The Mark on my Left Hand: A Reflection Living in India (Part II)

***Published in Asian Wisconzine, June 2008 Issue.

Bailey's Mehndi Painting

Bailey's Mehndi Painting

It was August 15, a day of celebration throughout the country; a day to celebrate freedom for the people of India from British rule. This very day, family and friends came together for a meal or two. All government offices were closed. New Delhi had been preparing for this day for weeks. The day before, street children stopped by my taxi (auto rickshaw) to sell little Indian flags at almost every stop on my way to work. At night, families gathered to view and light up fireworks. Some watched the country’s celebration on television with the national anthem playing every now and then.

However, this does not hold true for a portion of India’s population. While the country was hooraying for its freedom, 12 girls, who became my family, were not celebrating with their families. They were not watching the country’s celebration on television, even though they were living in New Delhi, where the huge celebration was taking place. Instead, they were away from home. They were spending the day with my colleague and me, along with our director and the warden at the ashram, also known as a transitional center.

Bailey took my arm into hers and created a work of art — mendhi or henna. The art revealed such articulate details, it blew my mind upon seeing it. It was a result of hard work. A result of pride and commitment. Most of all, it was a result of friendship. 

"It was a result of hard work. A result of pride and commitment. Most of all, it was a result of friendship."

Before I knew it, another girl brought me water to quench my thirst after a long day out in the city. She carried the water with her two hands — hands that used to work at a house. These two hands worked long hours, night and day, before bringing me water. As I gazed into her eyes to thank her, I saw fear and a deep sorrow that still makes me wonder today. She sat next to me using her limited English to ask how I liked India. She used her kind gestures to further her sentences. With my limited Hindi and gestures, I spoke back to her, only to find out later that she has gone through a lot more as a child than I could ever imagine. I thought to myself, how can such a free-spirited and kind-hearted girl be exploited as a child?

These two girls had been trafficked from their villages, promised a good life, an education, and a good job, so that they can send money home to their families. However, they found themselves working long hours doing domestic work, with little or no pay, and under poor conditions. They also encountered physical, mental and sexual abuse. I befriended them, along with 10 other girls, while doing an internship in India with a non-government organization (NGO) combatting child trafficking. In addition, this particular NGO rescues girls and provides a six-month recovery program and training in vocational skills.

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. It exists not only in India but across the globe. In the U.S., slavery was abolished in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights-Article IV bans slavery on a global level. However, slavery still exists today.

It was Independence Day when Bailey sketched her beautiful art on my left hand. She is 16 years old. She should be celebrating Independence Day but instead, she chose not to do so. She feels she is not free. She will celebrate her country’s Independence Day when all children are free from slave labor and jobs are given to their families. My day with Bailey and the rest of the girls got me thinking about how I celebrate my country’s Independence Day and what July 4th really means in the U.S.

As I have mentioned, fireworks will be lit up during the night throughout India. However, Bailey and all the girls at the transitional center will not light up any fireworks, because it is children who make the fireworks. When Bailey finished my left hand, I had to take a picture of it. It was not like anything I had seen before. Due to family circumstances, she has been training at the transitional center the longest compared to the rest of the girls. She hopes to open up her own beauty shop to earn an income to send her younger brothers to school. She wants to help one become an engineer and the other, an actor.

I will also never forget another girl named Dip because of her jokes and imitations of me. She was not as shy as the rest of the girls. She was very eager to use the English she learned in class with me. After a night of girl talk and teasing each other’s behaviors, I realized Dip was a very curious girl who wanted to learn from me. She was fascinated by my digital camera and laptop. Her mother had asked my director to take in her daughter, to provide the vocational skills that she was unable to provide. The mother hoped this training would allow her daughter to support herself. In return, she worked as a maid for the center. Aside to taking interest in me and my colleague, Dip loved to dance. On Independence Day, she performed one of her favorite Bollywood dances.

Lastly, but definitely not the least, there was Shara. What can I say about this bright girl who stole my heart when she first brought me a glass of water with such fearful eyes? Each time I visited the center, she was the girl I looked forward to seeing. Each time I visited, I saw her smile more and more. The very last time I saw her, she had become more outspoken and was dressed in a beautiful Punjabi suit. During my time working at the ashram, Shara gained confidence and learned how to sew. Sewing class was one of the vocational classes offered at the ashram. Shara was a child whose grandma took care of her. When her grandma died, she was left with few options. There was no longer anyone to take care of her, so she set out to the big city only to be trafficked into doing domestic work.

I do not have a magic wand to make the miseries of these girls disappear. I am not Bill Gates who can fund NGOs to combat child trafficking. I am not a high official capable of influencing the implementation of rules and regulations. 

However, I have a voice. I have paper and pen.  I have the ability to write and speak freely.
I write to tell stories.Not just any story, but stories that will forever haunt many and remain wounds.

I believe writing is a powerful catalyst for social change.

My overall goal is to share my experiences and bring awareness of human trafficking to all. I hope I did just that and I did justice to my sisters who are still living with trauma in New Delhi, India. The mark on my left hand is not only a mark but a beauty mark that I can still see on my hand today.

The mark on my left hand.

In April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I'll be sharing more about my work on gender-based violence and what you can do about it. Stay tuned...

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