Salma and Asif talked about their struggles with poverty, of making ends meet. Whenever one spoke, the other would listen respectfully and nod. An assignment on documenting case studies of young women survivors of trafficking had taken me to their home in rural West Bengal. We wanted to see how these women who had chosen to return to their families (and their families had wanted them to), were doing. Terre des Hommes Foundation, Lausanne (India Office), Sanlaap and a group of local community based organisation were my guides in this fragile and complicated universe.
A few years ago, Salma had got trafficked. The family had not approved of her relationship with the older and married Asif. Her brother hit her. Headstrong Salma, still a teenager then, ran away. She eventually found herself in a brothel thousands of kilometres away from home.
The system did work for her as she was eventually rescued and restored to her family. Salma stayed away from Arif after her return. But he met her and persuaded her to marry him. Arif knew what had happened. He was tormented by guilt and wanted to offer her a fresh start. Initially, both the families had mixed feelings about the marriage. The birth of their son made it easier. (Arif and his first wife did not have any children). Gradually, family and social acceptance grew. Each day brought new challenges, but Salma had found her safe space.
The experience of meeting Salma and Arif has stuck with me mainly because it made me rethink moral positions and what can/should be considered right or wrong. Arif, older and married, chose to initiate a relationship with the teenager Salma. Surely, that was wrong. Her family objected – any family would. An act of violence (brother hitting her – cannot condone that) triggered a chain of events that none of them had foreseen. Arif, to his credit, chose to stand by her when she returned. He married her when she was considered ‘tainted’ and doomed to an uncertain future. Did this redeem him?
And what about his first wife? I didn’t get to meet her. But I also learnt that the household was essentially run with the money that she earned as a domestic worker. (Arif had a childhood attack of polio which affected his right foot. He has never had a steady source of income.) How did the first wife feel when she came to know about his relationship with Salma and when he later brought her home? And when the two had a child? Didn’t Arif do wrong by her in all this? But then, I return to what got me there. A survivor building her life again with the man she trusts and what is now right for her.