Pharmin Khatun, age 16, missing. Manila Purkite, age 14, missing. Raksha Khatun, age 11, missing.
Pages and pages of names. Listed under the current status for most of them was one word – “missing”. Only one or two on each page said “restore” or “rescue”.
Each name represented a young girl missing from the villages we visited in Mandir Bazer, West Bengal, India. All of them were presumed to have been taken to the big cities and forced into the sex trade.
Lost in the never-ending grip of poverty, families in the region look for whatever hope they can find to help them survive. Girls are expendable. Girls cost money. Girls require dowries when they reach marriageable age.
A trustworthy-looking man visits the village and tells the family, “Send your daughters with me. I will take them to the city and help them find good jobs. Then they can send money home to their families. Your lives will all be improved. Trust me.”
They trust him and send off their girls. Fourteen year old girls. Eleven year old girls. Girls just like the three carefree daughters I would be going home to in a week’s time.
The young and dedicated staff of HASUS sat around the table and told us stories of the girls they were trying to find and rescue. They showed us the home they were building to house those that were lucky enough to be found and returned to the village. We met a deaf girl who had little chance of survival except for the compassion of the staff of HASUS. We met some of the young women who were part of a retraining program – learning sewing skills so that at least they would be employable. In most cases, their families didn’t want them back when they returned as damaged goods.
Two weeks later I am still shaken by the horror of giving up my daughter because the poverty wraps me so tightly in a cocoon I can’t imagine any other way out.