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When Sinaj Khatun was a teenager, she dreamed of the security of a government job. She lived in Murshidabad, in the eastern state of West Bengal, seven hours from the state’s capital, Kolkata, and was studying for her master’s in history at a local college.
She did not have a particular kind of job in mind – just one that would help her support her family and provide stability. But at the age of 20, lured by the promise of one by a man she was introduced to while in college, she ended up being sexually exploited for two months.
The brothel where she was held captive was an hour away from home. She was locked inside a room and was unable to leave, even to use a toilet. After two months, the man who trafficked her faked a marriage with her and took her to her family. He asked her to return to the brothel after meeting them, threatening to kill her father if she did not. But instead of going back, she went to a police station where she filed a report. No one, however, was arrested and Khatun did not get the justice she was looking for.
Now, at 31, she has a different dream: to fight criminals like the one who duped her – in court.
She is well on her way. As the first graduate of a unique programme called School for Justice, founded in Kolkata in 2017, Khatun is a newly minted lawyer. Two months ago, dressed in a crisp formal white shirt and trousers, black tie and a vest, her hair pulled back in a neat knot and a little black bindi on her forehead, she stepped out to her university to collect her marksheet, earning an 87 percent score. She was thrilled.
It had been an intense, three-year programme to earn her Bachelor of Law. “When I stumbled, my mother inspired me to go on. She says I have a lot more to achieve,” Khatun says over the phone from her home in Murshidabad, where she has gone for the holidays. She speaks in a mix of Bengali and English.
“It took me years to get my life together. But the man who raped me roams free. Back then, I did not know how to protect myself and what my rights were after being raped. Now I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to other girls,” she says.
“When I joined the School for Justice programme, I was in a traumatised state. By the last semester of the programme, I felt like a different person. I have become the elder sister at the School for Justice, helping the younger girls settle in,” she adds.
More than 40 other girls are following in Khatun’s footsteps, training to become lawyers, paralegals, social workers, police officers and journalists at the School for Justice. The programme is exclusively for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation or daughters of survivors over the age of 18 in Kolkata, Mumbai and, established most recently, in Kathmandu.
The idea is to equip survivors of child trafficking with the tools they need to play an active role in creating awareness and bringing perpetrators of sexual crimes against children to justice. It was started by the international nonprofit Free a Girl in collaboration with local partners such as Sanlaap and Shakti Vahini in India and Maiti Nepal. Students attend courses at a local university of their choosing, while school fees, boarding, and monthly stipends for travel and personal expenses are taken care of by Free a Girl.
Many of the girls who enrol have lived for years in shelter homes, and require regular counselling and emotional support, along with extra coaching by a dedicated mentor assigned to them.
“I am so much wiser now. I know my rights, how child trafficking operates, the signs young girls should watch out for,” says Khatun. “I want to bring girls who have been exploited out of the darkness and make them aware of the legal options available to them.”
In Kolkata and Kathmandu, the girls can choose to live in School for Justice safe houses. They are welcoming, multi-storey buildings that resemble university boarding: rooms with bunk beds, a warden, a cook and CCTV cameras fitted for the girls’ safety.
Until the pandemic put a pause on her commute to her university, Khatun’s day had been a comforting routine of waking up at dawn at the School for Justice safe house in Kolkata, packing her tiffin box and rushing out to catch a metro for her first class at 8 am. She would wind down her day with English lessons with the other girls at the safe house, before they gathered around the dining table for dinner.
“When I first joined the School for Justice, I was fearful of trusting anyone because of what I had gone through. I thought it would happen to me again. The first term was very hard. I found it hard to focus. I was missing home. But within a few months, I warmed up to my teachers and the other girls. Now, I don’t want to go home at all. I love it here,” she says.
Khatun is busy these days preparing to apply for her license and for the judiciary service exam. She wants to become a judge.
During the pandemic, the girls have adapted to online lessons on their laptops at their safe houses. Like Khatun, 20-year-old Renuka Sherpa* in Kathmandu wants to become a lawyer. She joined the school this summer.
“Since I have enrolled in the law course I don’t feel like the same person anymore — from being a poor student in school to being diagnosed with depression, I have finally learned to focus, to have a goal. I can speak confidently in front of people,” she says.
Sherpa was 11 years old when she was raped at home by a neighbour. At the age of 15, she worked at a dance bar to pay for her mother’s medical treatment, where she was sexually exploited for two years.
“Sometimes I get aggressive, I feel sad and have mood swings, and the counselling helps me,” she says. Studying grounds her too, with provisions of law in Nepal and the constitution her favourite subjects. “On weekends, we dance, we watch movies, we laugh. It feels like family,” she says of life in the safe house, smiling as she pauses to think of the right words to describe her life now. “There are lots of good changes in me,” she says.
The girls have a say in which course they sign up for. In the initial stages, they are asked to share their interests, and are encouraged to search and choose the local university they would like to attend, before finalising the one best suited for them, says Manisha Ghimire, programme manager of School for Justice, Nepal. “It’s challenging, because it’s a completely new experience. But many of them are very motivated. Some of them don’t have an enabling environment to study at home, so we provide them the option of staying in the School for Justice safe house, where they are taken care of. The other challenge is the dropouts, due to family pressure on the girls to get married,” she adds.
Learning English is another challenge. Some of the courses are bilingual. Sunehri Pradhan*, 19, who is pursuing a bachelor’s in social work in Kathmandu, says she was very nervous about joining the School for Justice. But spending time with the other girls who have gone through similar trauma, she feels she can finally breathe easy. “I want to be a social worker and travel to remote places to run awareness programmes about child rights and abuse,” she says, switching between Nepali and English.
According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, a total of 67,134 children were reported as missing in 2018. And of the estimated 3 million prostituted people in the country, 40 percent are children, according to a 2008 report from the Ministry of Women and Child Development. Meanwhile, the National Family Health Survey found that 99.1 percent of sexual violence cases in India go unreported.
The idea behind the School for Justice, says Evelien Hölsken, co-founder of Free a Girl, sprang from the need to address the impunity that seemed to flourish in the child trafficking industry. “So we thought how would it be to lay the power in the hands of survivors themselves by not only giving educational and vocational opportunities but empowering them so they can become spokespersons and change agents in their home country?” she says. Recently, Free a Girl launched a #VoiceforJustice campaign, where celebrities and citizens across the world urge everyone to “donate” their voice by recording a complaint on behalf of trafficked girls, to challenge impunity.
At the School for Justice, girls learn about role models like Malala Yousafzai and Nadia Murad. A huge part of the programme is removing the stigma and fear, says Pradnya Dolare, the programme manager in Mumbai and Kolkata. “The girls are gradually trained to participate in media campaigns on human rights and prevention of child sex abuse. We encourage them to share their stories to inspire other survivors. I have seen them evolve from being traumatised by what happened to them and unable to mingle, to becoming confident individuals happy to lend their voices,” she says.
But not all of them are “spokespersons”. It is important to respect that they may be uncomfortable about speaking up, being photographed or featuring in videos, says Hölsken, so they are careful about not putting pressure or triggering them in ways that could be counter-productive.
An initiative like this fills an important gap, believes Pranaadhika Sinha Devburman, a Mumbai-based child abuse activist and survivor who runs the campaign “One Million against Abuse”. She says: “It is valuable because it empowers survivors in a way that they can sustain themselves and give back. It’s important for them to build that confidence because of the horrors they have experienced. The fact that the girls can use that experience to reach out to others and help them win a case lends it an inclusive angle. It takes them from being termed ‘victims’ to becoming ‘survivors.’”
Khatun, who is looking to the next steps of her career, certainly is one. “I hope to have my license in about a year and eventually be a judge. I want to work in Kolkata and also reach out to girls who have been exploited in my hometown, Murshidabad, to encourage them to speak up, because that is the first step towards justice.”
*Names changed to protect women’s identities.