Marigold flowers and long plantain branches adorn the doorway of a house. Family, friends, and relatives gossip over a meal. Women pamper the soon-to-be bride applying turmeric paste on her body and decorating her hands with mehendi. The elders of the home ensure the care of every detail of the marriage ceremony.
The bride enjoys being pampered. The rustle of the bangles against her skin enthralls her. Her thoughts turn towards events of the past, when she was bound by the strong chains of slavery, where every hope of happiness was shattered. She raises her hands towards the mirror and smiles as she sees her reflection through the shimmers in her bangles and is amazed that such a day as this has come. The dark brown mehendi on her hand is a sign that she will be loved by her husband and her mother-in-law. This is the love she has been yearning for, ever since she was sold into a brothel to entertain men.
For an Indian, marriage is a matter of karmic destiny which explains why so much importance is laid on it. For women who are survivors of sex trafficking, even beyond cultural significance, marriage gives them a sense of belonging and community. Their experience of being abused by men creates a drive in them to belong to someone safe – a person who will treasure, cherish, love, and protect them.
After rescue, girls stay at a shelter home for a season and wait for their release. When they are asked what they will do when they leave the safe but fettered environment of the shelter home, they say ‘Maim shaadi karunga’ (‘I will get married’). Few decide to study or work elsewhere before deciding to marry.
Eight girls who were part of Freedom Firm’s aftercare program were married in 2014. Each girl represented a different stage of restoration. Kasturi was Freedom Firm’s first rescue and stayed in the restoration program longer than other girls. She was 13 years old when she was rescued and grew increasingly independent in the following years, supporting herself and her sister. She married last year and is now pregnant with her first child.
Raji, an artisan at Ruhamah Designs, married Shiva from the HIV positive network in Karnataka. Now she is expecting her first child. Mona moved to Surat after she was married and delivered her first baby this year. Sanjana, who was rescued three times from Nagpur’s red-light area, returned back to her family, married a Master’s graduate, and delivered a baby girl this year. Merjina, rescued in Maharashtra and restored back to her family in West Bengal, was married last year. Khadija also from West Bengal married and delivered a baby girl this year. Mithu Roy who married is now living in Coimbatore with her husband. Nazma, a Ruhamah Designs employee, married last year and gave birth to a baby girl this March.
These women were trafficked and rescued when they were still children or adolescents and are now independent women, making life choices and becoming wives and mothers. They represent a generation of survivors who have faced loneliness, desperation, sorrow, abuse, fear, and challenges unseen in other women their age. To see them stand with boldness in the face of reality despite the pressures of the past is pure courage. These women now hold power to mold their children’s future and safeguard them from the harsh realities they once faced.