From Darkness to Light: Stories of Resilience and a Call to Action


end-human0traffickingLibby Swenson experienced oppression and grave injustice in her early twenties while working in an orphanage overseas with special needs children rejected by society and systematically starved to death. 

"This was the first time in my life," reflects Libby, "I truly grasped the harsh reality of the oppression faced by impoverished and neglected individuals and how unjust systems strip away the decency and life of the underprivileged and defenseless. Sadly, many of the children I worked with succumbed to starvation after my departure simply because they were deemed 'unnecessary to society.' This experience profoundly affected me, prompting a commitment to contribute to the global fight against grave injustices."

Then, more than 18 years ago, Libby became aware of the scourge of modern-day slavery, recognized as the fastest-growing criminal industry worldwide. Horrified by the egregiousness of this crime, she committed herself wholeheartedly to combatting it and compelling others to join the cause.

While on a work trip to India, Libby collaborated with two investigators and had the chance to meet Asha* and her son Raman*. By listening to their firsthand account, she witnessed the devastating impact human trafficking inflicts on its victims' lives.

*Painting above by Jami Nix Rahn

Story of Asha

Asha lived in Mumbai, India, over twenty years ago. She enjoyed spending time with siblings, was married and pregnant, and her parents lived nearby. But her husband abruptly decided to leave Asha and their unborn child behind and begin a new life of his own in Delhi. 

In Asha’s traditional culture, a failed marriage is a tremendous source of shame and humiliation, with the wife often held exclusively responsible. Asha's family abandoned her, blaming her for her failed marriage, leaving her unprotected and in need. 

Anxious, desperate, and pregnant, Asha traveled by train over 700 miles from Mumbai to Delhi, a city with 30 million residents, to find her husband. “She had no idea where her husband was, knew no one, had no connections, no job, or any other source of cash when she arrived,” said Libby.

Asha arrived at a Delhi train station, where she survived by eating food scraps from the trash and sleeping on a bench. It wasn’t long before she fell ill.  A family approached her at this point and offered to cover her medical bills to aid in her recovery. Out of desperation and vulnerability, she accepted the money and purchased the medication she needed. 

The unthinkable transpired at that point. The same family returned after Asha had recovered from her illness and ordered her to pay them back the money they had given her. To get their money back, the family abducted her and sold her as a prostitute in the notorious Red Light District, GB Road, or Garstin Bastion Road, a 4-minute walk from the train station. At the brothel, Asha was raped and beaten into obedience. In this brothel, she gave birth to and raised her son, Raman. 

Over two decades have passed since Asha’s worst day. Now over 50 years old, she still must service at least five clients daily. Raman has struggled in his life, living in the brothel, running away, returning, trying to go to school, and attempting to find work. Because of the stigma associated with living on GB Road, it is enormously challenging for him to get regular, honest work.  

Raman declared to Libby, "I despise our existence completely.” At one point early on, he and his mom fled the brothel together and traveled back to Mumbai in hopes of receiving help from their family. “They wouldn't even open the door,” said Asha. “For four days, my son and I slept on the dirt sidewalk, hoping they would bring us inside and welcome us back, but they would never let us in. They cut us off forever.” Having no other options, they traveled back to Dehli and returned to the brothel, the only place they could find a bed. 

(Asha and Raman are shown from behind to protect their privacy.)


Unjust Systems

"For some of us, it is difficult to comprehend the reality of life for people like Asha and Raman," says Libby. “It's crucial to explain to those who inquire, ‘Why can't they just leave? Why are they unable to return to their families? Why don't they merely find another job? If they could flee the brothel, why did they return there?’ 

"Because these women are from GB Road, no one will hire them, even if they leave or manage to escape," she explains. "It's like Jean Valjean from Les Misérables, whose life was forever marred by stealing a loaf of bread due to society's lack of compassion. They live in that same reality. Even if she wanted to, Asha could never pursue a different career."

At the end of their conversation, Asha looked at Libby and asked the gut-wrenching question, "Why weren't you there for me 24 years ago?" “I thought I was going to be sick,” described Libby. "What if I had been there? What would I have done for Asha? What if the family who approached Asha and offered to help her in her greatest need had been compassionate people of goodwill instead of people who took advantage of her desperation? Asha and Raman’s lives would be drastically different from today. Raman never would have seen his mother raped and tortured alongside other women, and she never would have been exploited like this."

A Stroll Along G.B. Road

Following their visit with Asha and Raman, Libby and the two investigators walked down GB Road, comprised of an estimated 5,000 sex workers, many of whom arrived as children.  Libby said, "We passed brothel after brothel and saw young ladies waiting for customers at the top of lengthy stairwells. Girls were looking out their balconies as if they were in a cage. It was overwhelming.” 

They walked up a dark and long stairwell into one of the brothels. Libby described the scenario, “I saw about 20 girls huddled on the floor. Veiled in traditional Indian attire, they locked arms together and had a cognitive dissonance-filled expression in their eyes.” The madam, who acts as the ‘key holder, money transactor, and guard’ for the young women, spoke with Libby and the investigators inside one of the brothels. "I learned each girl has a small space with a curtain, bed, and timer. They set the timer for 15 minutes per customer. Each girl serves three to four clients an hour, twelve hours a day, from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., seven days a week. When business picks up, the stairwells overflow with men spilling out into the streets," Libby explains. "As a result, these young women are being exploited 30 to 50 times per day." GBRoad

Libby and the investigators eventually walked to the end of GB Road, where the police station was. It was empty. Police are known to be complicit in transactions, receiving bribes, favors, and services from the madam and pimps. "These girls have no one to cry out to, no one who is coming to rescue them," says Libby.

"As you may guess, my heart was tremendously heavy, and I felt nauseated after we had spent time hearing Asha and Raman's story. And I recalled her question: ‘Where were you 24 years ago? Why weren’t you there for me?’ She asked the right question. Where were the kindhearted individuals who would have been willing to assist her in her hour of need 24 years ago?”

*Painting here of GB Road by Jami Nix Rahn

Adoring the Unlovable

Libby has since returned to GB Road several more times. Along with friends she has brought from the US, she has joined a group of local women who go to GB Road several times a week to offer counseling, provide medical care, supply groceries, and host parties during special holidays.

Libby shares, "They've been supporting these women for several years, building relationships and trust with the pimps and madams, which allows them to enter the brothels in this way. It is humbling to be with these beautiful souls, who endure exploitation 30 to 50 times a day. One woman, kidnapped at a train station and sold into the brothel at seven years old, now has a seven-year-old child. It feels incomprehensible, but my anguish doesn't change their situation."

Who Will Be Present?

Asha's straightforward yet heartbreaking query still touches Libby's heart as she works to make people understand the critical importance of the efforts to fight human trafficking globally and locally.

"The question I've asked myself multiple times is, ‘What would I want someone to do for me if I was that girl in that brothel or if I was running away from an abusive situation at home, leaving me desperate and vulnerable? Whatever that answer is, go and do it.”

*Pseudonyms used to protect their identity