Nida has been going to Shaheen’s centers in India since she was eight years old. With Shaheen’s vocational training, she learned how to do mehendi—or henna—to make an income and now does it at weddings and other celebrations, and also teaches other girls. She has become a powerful advocate focused on ending early and forced marriage in India through Shaheen, which has been a Global Fund for Women grantee partner since 2004. Shaheen works to end domestic violence, campaigns for girls’ education, hosts workshops to raise awareness on key issues of gender equality, and conducts home visits and ‘sting operations’ with the media to end early and forced marriage. Here, Nida shares her story about participating in one of Shaheen’s sting operations to stop forced marriage. (Story as told to Paola Gianturco in Wonder Girls: Changing Our World published by powerHouse Books, 2017.)
Two months ago, I conducted a sting operation against a sex trafficking ring run by a sheikh from United Arab Emirates.
Shaheen does home visits. At one home they found out when and where a young daughter was going to be married off.
We went there. Two people from Shaheen accompanied me as my ‘mother’ and ‘aunt.’ I felt safe because I was with these people. We went to the broker’s home and put on an act, explaining that I was from a poor family that needed money.
Within eight days, the broker called to arrange a meeting with the sheikh. Again, my ‘mother’ and ‘aunt’ went with me. At that meeting, I observed one room was very, very decorated, as it would be on a wedding night. I was really scared after seeing that room.
I had a camera hidden under my dress so I could shoot the whole event. I was nervous carrying the camera; it lost focus so it just shot the ceiling.
I was one of about 15 girls who were supposed to be married off. The sheikh was 80 or 90 years old. Some girls were 13 years old but they said they were 18 since that is the legal age for marriage in India.
The sheikh chose the girls, preferring the girls who said they were age 18. He looked at a girl from top to bottom; what is her chest size; what is her hip size; then her whole body figure. She’s on auction. He set a price…
I was one of five who were selected. Inside the hall, I was given some money that I didn’t count. I handed it to the broker who noted down all my details and kept the money. He said, ‘Once the marriage is fixed, we will give your mother some money.’
My ‘mother’ asked why she would not get all the money. The broker said, ‘Your family works to earn a living on a daily basis. This is the only way I can make a living. So I keep the major part and you can keep a small amount.’
When I came back to Shaheen, I described the whole situation to Jameela [Nishat, founder of Shaheen Women’s Resource Center], who told me not to worry, the broker would contact us later for the marriage, which he did.
By that time, Shaheen had contacted the media. Although it is prevalent in Islam that men can marry four or five wives (as the sheikh was about to do), the television [news] wanted to do a program saying, ‘This is not right.’
Television reporters came with us the next time. They had microphones and earphones through which they could communicate.
The sheikh doesn’t take the girls back with him to Dubai. He keeps them here in hotels. It’s a three-month contract. Once a girl’s contract ends, she’s married to some other man here in India.
So they have two documents. One is the certificate of marriage and one is the divorce paper. Both of them are signed at the same time. At the moment the sheikh and I were to sign the papers, the television team entered and caught everyone red-handed. The traffickers went to jail.
The station broadcast the video eight days later. They blurred the girls’ faces. My family still doesn’t know I was involved. If my mother knew, she would stop me from coming to the [Shaheen] center.
Because of the television show, many people became aware. They said, ‘This is not right,’ and tried to stop this practice. It’s still prevalent, but now, sex traffickers have gone into hiding.
Most important is making people aware that child marriage is not right. Informing parents that it is not a good thing. When I teach mehendi [also called henna] at the Shaheen centers, I give that message to every girl who comes to me.