As the U.S. celebrates our 244th year of independence this month, Seema*, a minor from a small village in Bangladesh, celebrated her new-found freedom as well.
Sixteen-year-old Seema lived in a village in Barisal, Bangladesh where her father, Raju, worked as a farmer earning only Rs. 3,000 ($40) a month. Raju squandered most of his wages on alcohol which caused him to have violent outbursts against Seema and her mother, eventually causing her mother to abandon the family. Raju soon remarried. However, his second wife was not accepting of Seema, often showing unwarranted aggression towards her. Seema found it difficult to live with her stepmother, which in turn agitated Raju even more. Seema decided to drop out of school and move in with her aunt in Dhaka to get away from the hostile living situation.
While living with her aunt, Seema often accompanied her cousins to the beauty parlour where they worked. She picked up various skills and was given a job. Seema enjoyed her job and dreamed of opening a beauty parlour of her own one day. However, Seema was offered a better paying job in a cosmetic store, which she accepted. While at the store, Seema became acquainted with one of its regular customers, Zakir. Seema confided in Zakir and told him about her life and her desire to save money for her own beauty parlour. Zakir offered Seema a way to turn her dream into reality and told her of numerous job opportunities in India where she could earn up to Rs. 30,000 ($400) a month. He convinced Seema to take up a job in a sari factory and offered to accompany her to India.
In hopes of creating a better future for herself, in March 2020, Seema illegally crossed the Bandgaon border into West Bengal, India with Zakir. He took Seema to a lodge where he revealed for the first time that she would have to work as a commercial sex worker. A deep sense of betrayal and helplessness engulfed her when she heard those words. Zakir returned to Bangladesh that night, leaving Seema to fend for herself in an unknown place with no way to go back home.
The lodge owner forced Seema into commercial sexual exploitation. Every day Seema was sexually abused by multiple customers. The owner pocketed half of her daily earnings leaving her with barely enough to survive, let alone save any money. Running away was not an option for Seema as she was constantly followed by the pimps. Far from home and with no one to trust, Seema lived in constant fear for nearly four months and remained uncertain of whether she would ever be able to return to Bangladesh.
On June 29, 2020, Justice Ventures International (JVI) and NGO partner Suprava Panchashila Mahila Uddyog Samity (SPMUS) coordinated with local police authorities to conduct a rescue intervention in Murshidabad, West Bengal. During the intervention, Seema and 11 other minors who had been forced into commercial sexual exploitation were rescued from two lodges. Additionally, seven accused (one adult woman and six men) were apprehended by the police and taken into custody.
During the rescue intervention, police officials recovered cash, condoms, registers and mobile phones to be used as evidence in the prosecution of the case. The survivors and perpetrators were taken to the police station where JVI lawyers assisted the police in preparing the evidence list and filing the formal police complaint.
JVI aftercare team members escorted the survivors to a local hospital for medical screening. In accordance with orders passed by the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), the survivors were placed in shelter homes where they are receiving support and counselling. JVI will work with its various partners to reach out to the survivors’ families and reunite them where possible. Additionally, JVI will apply for government rehabilitation benefits to ensure the future livelihood of the survivors and minimize the risk of being re-trafficked.
Now free from abuse and exploitation, Seema is on the road to recovery. She is focusing on getting her life back together and pursuing the dream she once had of opening a beauty parlour. JVI will provide Seema with access to skill-based training to not only bring her a step closer to that dream but also to ensure that her dignity and self-worth is restored.