One teenager was told to get into a school meant only for “victims of trafficking”. Another, once trafficked by a classmate, is scared of making new friends.
Many trafficking survivors have shown courage in returning to school. But getting back in the school education system has been a thorny ride.
Some of them have been able to see off the initial obstacles and have settled in. Some others are still struggling but have not given up.
Activists said the first few months after the rescue are so traumatising for the survivors that they can barely talk, even with family members.
However, after months of counselling, some of them express their desire to study on their own. Some agree to going back to school after repeated nudging.
“Didi, aami abar porte chai (Sister, I want to study again),” was the first proper sentence that Soma Sarkar, a social worker, had heard from a 15-year-old survivor in 2018.
Three years ago, she was offered popcorn on her way home from a school in Naihati in North 24-Parganas by a local “aunt”. Her next memory was that of a brothel in Haryana. She was allegedly sold off multiple times before being rescued from Pune in 2018.
“For the first couple of months after being rescued, she hardly spoke. When she did, she murmured words,” said Sarkar, a member of Barasat Unnayan Prostuti, an NGO that works with trafficking survivors. Sarkar counselled the survivor.
But getting her admitted to a school again was far from easy. “I cannot take her in. She will be a bad influence on the rest of the students. You people should start a school only for trafficking victims,” the principal of a school in Barasat allegedly told Sarkar.
After the intervention of the district social welfare officer of North 24-Parganas, she got admission in a school in Madhyamgram. The girl is a Madhyamik candidate now. She wrote her English paper on Tuesday.
“My favourite subject is life science. I want to be a social worker after completing higher studies,” the girl told The Telegraph over the phone on Tuesday evening.
Activists said multiple fronts were opened in the battle with stigma and bias after the survivors rejoined school.
Many of these survivors have to face, often on a daily basis, taunts from neighbours while going to and coming back from school, catcalls from boys in a coeducation school and ridicule from some teachers.
The resumption of in-person classes, after prolonged closure necessitated by Covid, has brought these problems to the fore once again, they said.
Another survivor from Kakdwip in South 24-Parganas, now 18, was trafficked in 2019 October and rescued in January 2020 from Coochbehar.
When social workers took her for readmission to her previous school, the headmistress is said to have told the team: “I cannot take the risk of spoiling five other girls because of one.”
“It was a girls’ school. All the teachers were women. I had expected some more compassion for another girl from them,” said Subrata Panigrahi, a social worker with Goranbose Gram Bikas Kendra, an organisation working with trafficking survivors in South 24-Parganas.
The girl was eventually taken in by another school. She cleared Madhyamik with “star (80 per cent) marks” and was now preparing for HS.
“I want to be a police officer,” the girl said over the phone around 7.30pm, on her way home from tuition. She took a computer science test earlier in the day at school.
Some survivors find the going tougher than others. Another survivor from Sandeshkhali I Block in North 24-Parganas is writing Madhyamik this year, in the third attempt.
The 18-year-old had flunked in the tests before the board exams for the past two years. “But she is determined to complete her education,” said Maryam Khatun, a social worker with NGO Teghoria Institute for Social Movement in North 24-Parganas.
The “best friend” of the teenager was allegedly instrumental in trafficking her. “She was drugged and taken to a brothel in Canning, South 24-Parganas, by a brother of her best friend,” said Khatun.
The girl has rejoined school but hardly speaks with anyone. “I don’t want to make new friends,” she said.