The room was sweltering and bare except for the bed. When 14-year-old Sunita Danuwar woke up, she had no idea where she was. She had on strange clothes; her hair had been cut. "And there were men staring at me like I was fresh meat," says Danuwar. "I just sat there and cried."
Danuwar, now 34, quickly learned that she -- like 12,000 other Nepali women and girls a year -- had been trafficked hundreds of miles away to an Indian brothel. She doubts her family sold her, but can't be sure. The last thing she remembers is her parents befriending two young men, who gave her something sweet to eat. After that she fell unconscious.
When she came-to in Mumbai, she asked a heavily made-up girl what was going on. The girl told her she was there to work. "I thought she meant washing dishes or clothes," says Danuwar. "But the owner showed up and told me, 'I have bought you, and you have to please men.'"
Danuwar tried refusing, but says a man who guarded the place came up to her with a long knife and threatened, "If you don't do this work, I'll cut you up and throw you on the street like a stray dog." She was soon sold to another brothel where the owner forced her to line up with the other girls -- "there were 40 of them, the youngest about nine" -- to have sex with up to 30 clients a day. When she tried to say no, the men would often burn her with cigarettes. Running away was impossible; the girls were paid nothing and constantly under watch.
"Nepal is particularly bad right now," says Taina Bien-Aimé, the former president of Equality Now, which advocates for women's rights around the world. "It's extremely poor and these girls are prized for their fair skin in India. Most important, they are just not valued by the culture. Their families figure: I can marry her at 12 for a cow, or sell her to a trafficker -- what's the difference?"
According to the U.S. State Department, thousands of Nepali women and children are trafficked to Indian brothels every year. In 2007, Nepal enacted new laws that prohibit and punish trafficking. However, implementing those laws has been far more difficult. Nepal and India currently share an open border, which has been a goldmine for traffickers who smuggle women out of Nepal and into the Indian brothels where they are sold for as little as a few hundred dollars.
Danuwar was finally freed at age 16 in a police raid. In 1997, she helped found Shakti Samuha, which in Nepalese means, "the group that empowers." The organization is run by Danuwar and other survivors of sex trafficking. Shakti Samuha provides returning sex slaves with a safe haven, psychological counseling, education, and training for jobs like barista, seamstress, or beautician. Danuwar operates from a shelter on a dirt road across from a massive garbage dump in Kathmandu, Nepal. When I visited, one room in the shelter was filled with women learning to sew amid piles of donated potatoes.
Laxmi Bishwokarma, who worked in an Indian brothel, is one of those women. She spends most of her days sewing colorful outfits inside the dark, cold room so she doesn't have to go back to her old job. Bishwokarma was trafficked to India and sold into prostitution by her uncle when she was only 15.
"On a quiet day I would have to sleep with 30 to 35 people in the brothel. On a busier day, I would have to sleep with about 70 to 80 people," Bishwokarma told me, sitting on the rooftop of the shelter wearing a green-stripped sweater with her hair pulled back in a ponytail.
"When I didn't want to have sex, they would beat me," she says.
Traffickers often use promises of a job to lure thousands of Nepali girls out of their homes in remote villages and thrust them into the booming sex industry of India. "We were told we were being sent to Lebanon. But they took us to the brothel," says Bishwokarma. Often, traffickers will target girls who are uneducated and come from lower castes.
"It's a matter of concern for all Nepalis including the Nepali government," says Purna Shresthaa, 34, of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women office in Kathmandu.
Shresthaa says misconceptions about HIV have also helped fuel the trade of young girls into sex trafficking.
"There was a rumor that if you have sex with a young girl you recover from HIV. So that has been indicated as one of the reasons for young girls being taken and then put into the sex industry," Shresthaa says.
As a result, 60 percent of young Nepalese sex slaves in Mumbai are infected with HIV, according to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.
When Danuwar made her way back to her rural village in Nepal, her parents and siblings had fled and her aunt and uncle wanted nothing to do with her. Many sex slaves who try to return home are considered prostitutes and shunned by their families -- often the very people who sold them in the first place. "I went home and I started getting death threats, and I was treated like an enemy," says Bishwokarma.
Danuwar spends much of her time walking the streets of the slum to warn teens at risk of being trafficked. "Don't smile when a stranger comes and talks to you or he'll think you are vulnerable," she tells one group, warning them that the promise of a good job in another country should be a big red flag. Most victims, she warns, are actually trafficked by someone they know. "I never want any other girl to go through what I went through," Danuwar says. "And if they do, when they return to Nepal, I want them to feel like they are coming home to a family." Currently the organization provides support to roughly 500 girls and women.
Danuwar says she knows that her organization has made only a dent in the harms caused by sex trafficking. But she says she hopes that the women who do manage to escape sex trafficking and return to Nepal would have a place to call home, something she didn't have.