Poonam was poor and uneducated when a woman offered an escape in the form of a well-paying job. “You can have a better life,” Poonam remembers the woman saying. “And if you make good money, you will be respected by your father. You can help your family.”
So Poonam, then age 12, ran off with the woman. When Poonam was eventually deposited in a brothel in Mumbai, India, she was puzzled. “I didn’t even know what a brothel was,” she recalls.
Men visiting Poonam’s brothel paid $2.50 for sex and were sometimes oblivious to the brutality, flattering themselves that the girls liked their work. They see girls who often smile; no one is holding a gun to their heads.
Poonam responded with what so many others have said: The smiles are on the outside, even as girls are crying inside.
“We were told to smile, because a smile is money and will pull in customers,” Poonam said. The girls were also ordered to say that they were over 18 and working voluntarily.
“There is no protection to the powerless,” Koirala said of full decriminalization. “All the benefits go to the perpetrators and exploiters.”
The blunt truth is that no strategy works all that well against trafficking. But maybe the most successful has been Sweden’s, cracking down on traffickers and customers while providing social services and exit ramps for women in the sex trade.