“One member of our staff interviewed a local family in Hyderabad. The whole day she was there, they had no meals to eat. One of their children brought back a meal from school—and the whole family crowded around to share it.”

In situations like this, it’s not surprising that humans are vulnerable to devastating forms of exploitation. So says Jameela Nishat, founder and secretary of the Shaheen Resource Center for Women in Andhra Pradesh, India. Shaheen works in the slums of Hyderabad’s Old City, where young women and girls are easy targets for sex trafficking.

“Many families are so poor that they will sell their daughters, many under the age of 18, to wealthy men from India or Gulf states,” says Nishat. “The girls are taken to the Gulf and exploited. They are cut off from communication with their families, made to do labor and to satisfy the man. But when the man loses interest in the woman, he deserts her. The girl is married off to many people, one after the other. In this way, some women are sold 10, 15, 20 times.”

Extreme poverty makes people vulnerable to manipulation and abuse. Women bear a disproportionate burden in this scheme, and are most commonly trafficked for the sex trade. This is particularly true in the Old City, where women and girls are treated as subordinates and given little freedom to make choices. Coupled with poverty, these conditions make females especially susceptible to deception, coercion and debt bondage. In essence, they become slaves.

“When I was very young, I saw my own cousins sold off,” says Nishat. “I didn’t understand what was happening—I didn’t understand that it was because of poverty. Finally I said: enough!”

Nishat founded Shaheen a decade ago. Now, the organization provides opportunities for women in 20 of Hyderabad’s slums to improve their social status and exercise their rights. “We organize meetings with these girls, we provide a resource center, we help them talk about the issues,” says Nishat. “We discuss how exploitation is wrong, we provide education about HIV/AIDS and we offer counseling.” If a girl chooses, Shaheen will help her go to the police to lodge a complaint.

Shaheen’s staff are a mix of Dalits (untouchables), Hindus and Muslims who come from the Old City and are themselves survivors of domestic violence and/or trafficking. They make regular home visits to encourage women to come to Shaheen and receive the support that they need.

“Girls and women who are trafficked deserve to live a peaceful, happy life, with an education and three meals a day,” says Nishat. “Once these girls are educated, they know how to say—‘My body is my body, it’s my property.’”

Unfortunately, sex trafficking is not unique to Hyderabad, nor to India. An end to sex trafficking will require a global change in the landscape of poverty, women’s rights and human rights. One by one, Shaheen is working to ensure that the women of Hyderabad understand their freedoms, earn their own incomes and defend themselves against trafficking and other forms of abuse. This will open many doors for women’s futures—and firmly shut the door on exploitation.