Born and raised in the tranquil tea estates near Siliguri, West Bengal, Sukla Debnath, a 35-year-old force of change, witnessed the vulnerability of women and girls to human trafficking in her community from a very young age. Determined to make a difference, Sukla Debnath has been silently rewriting the destiny of thousands. Her weapon against the harrowing reality of human trafficking? A beautician's toolkit and her iron-willed spirit.
In an exclusive interview with SheThePeople, Sukla Debnath shares how she managed to save thousands of girls and women from human trafficking, the traumas that fueled her resolve, and why working to empower the tribal community is her innate purpose.
A Personal Trauma Turns into a Purpose
Born into a middle-class family in New Hasimara, surrounded by 83 tea gardens, she witnessed the vulnerability of women and girls to trafficking. This firsthand experience spurred her into action. "I saw my friends disappearing when I was in school in 2003; it was very traumatizing for me," Sukla reflects, revealing the catalyst for her extraordinary journey.
Sukla vividly describes the harsh reality faced by girls enticed by dreams of urban prosperity. "Human trafficking might be headlines for urban people, but for girls in this part of the country, it is a reality," she asserts. Sukla took on the challenge of spreading awareness, mirroring the harsh consequences these girls might face if they succumb to the lure of false promises.
From Selling Cycles To Selling Dreams
Fueled by the determination to break the cycle of limited options for women in her village—working in tea gardens or waiting for marriage—Sukla funded her own education by giving tuition, and in 2003, she sold her cycle to enrol in a beautician's course.
As any father would, my baba also used to worry about our marriages. Having seen this, I decided that I would not be a burden to my family.
The Impact Of Beautician Training
With determination and a motto to serve society, Sukla embarked on a mission to empower others. She notes, "I thought if I can earn money, then anyone can, and I made it my motto to serve society, which mostly comprised people from the Adivasi community."
"5,000 girls are independent because of my course," Sukla proudly declares. By providing beautician training, she has enabled women to earn a minimum of Rs 8,000–9,000 for bridal makeup in villages and even more in towns. It's not just about financial independence; it's about reclaiming lives.
Human Trafficking Realities & Importance of Awareness
Sukla's efforts go beyond just teaching beauty skills. She vividly recounts the harsh realities of human trafficking in her community. "I spread awareness when people used to come to the city to show us dreams of going to big cities to girls for a mere 50k of their lives. But those girls never return and mostly end up in unimaginable places, like stuck in the sex trafficking chain," she emphasizes.
Sukla recalls how girls with dreams of a better life were lured into big cities. Deeply affected by the disappearance of friends during her school years, she became determined to take control of the present and capitalise on the power of awareness as her tool to fight her battle against human trafficking.
Beyond economic empowerment, Sukla's efforts have also saved girls from a spectrum of trafficking, including assault and organ trafficking, stating, "Not just limited to assault, these girls were also part of organ trafficking," she reveals. To convince them, Sukla mirrored the grim reality, asking, "Do you know how much money you carry inside your body?" Her approach, though stark, aims to safeguard the vulnerable from further exploitation.
Self-Reliance Over Rozgaar
"I am 35 years old, and I feel it's human life that is important over rozgaar," Sukla states, emphasizing the priority of human well-being over mere employment. Her vision extends to empowering women to be so self-reliant that men can never become roadblocks in their paths. Her proactive approach has now made the community vigilant, with people calling 100 to report potential trafficking schemes.
In Sukla Debnath's world, the impact she leaves goes far beyond the strokes of a makeup brush; it extends to the profound act of rescuing girls lost for over a decade. Sukla shares, laden with emotion, "There are girls who were lost for 10 years who I have rescued," underscoring each recovery as a poignant triumph in the battle against adversity.
One instance involves Meena Meena's story unfolding—a decade lost in the clutches of an abusive marriage, abandoned on a desolate road, teetering on the edge of mental collapse. Sukla, alerted by a call from North Bengal Medical College, Siliguri, faced the daunting task of rescuing a soul stripped of identity and sanity. Meena shattered and disoriented, could only recall Kilkote Tea Garden, her place of origin. Sukla, fueled by a firm determination, took on the responsibility of reuniting Meena with her family. Knocking on doors, circulating images, and fueled by the belief that "If a woman truly wishes, she has the power to achieve the impossible," Sukla triumphed against all odds and Meena was finally reunited with her family.
A Lifelong Commitment to Social Responsibility
Sukla's work is not confined to the classroom. Despite not having an NGO or external funding, her commitment is unshakable. "My work may be on a small scale, but if I can change even one person’s life, I will be happy," she says. Her MA in Bangla is now a tool for selflessly teaching beautician and handicraft courses to girls, funded entirely by her own resources.
Lovingly known as 'didi' (elder sister), Sukla extends her generosity beyond beauty courses. During the pandemic, she provided free coaching to children, used her savings to feed the needy, and even sent a child to a blind school. Her altruism knows no bounds, as seen in her efforts to equip girls with self-defence skills through free karate training.