Far Braver Than Me

I met Salma while doing an assignment on identifying good practices across the rescue to the reintegration spectrum linked with countering cross border trafficking of children between West Bengal, India and Bangladesh and Nepal. This was under the Missing Child Alert project led by Plan India (for India) with a non government organisation Child in Need Institute (CINI)facilitating actions in West Bengal. A project partner in the state, Socio Legal Aid and Research Training Centre (SLARTC) had shared information about Salma and her younger sister Noorie. Noorie had been trafficked to Bangladesh earlier. She was brought back within a couple of months. An attempt had been made on Salma as well (this was possibly inter country trafficking). Both sisters had also participated in a workshop on creating comics that present key messages on countering child trafficking. Finally, Noorie couldn’t make it for the interview and Salma was there.

Salma appeared to be one of the calm and quiet ones.  A measured speaker. I began with some polite conversation. General remarks about her village, asking about her school and family. Then, I tried to ease into the main subject – her current circumstances, support received by her family from the local community, non government organisation and other stakeholders. I told Salma why I was meeting her – i.e. to learn from child survivors of trafficking about the kind of supports that were most effective for them, activities or strategies that we could recommend for other NGOs and development actors to adopt and feedback on the comics workshop.  I told her that, if she wished, her name would not appear in print.

There was now a pause in the conversation. Staff from the partner organisation jumped in to provide more information to the girl, to make her feel more comfortable. I had thought of all these lines that I would say. But these words just came out on their own – “I know that our conversation may remind you of painful experiences in the past. But we will not talk about that. We know that you want to look ahead, to build a good and secure future for yourself. We just need to know how you are doing now, who is helping you and what happened at that workshop and any suggestions that you have for improving such workshops.” Her eyes became misty. But her voice remained even – “You can ask me anything you want.”  

We talked about her present, how her younger sister was doing and their hopes for the future. She had enjoyed the comics workshop. He voice became more animated as she declared – “I have suffered. We (my family) have suffered and we know. People usually react after something happens. What good is that? All the children should know about these things. You should try and put these messages in our school and madrasa books.” She also spoke about a recent incident when she slapped one of a group of boys who were harassing her. Her maternal aunt had also been with her then. The two had merely been walking down a street.  The aunt too had hit one of the boys. I asked – “Weren’t you scared? What if the boys had hit back or they could so something later?”  The instant response – “How long can you live in fear? I will face whatever happens.”

It was humbling to meet her. I may be a lot of things. But I don’t think I am as brave as her.  

Living with the Grey

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.