The 21st-Century Slave Trade

Anyone who thinks that the word “slavery” is hyperbole when used to describe human trafficking today should meet Meena Khatun. She not only endured the unbearable, but has also shown that a slave trader’s greed sometimes is no match for a mother’s love.

Human trafficking is the big emerging human rights issue for the 21st century, but it’s an awful term, a convoluted euphemism. As Meena’s story underscores, the real issue is slavery.

Meena was kidnapped from her village in north India by a trafficker and eventually locked up in a 13-girl brothel in the town of Katihar. When she was perhaps 11 or 12 — she remembers only that it was well before she had begun to menstruate — the slaver locked her in a room with a white-haired customer who had bought her virginity. She cried and fought, so the mother and two sons who owned the brothel taught Meena a lesson.

“They beat me mercilessly, with a belt, sticks and iron rods,” Meena recalled. Still, Meena resisted customers, despite fresh beatings and threats to cut her in pieces.

Finally, the brothel owners forced her to drink alcohol until she was drunk. When she passed out, they gave her to a customer.

When she woke up, Meena finally accepted her fate as a prostitute. “I thought, ‘Now I am ruined,’ ” she remembered, “so I gave in.”

Meena thus joined the ranks of some 10 million children prostituted around the world — more are in India than in any other country. The brothels of India are the slave plantations of the 21st century.

Every night, Meena was forced to have sex with 10 to 25 customers. Meena’s owners also wanted to breed her, as is common in Indian brothels. One purpose is to have boys to be laborers and girls to be prostitutes, and a second is to have hostages to force the mother to cooperate.

So Meena soon became pregnant. The resulting baby girl, Naina, was taken from Meena after birth, as was a son, Vivek, who was born a year later.

The two children were raised mostly apart from Meena. Meena alerted the police to her children’s captivity (the police were uninterested), so her owners decided to kill her.

At that, Meena fled to a town several hours away and eventually married a pharmacist who protected her. Every few months, Meena would go back to the brothel and beg for her children.

She was never allowed inside, and the children were told that their mother had died. Still, Naina and Vivek regularly heard their mother’s shouts and pleas and occasionally caught glimpses of her. Other enslaved girls told them that she was indeed their mother.

When Naina turned about 12, the brothel owners prepared to sell her as well. At that Vivek, who was being forced to do the brothel’s laundry, protested vigorously. The owners beat Vivek, an extremely bright boy who was never allowed to go to school, but he continued to plead that his big sister not be sold. Finally, he escaped to search for his mother, in hopes that she could do something. Eventually, they found each other.

They received help from a terrific anti-trafficking organization called Apne Aap (, run by a former journalist named Ruchira Gupta. Ms. Gupta covered trafficking and was so horrified by what she found that she quit her job and devoted her life to fighting the brothel owners.

Ms. Gupta agitated for a police raid (apparently the first such raid on behalf of a trafficked mother ever in the state of Bihar) that rescued Naina last month. The girl, who is now about 13, is still recovering in a hospital from severe beatings and internal injuries.

The brothel is still operating, and the police have not arrested the main traffickers. But the brothel owners are threatening to kill Meena, her children and the Apne Aap staff, because they are potential witnesses in a criminal case against the traffickers. One Apne Aap staff member was stabbed a few days ago.