In June the Internet Society sent me to Sri Lanka to take some scenic shots around Colombo for their website. I could not have asked for a more enjoyable assignment!
In May of this year I spent a week covering the Rescue Foundation/Free a Girl efforts in Mumbai. I was expecting the organization to be rather small, but was happily surprised to find Rescue Foundation to be very organized, with two campuses, a legal department, and many resources for the rescued girls. A frequent criticism of these NGOs, whose focus is to rescue girls, is that the girls are often brought home without any education, skill set, or job prospects, which is often the reason for them leaving home in the first place. Rescue Foundation not only provides basic schooling, yoga, karate, sessions with social workers, but also skills training in which the girls learn crafts, jewelry making, and hair and makeup skills, which may one day enable them to pursue a career working at a salon and spa.
Mumbai’s Red Light District and the “rooms” at the brothels where the girls see clients
A montage of paintings by one girl who was rescued from the brothel. The shelter/rehab offers art classes to the girls.
One option offered by the Rescue Foundation/Free a Girl is a home provided a home for those rescued girls who are not able to go home and live with their families again. The girls live independently, work and pay their own bills.
It was also wonderful to see a full legal department operating in the shelter, prosecuting the traffickers and brothel owners and working around the clock with the Bangladeshi and Nepalese governments to repatriate the girls. One of the most shocking things for me was learning that more than 60% of the girls were trafficked from Bangladesh . Furthermore, it can take more than two years for the Bangladeshi government to provide the necessary paperwork for the girls to return home. And by “girls,” I do mean girls. Among those whom I met at the shelter, the youngest was a divorced, 13 year-old Bangladeshi citizen.
Everyone at the shelters was extremely welcoming towards me, especially the Bengali girls, once they discovered I was (at the time) living in Bangladesh. In my broken Bangla we chatted about the Dhaka neighborhoods where they had lived and the beauty of the countryside where they grew up.
The women in the center is the amazing Triveni Acharya, who founded the Rescue Foundation with her husband while she was still working as a journalist in Bombay. For the first ten years they rescued and sheltered girls in their own home. She is one of the most inspiring women I have ever had the privilege of meeting.
One afternoon I heard loud cries coming from the dorms and went in to find a dozen of the Bangladeshi girls broken down, sobbing. They had just had learned that their travel permits to go home were denied, yet again, by the Bangladesh government. Some of them had been waiting for more than two years to return home. It was heartbreaking to see them sitting on their beds or on the floor of the dorm, in shock, crying and defeated. The staff pulled them into the office, where they sat together and discussed how they would re-apply to the Bangladesh government to try for the travel permits once more. The rest of the evening we sat together; they played Bangla pop songs on my iPhone as they scrolled through my photos, looking at my snapshots from my work and travels through Bangladesh, clearly longing for their country. One girl from Jessore who had two children back home asked me when I would be returning to Bangladesh. I told her that I was flying in a few days. She asked how long the flight was and when I told her it was three hours she got very quiet. She seemed shocked and so sad when she realized that while she had been at the shelter for almost three years, waiting for a travel permit, her home was so very close, yet so far away. It was excruciating to watch these girls be further victimized, regrettably by their own government, and to have no words, nothing to say that could comfort them.
I ended up extending my trip a few extra days when I was told that a group of girls would be repatriated to Kolkata at the end of the week. I photographed them packing up their bags and riding the bus that would take them to the train that took them home.
There was a quiet, heavy tension in the air as they traveled to the train station. Most girls sat in silence, staring out the window, lost in their own thoughts. They boarded the train to go home, putting yet another chapter behind them, but they seemed to know that real healing was yet to come.
Donate to Free a Girl and read more about their operations here; https://www.freeagirl.nl/en/help/become-donor/