Mina is the boss. It’s a joke that flies around the Freeset workplace, and like many jokes, holds a grain of truth. Mina has been here since the beginning, a powerful and vital voice and a true champion for the women she loves and understands.
She understands them because her story is their story. She understands loss of family, home and innocence, and the trauma that are the hallmarks of life in a red-light area. “I have sleepless nights,” she says, “because I hear the stories from other women and it makes me remember my own and I understand how hard they’ve got it right now.”
Petite, wrapped in a simple cotton sari, long black hair tracing her spine, she rarely smiles as she speaks, as though reserving her most tender of emotions for those who truly need it.
Hers is a passion born from pain, and it drives her towards her dream of seeing total transformation of local red-light areas.
Mina was born in conflict-stricken Bangladesh, a country known at the time as East Pakistan. She was still young when, in 1972, her family was moved to a refugee camp in neighbouring India, a crowded and unsanitary place, where poverty hung like a dark cloud.
In the camp Mina made friends with an older girl, let’s call her Sia. Mina trusted Sia, and one day, after fighting with her sister, ran to her for comfort. “She fed me,” says Mina, “she looked after me, and I had real faith in her.” Mina knew that Sia made regular trips to Kolkata, and on that day of the argument, Sia offered to take Mina there.
Mina didn’t understand the invitation. “I was asking ‘why Kolkata?’ And she said to me, ‘If you wanted to find work down there, I could help you’. What kind of work? I asked, and she replied, ‘there’s a good man down there and he’ll find you good work’. So I went with her on that day. I was only 13 years old.”
Mina had never been to a city, never seen Kolkata, and when the hand-pulled rickshaw deposited the girls in Sonagachi, she had no idea she had just arrived in the historic red-light area.
“[Sia] took me up a staircase, and that was when I started to feel frightened,” recalls Mina. A woman met them at the top of the stairs, the madam of the brothel. “The madam asked ‘why have you brought me such a young girl?’, my friend said she couldn’t take me back because my parents would tell the police.”
So Mina stayed in the brothel. Around 10 days passed, Mina still innocent to the activities taking place around her, though she noted how made-up the women were, and the large amounts of cash changing hands.
One day the madam fed Mina some paan leaf, a common recreational drug that creates euphoria. “Then the madam took me into a room, and there were four women and two men, the men were drinking and carrying on.” Still oblivious, Mina watched as one of the men summoned the madam, and after a brief conversation, she was hustled into the next room, wrapped in a sari and left alone with the customer.
“So he handed me a drink and said ‘will you drink soda?’ But I was a village girl and had never even had that. So he put some alcohol with the soda, and also a tablet.” Mina drank, and dizziness overcame her, the man grabbed her and she fought with all she had.
“He whacked me hard in the face, twice. I tried to get out the door, but he had done the latch up and I couldn’t reach. I was small. Just 13. And that’s how I entered the trade.”
Some pieces of Mina’s past are a blur; time-frames are shaky and memories dim. She drank a lot, hoping some days that she would never awaken. Over the next few years Mina was moved between three different brothels. “Sometimes the police would hear that there were underage girls, and I would be hidden under a bed, with things in front of me, and the police would poke around with a sticks trying to find me.”
Mina’s not sure exactly how long she worked the line, but she credits her marriage to Bapi, “a good man” with her salvation. Bapi’s family never accepted her; a painful reality for many women who exit the trade is the remaining stigma. “My husband and I used to have long chats, we’d worry about the girls still in the trade: who was bringing them in, who was placing them. So my husband was actually quite political, and a bit of an activist.” The couple continued to live in the area, selling second-hand clothes and weaving cane baskets were among the small jobs they took on, determined not to need the line to survive.
One day Mina fought with a woman who had brought her younger sister into the trade. “I found money to get her sent back home because I didn’t want this young girl to start this kind of life.”
Mina couldn’t ignore these young victims and looked for ways to get involved in their lives. She joined an HIV awareness initiative, visiting brothels, teaching about safe sex. The group was small and the resources limited, and at times Mina was frustrated at not being able to affect more change. “My husband tried to encourage me during that time. One thing he would say often was ‘one day fruit will come’”.
New Zealanders Kerry and Annie Hilton moved into Mina’s neighbourhood in 1999, and it wasn’t long before their worlds collided. “One day I met with Kerry, and talked about the possibilities of what we could do in this area,” says Mina. The conversation progressed, and the Hiltons approached Mina to work together. She was skeptical; she had seen another foreigner come, promise help and then leave never to be seen again. “I said, why should I trust you? I’ve trusted others and they’ve come and gone.”
But a seed was sprouting, the talks continued and before long, Mina and a group of 19 other women were learning to sew, and Freeset began.
Today Mina’s job at Freeset involves a lot of walking the streets, sitting in brothel rooms, talking with women and helping them on their path to freedom. Bapi died in 2009 and Mina now chooses to live in a “line bari” (brothel) along with five other women who also work for Freeset. They are a daily reminder to their housemates who still work on the line: we see you, we know that you life is not easy, we won’t leave you.
Mina is excited about Freeset’s work in Murshidabad, a impoverished region approximately 200km north of Kolkata. There’s Dak Bangla , employing women who have returned home from Sonagachi; Sherpur , where the weaving unit is giving vulnerable women an alternative choice to prostitution; Dhuliyan, where the future factory sits cheek to cheek with the cramped red-light area.
“My dream for Murshidabad is that no girls get trafficked from there, tricked and stolen like I was. I was trafficked myself, I know what it’s like. The trauma I’ve gone through is what drives me to make sure that I want to stop that for any other girl.”
She’s also building relationships with the Nepali women who have been trafficked to Sonagachi through Nepal’s porous borders. This is the Kolkata to Kathmandu project , which has seen several women repatriated to their homeland. But she won’t rest yet. “And my hope is that someday we’ll open up something in Bangladesh, so that girls don’t get trafficked across into India.”
At Freeset’s 17th birthday party a young male employee swept Mina in his arms, leading her to the front of the room. The hundreds gathered to celebrate cheered and clapped, watching as the tiny woman was dipped and twirled, somewhat unwillingly. The faintest hint of a smile touched her lips, and when the music came to an end she gave the young man an almighty wallop on his arm.
That’s Mina. She’s not here for a fun time. She’s here to do the serious work of showing love to those who have been used by the world. She wants to see thousands more leave the trade, and she gets the last word: “For us to take new girls, we need to grow our business well. If our business grows, then we can offer freedom to more. And that’s what Freeset really is. It’s freedom.”
Mina the Artist
Mina loves to paint, and you can now purchase a selection of her artworks online at www.paintingforfreedom.co.uk. Accompanied by Mina’s own comments, the 30 selected works tell her freedom story. Funds from the sale of this book support Freeset’s Gateway Project.
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