Rescuing victims of prostitution and slavery

FATU Kigbo stood in the middle of the bustling New Delhi street, drinking in her surroundings.

Lined with shops and businesses and clogged with people rushing about their day, it didn’t seem remarkably different to any other street in the world.

But this was the red light district and by tilting her eyes towards the sky, Kigbo could see a brothel above almost every building in the nearby vicinity. Some appeared to be housing girls so young they should have been in primary school.

‘‘You just looked and you could see some of the girls,’’ she told H2 Review from her Cameron Park home. ‘‘Their faces showing through the burglar-proof windows and trying to look outside really gave you a picture of somebody who was trapped in a prison.’’

A senior librarian at Newcastle University’s Ourimbah campus, Kigbo had some idea of what to expect on her first visit to India in February, but was still shocked by the confronting scene.

She was in New Delhi as a committee member from SIMaid, which was established in 1982 as the relief and development arm of interdenominational Christian mission SIM Australia.

SIMaid directs donor resources to sustainable aid projects in Africa, Asia and South America.

Kigbo had taken two weeks of leave to check on the progress of a SIMaid-supported project, Roger and Hiroko Seth’s Courage Homes, for girls under 18 who were survivors of slave trafficking and prostitution.

Roger and Hiroko Seth, parents of three, moved to India in 1995 and were shocked by the number of girls suffering in their new country.

According to the Indian government, the country has 2.8million people in prostitution, but human rights groups have said the number is closer to 15million.

SIMaid said 200 girls entered the sex trade every day, 80per cent against their will. Some had escaped from abusive homes or had been abandoned and were trying to survive, others had been kidnapped and sold into the industry.

Roger Seth said an increasing number of girls from north-east India – including those with a good education – were duped with promises of well-paid employment in large cities and then forced into prostitution.

Almost all were threatened or attacked when they tried to leave, he said.

This left them trapped.

‘‘As we researched about what we should do, we found there are very few first-stop homes which have the licence to receive girls rescued from sex trafficking,’’ Roger Seth wrote in an email from New Delhi. ‘‘Currently in our city, most rescued girls go to a government home, where at times there are 100 beds for 200 girls.’’

FATU Kigbo’s first experience with international mission agency SIM had been more than two decades earlier when she was raising her four children in her home country of Nigeria.

SIM established the hospital where her third child, Jonathan, was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

The Kigbos left Nigeria and lived in Perth from 1983 to 1985, while Fatu’s husband Ezekiel completed his postgraduate studies in microbiology at Curtin University.

They emigrated permanently in 1992, seeking better healthcare for Jonathan, who was seven.

They moved in 1994 from Sydney to Newcastle, where Fatu started working at the university and where her husband works as a hospital scientist in pathology at John Hunter Hospital.

They raised four children and the two eldest – both daughters – moved to Sydney.

Sadly, Jonathan died at the age of 23 in June 2009 after complications related to his condition following dental surgery.

As members of Mayfield Baptist Church the family were reminded of their link with SIM whenever SIMaid’s director Omar Djoeandy came to the church to preach or speak about the organisation’s projects in 12 countries.

SIMaid supports sustainable aid projects that can be driven by local communities to become self-perpetuating.

It aims to deliver to the field more than 85¢ of every dollar donated.

Its projects cover areas including clean water, education and community, food security and agriculture, healthcare, holistic development, and AIDS relief.

In India it supports projects including Shalom Delhi, which provides clinical care, volunteers and education to people living with HIV in and around Delhi, as well as Roger and Hiroko Seth’s project to mobilise community churches in North India into action to prevent human trafficking and prostitution.

Kigbo was asked to volunteer her services to the board in 2006.

‘‘It’s quite satisfying for me to be in the position now where I can give back from what I have received, to see other people benefit from the work that has been done,’’ she said.

After the board approved funding for the Seth project it sparked something inside Kigbo, who was keen to learn more.

‘‘Having come from Nigeria and seeing what poverty can do to people, it was an area in which I was really interested,’’ she said. ‘‘If there is anything I can do as a mother or as a woman to help to rescue one or two, to give one or two a better future and a better life, then I was really quite motivated by that.’’

When a trip was announced to check on the progress of the project, Kigbo applied for leave.

‘‘I honestly wasn’t sure what I was going to see and how bad it was going to be but there were some cases that were very upsetting for me,’’ she said.

She speaks quietly and in a measured way about the red light district.

‘‘By the time we walked around the street and came back I was so shocked and disgusted about the whole idea of people having to be forced into something like that, that they didn’t choose – the reason for some is lack of education, some from villages are told ‘we’ve got good jobs for your children in the city, so we’ll take them and give them a job’.

‘‘Some of them become domestic slaves who are just helping in the home, then they get abused or they just fall out to the pimps who then use them for that.

‘‘But one of the main things that really saddened my heart was that close by there was a police station.

‘‘I just thought ‘what are they doing?’ They’re not too far from there,’’ she said.

‘‘Some of the stories from the few that have been rescued, it’s horrendous what they go through – psychologically, mentally, they are just destroyed.’’

But her spirits were lifted when she visited Courage Homes and saw the Seths’ efforts to care for the girls who had been rescued.

Many were suffering from the physical, psychological, emotional, social and spiritual effects of their abuse.

The Seths had opened their transitional home in January to provide the girls – on average they are 15 when rescued by police and non-government organisations – with rehabilitation, medical care, trauma counselling, education, life skills training, legal support and art therapy.

The home can accommodate 12 at any time, and the girls can stay from a few days to a year.

It has helped 18 girls since opening.

Kigbo said the Seths supplied the girls with accommodation, clothing, food, the opportunity to return to their education but most importantly, they gave them love.

‘‘It’s a lot that they have tried to do to give them the support that they need, give them a home and the hope of something different,’’ she said.

‘‘They came across as a very loving, caring family who are dedicated and committed to doing what they are doing and to give them something that has been taken away from them, from these girls, something they’ve been deprived of – and that’s the love and the care they need to grow up.

‘‘Some of them are very young children who have lost their childhood and they’re on the crossroads.’’

Roger Seth said his family was motivated to continue by the courage of the girls.

‘‘[After their time with us] they realise that their lives did not end with the abuse and they have started dreaming about their future.’’

If a girl wishes to go home and her parents want her back, the home is investigated.

If it is safe, the girl is allowed to return.

‘‘Three girls with us did not have a place to go – their home is not safe – so we are investigating and brainstorming their long-term options,’’ Seth said.

Kigbo left New Delhi energised and determined to raise awareness about how people could help support the girls.

SIMaid has launched a campaign called Girls Off The Streets to bring attention to the problem and, under this banner, Kigbo has organised for the Seths to visit Newcastle to speak about their work.

‘‘They are not supernatural; they are just human beings. They are just people who are devoting their time and energy to it,’’ she said.

‘‘It actually helps you and gives you a better perspective to know that any one of us can do it. The more people get behind them, the more girls we can get off the streets, the more girls we can rescue from prostitution, the more young kids we can [rescue] from slavery and bondage.’’

Fatu Kigbo, supporter of Courage Homes

Roger and Hiroko Seth will speak at Grace Presbyterian Church, 6 Callistemon Close, Warabrook, from 7.30 to 9pm tonight. There is no cost but to attend email simaid@sim.org.au or phone 85688890.

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