New Delhi, April 11 : Megha (name changed) was born overseas. She was five years old when her father died in an accident and her family moved to Mumbai. Her mother remarried and for eight years, her step-father physically and sexually abused her. Her mother only believed her when she realised he had impregnated her.

But Megha's suffering did not end there. Still a minor, she was trafficked by her best-friend, the only person she trusted and was forced to service 10-15 men a day under the influence of hard drugs.

Megha was blessed with beauty and in no time she was the most desired sex-slave in Kamathipura -- the oldest red-light district of Maharashtra. She was used to service high-profile and influential clients.

Sonia's (name changed) plight was no different. Born into a Devdasi community in Karnataka, she was only five years old when her parents "donated" her as a 'temple prostitute'.

She was rescued by the police and sent to a Government home where she had to endure such atrocities that were worse than living in a brothel. She managed to run away and go home; only to be trafficked again by her neighbour, who sold her to a brothel in Budhvarpeth, Pune's red light district. She was forced service an average of forty men a day, a different man every thirty minutes.

Both girls are free today, and are living respectful lives.

Megha now dreams of becoming an airhostess and living in the sky, far away from her torturous past, while Sonia is undertaking vocational training and hopes to return home to her family.

The girls now live in a safe house by provided by the YouCanFreeUs Foundation (YCFU). The house is a safe haven for girls like them, who were trafficked at an early age, against their consent and forced into prostitution as "sex slaves" in and around Mumbai.

Unfortunately, not every girl who is forcibly sold to the flesh trade is lucky enough to get help.

"We are free here. We were fortunate to have been rescued but there are still so many other minors and children locked in there and kept as slaves in unimaginable conditions," said one of the survivors, in Hindi.

US-based YCFU Foundation, started by Sujo John, a survivor of the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, is fighting against "modern slavery." The team at YCFU has rescued and rehabilitated almost 200 women and children through their strategic in¬tervention hubs, safe houses and training centres in different parts of the world like the US, Canada, India and the UK.

The Global Slavery Index indicates that till 2016 there were nearly 8 million people living in modern slavery in India. YCFU India has spent the past six years carrying out several rescue operations in Kamathipura and other eight red-light districts in Mumbai, with the help of police.

The rescued girls and children come to stay at YCFU safe houses and are put through 18-24 months of intense rehabilitation with medical care, counselling, psycho-therapy, life skills and education.

The foundation helps to get their legal documentation in order, apply for an aadhar card and open a bank account for them. This is their first step to financial and personal independence.

Enabling them to ethically earn and manage, their own money, YCFU has partnered with several hotels and companies to hire these girls, in careers paths of their choosing. At present, there are 32 girls and 18 children in YCFU safe houses undergoing rehabilitation.

YCFU is always looking for safe institutes to give these girls a chance to earn an honest living without having to compromise on their dignity.

Ghazalah Moloobhoy, India's ambassador of YCFU, points out that teaching these girls simple concepts like personal hygiene, self-care and dressing in modest attire are vital for their daily survival. Her biggest fear is having their girls kidnapped and trafficked again.

"Self-dependence is crucial, because although most of them want to go 'home' once rescued, their families do not want them back, because now they're 'impure' or 'tainted'," says Moloobhoy.

Adding, "How do you tell a child who has been through the atrocities that these girls have been forced to endure, that your parents - who are supposed to love you unconditionally - will not take you back because they traded you for money?" She asserts, "The beauty at YCFU is that we don't tell our girls which career path to pursue. Sujo is adamant that they must decide what they become." There are social workers, counsellors, therapists, trainers and house moms at the safe houses who take care of these girl 24x7.

It's not just basic life-skills that they need to learn, the girls first need to be medically treated for the numerous abuses their bodies have endured. They need to then learn how to break their addictions to the various narcotics that were forced upon them, in order to sexually "serve" such a high number of men, daily.

Every life's story can be rewritten. But it takes time, tears and months of torturous recovery to have some semblance of the normalcy, that is mundane for the rest of us.

"It's almost like these girls get a new lease on life. They come from very claustrophobic, dirty environments" says John. These unfriendly environments teach them hostility and aggression if they want to survive, but underneath it all they are just bereft young girls desperate for love and protection.

These women have no identity and most of the time little memory of their childhood before they were sold, as minors. They have endured horrific levels of sexual brutality and were never allowed to file an FIR because they were legally invisible. Without an aadhar card, how can they even ask for justice, for freedom? Today, one of the rescued girls is a patisserie chef at a five-star hotel in Mumbai, another is working in Housekeeping. "The girls want to learn English and work in Event Planning. They're giving their 10th and 12th grade exams and making beautiful jewellery. They are finally learning Zumba, and simply, that they are worth more than what their bodies can do for them." Initiatives like Project Kalki and Aapne Aaap are working with these women and girls in different capacities. However, it's one thing to save them from sexual slavery, and another to save them from themselves.

"One of the ways to defeat this problem is to raise awareness," adds John. There are over 40 million victims of some form of "modern slavery" around the world whose stories are still waiting for that one positive turn.

"Together as a community, as a society, we need to give them that second chance at life. A chance at finding a job, the ability to re-join society and to find a way to be safe and independent without feeling the need to resort to immodest behaviour. We have to change the game and make it pro-choice and not forced labour. And it starts right here," Moloobhoy says.

It is important to take a stand and pay attention, instead of looking the other way. To reach out to communities surrounding these localities and work with the local authorities to eradicate such practices.

Donate and Support the YouCanFreeUs India Trust online at www.youcanfreeusindia.org (Puja Gupta can be contacted at puja.g@ians.in)

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