It’s been a life-affirming journey lasting 19 years, in which Fatima Khatoon has grown from a child married to a brothel owner to a woman who fights for those forced into the sex trade.
Like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, Fatima says she’s finally come into her own.
But life has been no cocoon for the 28-year-old. Fatima got married at the age of nine to a man who was almost thrice her age, and ran a brothel with his mother in the Khawaspur red-light area in Araria, Bihar. The child-bride didn’t know what to make of the decorated ladies staying in the house but sensed that something was amiss. “One usually dressed up to go out to the market or mela. I found it unusual, seeing them sit at home in their gaudy clothes,” said Fatima, who has started the first women’s group inside the red-light area, remembered.
She would often ask her mother-in-law about these women, but was snubbed and told she was too young to know. One evening she started chatting with one of the women who told her she had been forced into becoming a sex worker.
“I was very upset but could not do anything about it. My mother-in-law told me to not interfere in her business,” she said. But the friendships continued and so did the conversations. Fatima became their confidante. The women recounted their stories and told her about the abuse they suffered at the hands of their buyers.
Fatima nursed a dream of freeing these women. She was 12 when she found her first opportunity. “My in-laws and husband were at a wedding and I helped the four women in our house escape,” she said. The family was livid when they returned and beat her up.
“They didn’t give me food and kept me locked in a room. When my parents found out, they came to check on me but refused to take me home,” she said.
As she grew older, Fatima’s resolve to save the girls became stronger. Fatima remembers how her mother-in-law forced a friend, a sex worker’s daughter, into the trade.“I was furious when I found out what they did to my friend. In a fit of rage, I beat my mother-in-law with a stick. Since then, I defied them openly.”
The turning point came in 2004 when Apne Aap, an NGO that aims to end trafficking, came to Fatima’s neighbourhood, and she decided to join them.
In 2013, Fatima received an award of $10,000 from The Vagina Monologues author and activist Eve Ensler to help continue her fight. Last year, she got four girls married before they could be sold off to pimps. “Married girls are forced into prostitution in our area, but unmarried girls are vulnerable,” said the mother of six.
Fatima led the fight for the rights of a 45-year-old sex worker who was thrown out of the brothel because of “old age”. Fatima and others in her mahila sanghatan ensured that the owner bought a plot of land for her to build a house.
“I used to be scared of stepping out of the house alone and now I can take on anyone,” she said. Fatima is still married. Her husband has given up trafficking and now drives an auto rickshaw for a living. “He feels it is beneath him to drive an auto and that he lived like a king earlier with the money he made as a pimp. He blames me for his misfortunes and remains abusive.”
“I get very angry when people suggest that women enter the sex trade of their own accord.
No woman would willingly want to sell herself. I hope to see this practice end throughout the world,” she asserted.