Fatima Khatoon is an extraordinarily gutsy woman. Belonging to the Nutt community, where families make their girls get into sex trade, Fatima chose a different path — that of rescuing and rehabilitating sex workers. It’s been about a decade that Fatima has been working to eradicate human trafficking and sex work  in her village of Forbesganj in Bihar.

Fatima fought the brothel owners — her mother-in-law and matrimonial family. “When you have nothing to live for, you suddenly lose the fear of dying,” is how Fatima describes why she keeps on doing what she does to save sex workers’ lives and to rehabilitate their children.

She talked to SheThePeople.TV and talked about her tribe, her work, her struggle with both maternal and matrimonial family and how she achieved freedom.

About Nutt Community

There is a variety of tribes in the Nutt community. Some sell medicine, some are nomads who keep travelling to different parts of the country but the Nutt community of Forbesganj makes their girls step into sex work and that is how they run their household, says Fatima. “They say that it has been the same since the time when British people ruled us and so it is both a tradition and a source of income,” she added.

Fatima was originally from nomadic group of Nutt community. She was married at the age of nine to a man in his 40s, belonging to the Nutt group which earns from sex trade.

“Living in that house used to feel like somebody is grabbing my soul out of me,” said Fatima about living in the brothel

Living in a brothel

A young girl then, Fatima had no idea of what marriage meant. “Meri saas mere se poochti thi ki tum humare saath rahogi toh hum haan keh dete the, lekin bolte the ki hum apni naani ke saath rahenge (My mother-in-law used to ask me if I would live with her and I used to say yes, but with a condition that I would live with my grandmother),” is how Fatima dealt with questions related to marriage.

Fatima Khatoon
Fatima Khatoon

About living with a man four times her age, she said, “I used to get so scared of him that whenever he entered the room, I would run in fear. My mother-in-law used to ask me to massage his legs, serve him food and the usual things women do for their husbands, but I used to refuse out of fear and repulsion. But then he would beat me up or my mother-ion-law would beat me up. He would waste so much money in alcohol and would always come home drunk.”

“Living in that house used to feel like somebody is grabbing my soul out of me,” said Fatima, who divorced her husband about five years ago and built her own house two years back.

In 2014, Fatima got lucky when she was selected to be a participant alongside Rani Mukherji in ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’, hosted by Amitabh Bachchan. Mukherji was on the show to promote her film ‘Mardaani’. Fatima won a decent amount of money on the show with which she built her house and finally moved out with her six children from the brothel-cum-matrimonial house she was earlier living in.

ALSO READ: Tribal Pathbreakers: Now A TED Speaker, Rupni Barla was Trafficked at Five

“They used to say that sex work is happening on the other side of the house, why are you worried? You shouldn’t meddle with such affairs. Also that, ‘it doesn’t happen with you na? So let it happen with whoever it is happening with.” – Her maternal family on prostitution

Starting a revolution

Right after getting married, Fatima noticed that her house had many people living in it and a lot of them were women. These women would dress up beautifully and go out in the market. “For a long time, I could understand why they dressed up so much and went out every single day. I would urge my mother-in-law to send me out too because I had no idea what they went out for. My family members would laugh at me or sometimes scold me. One more thing I noticed was when these girls used to come back, they would be served food in a separate room and they would cry while eating and that made me very sad,” recollected Fatima, who is now 28 years old.

Fatima’s mother-in-law had five trafficked girls who had come from Nepal and the Indo-Nepal border. She had put three of her own daughters also in sex work. It took Fatima a lot of nudging and pestering to find out the reality about the work they did from one of the girls. Fatima had turned 11 when she learnt what sex work was and the consequences of it. And since then, she began planning ways to rescue them out of the brothel. After failing many times and getting beaten for it, a year later, Fatima succeeded in rescuing them.

“The trafficked girls wanted to flee from the house, and one day I got the opportunity. The whole family had gone for a wedding and I asked them to follow me from the back gate towards the jungle and said goodbye to them. Of course, my family got to know about it and I was severely beaten and locked in a room with no food and water for three days,” said Fatima.

Motive of her life

After this, Fatima found a reason to live and that was to protect the lives of sex workers, their children and the older women who are tossed out of the business with no security. “Hum yahi sochte the ki marna toh hai hi toh kuch karke maro, ladte ladte maro. Mere liye dusron ko bachana aham ban chuka tha.”

The dual grief of Fatima was that even her own family never understood her pain. She ran away twice from her matrimonial house, but her parents always sent her back. “They used to say that sex work is happening on the other side of the house, why are you worried? You shouldn’t meddle with such affairs. Also, that, ‘it doesn’t happen with you na? So let it happen with whoever it is happening with.”

Fatima Khatoon
Fatima Khatoon at an event in Delhi

With a revolution simmering in her heart, Fatima lived in her matrimonial house only to help trafficked girls and was successful in rescuing one more girl. In 2005, she joined Apne Aap when they set up a branch of the organisation in Forbesganj. Apne Aap Women Worldwide is an NGO that aims to protect the lives of sex workers in the country and abroad.

Helping rehabilitate sex workers

Associating with Apne Aap gave Fatima a perspective in using her leadership skills and now she runs her own women’s group inside the redlight area in Forbesganj. She provides ex-sex workers with legal aid, counselling and rehabilitation consultancy and also helps their children to grow in an environment free of sexual exploitation. She wants to build a shelter house for older women who were in the trade once but cannot depend on anyone now.

Her fearless approach towards rescuing sex workers has created trouble for Fatima many times. In 2015, she received death threat in connection with a case of human trafficking where she had gone to save a girl.

Today, she has been widely recognised for her work in eradicating sexual abuse in her town. She also met feminist Gloria Steinem when she came to India. In 2013, Fatima received an award of $10,000 from ‘The Vagina Monologues’ author and activist Eve Ensler to help continue her fight.

In her work of a decade, she has set up the Nutt Mahila Mandal and rescued about nine women from prostitution. Women today have their own share in their earnings because of Fatima’s crusade. “Today, a lot of our girls are getting trained to become nurses from a college in Patna. Now we feel that the daughters of Nutt community will not be trafficked.”

ALSO READ: Tribal Pathbreakers: A Rural-Health Trainer, at 37, Jasodaben Bhil Wants to Study LLB

About her children

Fatima has four daughters and two sons, and they all are studying in Patna.  About her children’s future, she says, “I pray that my children get as much education as they want. I want to see them standing on their own two feet.”

More power to women like Fatima who make it their life’s mission to stand up for others.

More Stories by Poorvi Gupta

 

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