Fighting for Justice: Human Trafficking in India
By Sydney Palese
“Nomoshkar,” says Brenna Neimanis, a junior in the JMU social work program, as she presses her palms together, fingers directed toward the sky, as she displays the traditional Bengali greeting. She used this same greeting on her trip to India in the summer of 2013, where she encountered shopkeepers, young girls in churches, and women on the border of India and Bangladesh being trafficked or escaping from a life that was out of their control.
The JMU social work program exposes students to social justice issues and gives them the tools to provide social support, guidance and assistance. Most social work students apply these skills domestically through internships or practicums. For Neimanis, her passion for combatting human trafficking led her on a seven-week service trip to Kolkata, India, to see the issue firsthand and to help empower women affected by it. “I know I’m one person and can’t necessarily do too much, but I didn’t just want to sit by,” Neimanis said.
Trek7, a program through Reach Global, organized her trip. The program provided Neimanis’ group of five college-aged students with the tools they needed to embark on the mission, including emotional support, team building and conflict resolution.
Her daily activities in India varied from working in ministries for women who were freed from the trade, to experiencing the largest red light district in India – Sonagachi – located in Kolkata, where 11,000 women and girls are prostituted every night. Her group begged to see the district firsthand in order to gain a better understanding of the crisis. Of everything she witnessed, the visit to Sonagachi affected her the most. Reflecting on the trip, Neimanis said, “You walk down the street and there is no gap of women lining it. I really wanted to see human trafficking first hand, but actually being there affects you a lot more than you think.”
Neimanis said the social work faculty helped prepare her for this experience by always encouraging students to remain strong when facing stressful and emotionally trying situations in order to help the people involved.
During many evenings, her group tutored young women who were at risk of being kidnapped and forced into the sex trade. While the girls were at first apprehensive about becoming close to the group, they formed a strong bond over the the seven weeks. Neimanis said she grew particularly close to two sisters, Puja, 17, and Radha, 19, whose father was dead and whose mother was living in another village with two of their siblings. Neimanis said the girls were embarrassed that they lived “on streets lined back-to-back with houses made of cardboard and makeshift tarps.” By the end of the seven weeks the girls were excited to take Neimanis’ group to their houses and give us a tour of their neighborhoods. This immense poverty was one of the aspects of the trip that surprised her the most. While Neimanis said she visited third world countries in the past on other service trips, “it wasn’t even a tenth of the poverty you see in Kolkata.”
During the day, Neimanis and her group worked with agencies that employed women who escaped from brothels. These agencies helped women make and sell blankets and apparel out of recycled saris. It was in these shops that her group was able to interact with the women on a more personal level. ”You go in, take off your shoes, everyone does the nomoshkar greeting, and you’re invited to sit on the floor,” Neimanis said. “The shopkeepers offered us chai tea; we listened to music, talked and hung out.”
In the future, Neimanis hopes to work in an international setting with an organization that promotes prevention of human trafficking and offers aide to women exiting from the sex trade.
Social Work Department Head Lisa McGuire said, “Issues of cultural diversity and globalization are increasingly impacting all social workers and the clients they serve. Brenna’s work is on the cutting edge of practice and is clearly consistent with the mission of the social work profession in addressing social injustice, both locally and in the world.”
McGuire added that the social work department sponsors two international class-based trips to El Salvador and Dominica. Students like Neimanis sometimes choose independent service trips to locations like Israel, Kenya and Peru.
Neimanis plans to visit India in the future to follow up on her work and reunite with the friends she met along the way. She will continue her work with human trafficking in Laos and Bangkok during the summer of 2014. “I feel like I don’t have an excuse anymore to not do anything about it.”