Rang De India IBNS News Service
They are women at a disadvantage, abandoned and abused, often used as pawns by racketeers and end up in the thriving sex trade near the Indo-Bangladesh border. Ranjita Biswas reports
Amina Bibi is from Sirajganj, Bangladesh. Manasi Mistry is from Katwa, Bardhaman district in West Bengal. Both, however, share a common destiny. Ending up in sex work to sustain themselves and their children.
Amina works in Kalabagan red light area near Dhulian town in Murshsidabad district where extensive erosion by the river Padma has displaced thousands of people.
Manasi works on the highway near Farakka, not far away from the Farakka barrage on National Highway 34.
Both Amina and Manasi have something else in common, though they don’t know each other. For better words it can be called the ‘border’ connection.
Amina confesses: “I got involved in rice smuggling across the border when my husband abandoned me with two children. I was constantly harassed by border security forces on both sides; especially by those in the Border Security Force (BSF) who man the outposts (BOP) of the fence. I also ran into debt and did not have money to bribe and so had to give in to them.”
In local parlance it’s regarded as ‘payment’ for favour extended when money runs short and survival becomes a focal point for women like Amina.
One day Amina decided to come over to Dhulian alongwith another woman by paying Rs 3000 to a “lineman” who smuggles in persons illegally to India. Subsequently she ended up in Kalabagan. Of her two children, the son, 28, is still in Bangladesh but the daughter, 13, is in a shelter home in Berhampore, district headquarter of Murshidabad.
Manasi, 42, was abandoned by her husband too and at first worked in a major red-light “para” at Kalna in Bardhaman district. “But when we get older, getting customers is difficult as young girls turn up everyday. So we have to move to the highway,” she says.
One can see ramshackle sheds lining the highway at the Farakka stopover which the ‘maliks’ rent out to the women and also take a cut on the earnings.
Her clients are mostly people from the ‘camp’ i.e. those keeping vigil on the border, truck drivers etc.
Manasi does not work during the day, though many do- the ‘flying’ FSW ( female sex worker) who commute from nearby areas and return home. She confides that now she earns Rs 8000 to Rs 10,000 a month. She wants to send her daughters, 12 and 8, respectively, to a hostel if her ‘babu’ agrees. Manasi has a ‘babu’, like many FSWs .
The ‘babu’ is a live-in partner who is regarded as a proxy-husband in red light areas of West Bengal.
Manasi’s ‘babu’ is Samsul Sheikh, 26, from Bangladesh. He confides without batting an eyelid: “I used to be a cattle smuggler from the age of 21, taking herds of cows to Dhaka, and used to make Rs 1000 to Rs 5000 per cow. We had contact with people on both sides. I was robbed and also was not given the money I was supposed to get. I left the job two years ago.” He does not ‘do’ anything now and lives off Manasi’s earning and ‘looks after the house’ and claims to love her daughters. Though a Bangladeshi citizen, he boasts, “ Soon I’ll get my voter ID card, I know the right people. I’ve lived here for many years after all.”
According to Bela, a madam, who has 6 to 7 girls under her working at Kalabagan, out of around 300 FSWs in Kalabagan, 8 to 9 are from Bangladesh, all having illegally entered the country.
The Indo-Bangladesh border fence which was initiated by the Indian government in 1986 to curb smuggling and illegal migration through the porous border does not seem to be foolproof enough even today though most of West Bengal’s border stretch of 2,216 km has been fenced.
Many areas fall under waterways making it more difficult to fence it off. The matter gets more complicated as the border demarcation, and fencing, has been such that some Indian farmers have land beyond the fence, practically making it an Indian enclave within Bangladesh, and vice versa.
Human trafficking, particularly of young girls and women for prostitution, with promises of a ‘better life’ across the border is a well-documented fact. Organizations like Delhi Childline or Mumbai’s Justice and Care, a human rights support agency which helps rescue victims of trafficking from brothels, report that many of the girls are from Bangladesh who enter India through the border with help of a network of contact persons and procurers.
A recent research on cross border issues by ethnographer Swagoto Sarkar for Sanjog, an NGO primarily focusing on issues of violence against children, and which also collaborates with NGOs in the border areas, found that “smuggling and sex are intertwined” in the border area. Many of the trafficked girls are underage, below 18.
According to NGO Suprava Panchashila Mahila Uddyog Samity, Berhampore, which works for child rights and also run programmes to combat trafficking and sexual exploitation, there are 1,438 FSW in the border area in Murshidabad but only per registration with them; there might be many floating/flying FSWs.
Lured with promises of jobs, or prospect of a ‘good’ marriage without having to pay a dowry, abandoned by husbands, taken advantage of by law-keepers - the depressing story of women in the sex trade in the border area has a certain pattern. In the vortex are also drawn children of the women many of whom do not have the resources to send them away to hostels or to live with relatives.
As to how to offer help with rehabilitation programmes, healthcare, etc. is an area many civil society organizations are working at. But the most frightening experience is to encounter the acceptance by the women that this is a ‘fate’ they have to live with.
(All names have been changed to protect the identities)
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