According to the caste system, Asha and her kid are at the very bottom and are essentially treated like garbage, according to Libby. (Asha and Raman are shown from behind.)

Raman declares, "I despise our existence completely. He did attempt to flee once, and he was gone for roughly a year. Where he went was a mystery to Asha. When he did, they both left the brothel and traveled back to Mumbai in an effort to make amends with her family.

They wouldn't even open the door, says Asha. For four days, my son and I slept on the dirt outdoors in the hopes that they would bring us inside and take us back. And they would never let us in through the door.

Unreliable system

"For some of us, it can be challenging to comprehend the reality of life for people like Asha and Raman," says Libby. It's crucial to explain to those in the West who inquire, "Why can't they just leave?" because India's beliefs and culture are ingrained in everything they do. Why are they unable to just return to their families? Why don't they merely find another job? If they were able to flee the brothel, why do they return there?

"I also learned that because these women are at G.B. Road, nobody will hire them, not even if they leave or manage to escape," she explains. Similar to "The Scarlet Letter," It's comparable to Jean Valjean from Les Misérables stealing a loaf of bread, which subsequently completely ruins the rest of your life. They live in that reality. Even if she wanted to, Asha couldn't acquire a different career.

Asha and Raman returned to the brothel in Delhi after spending those four days camped outside their family's Mumbai home because it is the only location she can feed both her son and herself. Raman has been able to find a few odd jobs since being back, but they are scarce.

When Asha asked the LJI investigator, "Why weren't you there for me 24 years ago?," it was one of the most heartbreaking moments of her conversation with Libby. Where had you been?

"I just wonder, what if the family that approached Asha and offered to help her in her time of greatest need had been good people instead of these traffickers," Libby says. How drastically different their lives would be today is beyond my comprehension.

"Raman never would have seen his mother raped and tortured alongside other women, and she never would have been exploited like this," the woman says. He had the option to attend school. It was simply a lot of stuff. That's why I'm so enthusiastic about what Love Justice does, which is to step in just in time to stop abuse and exploitation before a life is lost to such a bleak and brutal lifestyle. These ladies, in particular, detest the idea of living in a brothel.

A stroll along G.B. Road

Following their visit with Asha and her kid, Libby and two investigators from LJI strolled down G.B. Road. According to Libby, "We passed brothel after brothel and saw young ladies waiting for customers at the top of lengthy stairwells. It's pretty overwhelming, I mean. There are about 5,000 sex workers living in buildings that are one to two blocks long and four floors tall on either side of the street. Girls can be seen screaming at onlookers below through the bars of these tiny windows.

The madam, who serves as the "key holder, money transactor, and guard" for these young ladies, was allowed to communicate with Libby and the two staff members inside one of the brothels. "I learned that each girl has a tiny curtain with a bed and a timer," says Libby. She sets the timer for 15 minutes for each customer. She will therefore serve three to four clients every hour, 12 hours every day, from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., seven days a week. And when business gets going, the stairwells are packed to capacity with guys spilling out into the streets.

While there, Libby had a glimpse of 10 to 15 teenage girls huddling on the floor in one area. She writes, "Their heads were all veiled, and they were all quite modestly attired in the traditional Indian costume. They simply had a cognitive dissonance-filled expression in their eyes.

The police station wasn't there when they eventually made their way to the end of G.B. Road to check it out. Everything was shut down and the doors were secured. "These girls have no one to cry out to, no one who is coming to rescue them," says Libby.

She writes, "As you may guess, my heart was tremendously heavy, and I actually felt sick after we had spent time hearing Aksha and Raman's story. And I recalled her question: "Why didn't you stand up for me 24 years ago?" You were you? She's correct, too. Where were the kindhearted individuals who would have been willing to assist her in her hour of need 24 years ago?

Adoring the unlovable

The next year, Libby returned to India to reunite with the LJI investigations team and take in firsthand the fieldwork being done to combat trafficking. She was able to join a group of women from a nearby church who go to G.B. Road every Friday to preach to the women who work in the brothels while she was there.

Two of the women are doctors who spend the other days of the week working in the slums. On Fridays, they either organize Bible studies and corporate worship services or provide medical clinics for the women who work in the brothels.

According to Libby, "They've been going for four years now, so they've built relationships and established trust with the pimps and madams, which is why they're able to go in like this."

"It was very humbling to be with these dear women who are exploited between 30 and 50 times per day," she continues. One girl, who was just 7 years old at the time, was kidnapped from a train station and sold to this brothel. Seven years later, she has a child. Numerous young males entered the room across the hall for their "services" throughout the Bible study and left after about 15 minutes.

Libby was in the brothel when she noticed a building outside one of the windows. "One of the churchwomen told me, 'That's where they keep the extremely young girls so they can't leave.' There is so much evil and ugliness there that it is difficult to put into words. It's incredibly hefty, says Libby.

Libby recalled thinking, "Somehow, I feel that this is right where Jesus would be, loving those who are so rejected," while she was there. I'm really appreciative of the work we do, which involves catching folks who are being trafficked but not yet being exploited. We guard them against a life in a brothel.

Who will be present?

Asha's straightforward yet heartbreaking query still touches Libby's heart as she works to make people understand the significance of the efforts being made to prevent human trafficking. Listen as she expresses her support for the initiatives being taken to alter the course of history for individuals like Asha:

"The question I've had to ask myself so many times is what would I want someone to do for me if I was that person in that brothel or if I was that person putting my trust in someone who's going to take me somewhere where my life will forever be horribly changed?" expresses Libby.

That's what we [LJI] are doing for people, she continues. If someone knew I was headed for complete disaster, I would hope they would intervene on my behalf. I would need their assistance. Therefore, I simply feel like that is what we are doing—clearly not properly and certainly not everywhere we want to—but it is what we are actually doing. We are standing up for folks before someone else does who merely wants to take advantage of them and wants something from them.

"I tell people this all the time that the people we intercept have no idea what's waiting for them on the other side when traffickers deceive them," Libby adds, summarizing the situation perfectly. However, we are aware of what lies beyond and are determined to take all necessary measures to spare them from the agony of slavery.

“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” Hebrews 13:3 NIV

Donate here to to support someone who is being trafficked. By working with us, you can act at crucial junctures to protect Asha and other innocent victims of human trafficking and alter their lives' narratives.

All content, data, and statistics current at the date and time of publishing. Names changed and specific locations omitted for privacy and security purposes. Thanks to Love Justice International for allowing us to reprint this story.

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