Mumbai: On a workday morning in her one-room apartment on Mumbai’s outskirts, Sonika packed her lunch box, got dressed in a black shirt and blue jeans, ate a sago snack for breakfast and took a hurried selfie before rushing to catch the 8.45 am bus to work.
Her morning routine seems little different to that of other working girls. But Sonika, 19, appreciates the normality more than most. Until two years ago she was a sex slave – trapped in a cycle of physical and sexual abuse for nearly five years.
“I hated my life, but I had no choice. My days stretched for 18 hours or more. I wanted to die,” said Sonika, who was trafficked to work as a prostitute when she was barely 13.
Sonika moved into the simple home she shares with a roommate earlier this year – a move that Kshamata, a charity that helps trafficking survivors live independently, helped her take.
“I feel safe here. I have my own schedule. I do what I like,” Sonika told the Thomson ReutersFoundation, sitting cross-legged in her apartment.
Sonika, who did not want to give her full name, is among some 50 trafficking survivors in Mumbai who have been helped by Kshamata to find jobs and live independently.
Of an estimated 20 million commercial sex workers in India, 16 million women and girls are victims of sex trafficking, according to campaigners. Nearly half of them are adolescents and children, some as young as nine.
Studies have shown that most rescued girls are re-trafficked as they are not able to find any alternative sources of income or livelihood options when they return to their communities.
Those staying at government and charity-run hostels are given vocational training and some also finds jobs, but few step out of the institutions that become their new homes.
“They never leave institutional care. They are not independent,” said Bharathy Tahiliani, founder of Kshamata, meaning capability in Hindi.
“That Sonika could step out of the shelter, live on her own and trust her flatmate and her co-workers is a victory for us, and of course for her,” Ms Tahiliani said.
Recent government data has shown a year-on-year rise in trafficking cases, but while the government has a cash compensation scheme for youth victims of sexual assault, adult survivors get no such support.
Prostitution is illegal in and girls are often “rescued” by police during raids on brothels.
“We did a study on rescued girls in 2007 and found less than 10 per cent had reintegrated into the society. We couldn’t trace most rescued girls,” said Ms Tahiliani, a social worker and campaigner.
Ms Tahiliani founded Kshamata in 2013 to support trafficking survivors become financially independent as it was “the only way to protect them from being trafficked again”.
Rehabilitation programmes at some charities have moved from traditional embroidery and basket weaving lessons to career counselling and public speaking sessions, said Pratishta Kale, who runs training modules for trafficking survivors at Kshamata.
“The girls are young and often confused about their career choices. So we guide them and help them find a job in line with their interests,” Ms Kale said.
Other charities such as Save the Children India is working on similar rehabilitation models.
“There are shelters and hostels run by charities and also the government where working girls can stay at a subsidised rate but over the last few years, they prefer to stay independently,” said Jyoti. Nale, programme director for Save the Children India.
“There are better (work) opportunities. In some cases, the education level of survivors is better, helping them find a job. This is the best way forward.”
Sonika, who studied up to fourth grade, struggled in her first job at a jewellery store as her employer expected her to talk to customers in English.
A volunteer at Kshamata helped her find a job with a garment firm where she delivers clothes to shops and collects money from them and jots down each transaction in her notebook.
Her nine-hour schedule earns her Rs 9,000 a month and she splits her flat’s monthly rent of Rs 4,000 with her flatmate – also a sex trafficking survivor who works as a sales assistant at a supermarket and earns Rs 12,000.
About a mile away, another trafficking survivor, Navya, stays in a similar one-room apartment and negotiates a four-hour daily commute in Mumbai’s packed local trains to work at an upscale hair salon in South Mumbai.
But tiring commutes and long hours that are typical of working life in Mumbai are the least of their concerns. The girls battle a lack of confidence and reluctance of landlords to lease flats to them – a problem faced by many single women in the city.
“It was after I told people at Kshamata that I wanted to live on my own, I realised I had possibly dreamt too big,” Sonika said. But taught to be resourceful, she roped in her friend’s husband in her flat hunt and eventually found one.
“I like my house. This is the life I always dreamt of for myself,” she said.
($1 = 64.1225 Indian rupees) (Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)